Bilbao In Boise

With the end of the fall-to-spring leagues fast approaching and promotion/relegation scenarios quickly leaving the realm of the estimates and entering the realm of what specific games need to end in scoreline X to achieve result Y, it will soon be time once again for the more prominent of those clubs to hit the road on the annual preseason friendly world tour. We glossed over that last month in the context of a leaguewide geographic spread. But there’s more to the preseason friendly than simply the clubs making the tour. It’s also about the places hosting the games.

A lot of these games will be pretty straightforward home/away situations. But they don’t have to be. Because the game’s just a friendly and doesn’t count for anything, you can hold it wherever you please. As this is the case, cities will fight to bring the biggest clubs they can to their backyards. Major cities with big stadiums in lucrative markets, even if they have teams of their own, will try to land the megaclubs of the world. This is basically the purpose of the International Champions Cup, which last year featured 13 different stadiums across the United States and Canada- only one of which is an MLS stadium- hosting eight European teams, all of which are notable for not being from MLS. Five of the host cities- Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Miami and Ann Arbor- were not MLS markets (at the time). This summer, the cup will be hosted by Australia and China as well as the United States.

Less lucrative markets, and those who have no team at all, will generally just be happy to get whoever they can to show up. But they may still have a specific someone in mind, a club that would specifically appeal to the locals. In the case of the friendly I attended last year in Milwaukee between Swansea City and Chivas Guadalajara, the big draw was Chivas. Milwaukee, like much of America’s soccer market sizable Mexican community, and even though it was technically a neutral-site game, it was clear Chivas was the de facto home team against a Swansea side picked pretty much just to have someone from the English Premier League in attendance. Chivas has long held to the policy of only fielding home-grown (e.g. Mexican) players, a policy known as cantera. They’ve done this to the point where one of Chivas USA’s many woes leading to its dissolution at the end of the 2014 campaign included the club running headlong into American discrimination laws once it became clear that the club was favoring Latinos. As a result, where Chivas USA floundered, Chivas Guadalajara has established itself as a Mexican icon. If you want a club that will bring the region’s Mexican community out in force, inviting Chivas is just about the best move you could make.

A club with an equivalent policy, the Spanish Basque Country’s Athletic Bilbao, will be making the trek to Boise, Idaho on July 29 to face Club Tijuana. It will be Bilbao’s first preseason trip outside Europe since July 17, 2012, when they lost 3-1 to Morocco’s Raja Casablanca. Club Tijuana was a second-choice invite; Boise’s original plan was to try to get a regional MLS team- the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders or Real Salt Lake- but with MLS’s labor issues leading into the season, they sought the Mexican substitute.

But whoever they got, they were always going to be the ‘other’ team on the pitch. Bilbao, specifically Bilbao, was who Boise really wanted. Every five years, Boise holds the Jaialdi International Festival, a weeklong celebration of Basque culture, which straddles the border of Spain and France. Only a Basque club would do, and they don’t get any more Basque than Bilbao. Fellow Basque club Real Sociedad had once maintained the same policy as Bilbao, but abandoned it in 1989- to much consternation from the supporters- with the signing of Irish forward John Aldridge from Liverpool. Sociedad supporters have since come to an acceptance with an ‘impure’ squad; the Basque talent pool is only so large, and with Bilbao increasingly gaining control of it and Sociedad having slipped from runner-up in 1987-88 to 11th place in 1988-89, Sociedad felt they had to take drastic action to remain in contact. (Aldridge, his family proving unable to make the transition to living in Spain, returned to England after two seasons.)

The question surely being asked by anyone who doesn’t live in Idaho, of course, is “what exactly is a Basque community doing in Idaho?” More to the point, what is the largest concentration of Basques in the United States doing in Idaho? The first question to answer, really, is why would there be a Basque diaspora period. The first answer centers around the First Carlist War, a battle over Spanish succession in the 1830’s. Up to this point, the Basque region had been independent, part of the complicated system of small and ever-shifting nation-states that have dotted Europe throughout its history. The First Carlist War, though, put an end to that. It took place mainly in the Basque country (as well as Catalonia) and resulted in the Basque side losing not only the war, but also their independence, with the province of Navarre being absorbed into Spain, with whom they had been feuding off and on for centuries beforehand. This caused some of the Basque people to flee for greener pastures. ‘Pastures’, here, is meant literally, as those who left sought out environments as similar to those they left as possible. Usually, this meant heading for the Americas, and chiefly, this meant South America. Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay boast sizable proportions of Basques. The United States, not quite so much. As of 2009, there are only an estimated 58,000 Basques in the United States. The vast majority of them live in the west.

Which leads to the second question: why the west, and why Boise? Well, why did everyone else head west? Gold, of course. When Basques arriving in America showed up on Ellis Island, it was typically merely to pass right on through to hunt for gold and silver out west; many arrived in response to the Sutter’s Mill discovery and made directly for California, even luring away some of the Argentinian Basques. However, opportunities for Basques to take part in the mining were limited, as racist and anti-foreigner sentiments made it hard for anyone who wasn’t a white American to make a living that way. Luckily, the Basques had an alternative: sheep farming. Much of the immigrant population had come from a sheepherding background in which control of the family farm was passed on to the eldest son; the daughters and younger sons were simply out of luck, and some decided to start their own farms elsewhere. Plan B- raise and butcher sheep, and sell the meat to the miners- was only natural, and turned out to work a lot better than actually doing the mining, and allowed some of them to send for their families who remained in Europe.

Idaho in particular not only happened to have a particularly large sheep population in need of some extra people to herd them, there were silver discoveries at DeLamar in 1889 and Silver City in 1890; the latter is about 70 miles southwest of Boise and DeLamar is six miles from Silver City. It was not a hard sell for the Basques. After the gold and silver rushes petered out, so did the Basque migration, save for gradually moving off the farms as the years went by, many citing the crushing loneliness as the deciding factor as they headed for town. Presently, only a handful of sheepherders remain.

Boise presently contains the only Basque mayor in the country, David Bieter, who has served since 2004. They’re no token presence, numbering about 16,000 strong in the city.

Albertsons Stadium, which will be hosting Athletic Bilbao and Club Tijuana, holds 37,000. Plenty of room for all of them, and 21,000 of their closest friends.

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