The Journal of Iberian and Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies SIBA highlights, among other sporting cultures, Basque sport and politics in its latest special issue, edited by CBS professor Mariann Vaczi.

From Marxism to fascism across the ideological palette, sport has engaged politics and power in diverse ways. Nationalism, nation-building and identity construction through physical culture has become a prominent research subject for social science.  Sport studies have integrated and complemented the most significant theoretical currents and conceptual toolkits of mainstream sociology, history, political science and anthropology. This special issue deploys these approaches in an Iberian and Latin-American context. The authors examine sport, nationalism and sub-national identities; colonialism and post-colonialism; race-relations and indigenous politics; sport in authoritarian regimes, and the use of sport to break with European roots in quest of South American nationhood and identities. The concept of “sport” is understood here quite broadly: activities that have competitive dimensions and/or involve strenuous, ritualized, rule-driven or choreographed physical activity. Crossbreeding sporting elements with other realms of culture such as art and ritual, as with the bullfight; or cognition and logic, as with chess; or folklore, as with human tower building, only yield more exciting and exact conclusions about their social and political embeddedness.

For the entire open access issue, see

Here’s a brief review of the contributions that have Basque relevance in national and sub-national political contexts.

A Panther Among Lions: Iñaki Williams, Race and Basque Identity at Athletic Club de Bilbao

By Mariel Aquino (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Basques are a heavily ethnicized people due to their ancient, obscure, and insular origins: in his 1950s BBC series “Orson Welles Around the World,” the American director presents them as “the Red Indians of Europe.”

Never, however, had Basqueness been conceived in terms of Blackness until the first prominent black soccer player was signed by Athletic Club de Bilbao.

Aquino explores the integration of Iñaki Williams in the club, and how it produced the symbolic, if not necessarily real, inclusion of African immigrant communities within Basque identity. The integration of non-white players in European national teams has gained considerable media attention for the past decade, “signaling as it does,” Aquino writes in her analysis, “the destabilization of normative white European identity.” The case of Iñaki Williams is a particular breakthrough in a club where, because of its Basque-only philosophy, the discussion of player pedigrees in Bilbao actively constructs the boundaries between Basques and non-Basques. Aquino revisits some of the special chapters of defining Basqueness through player recruitment. Each case reveals a particular idea of ethnic identity in terms of birthplace, upbringing, genealogy and national belonging have variously established ingroup and outgroup boundaries. In all its variations, however, Basque identity was white until Iñaki Williams, whose eruption in the field provoked several race related commentaries Spain and Basque Country-wide, arguing that it should be perfectly natural that Blackness and Basqueness go together. This aggressive “rhetoric of colorblindness,” however, Aquino remarks, was ultimately just as “othering:” it was precisely this loud defensiveness that revealed that Black Basqueness, instead of quotidian, remains a major breakthrough.


A Basque-American Deep Game: The Political Economy of Ethnicity and Jai-Alai in the USA

By Olatz González Abrisketa (University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU)

At the height of its game in the late 1980`s,  jai alai was a 700-million-dollar business a year, with 14 active frontons throughout the United States, which would routinely fill with gamblers and aficionados of the “world`s fastest sport.” González revisits the two golden ages of the Basque sport in the United States: the 1950s-60s, and the 1970s-80s. The author argues that these two eras were also a generation gap not only in terms of age, but the political culture jai alai players brought with them. Overwhelmingly from the Basque Country, sport migrants in the 70-80s responded very differently than previous generations to what the game had to offer in the United States. While the first generation of Basque players were relatively content with the socio-economic opportunities sport migration offered them, the author argues that the emergence of ETA, considered revolutionary, left wing and socialist back then, had an impact on how Basque players viewed their situation in US capitalist culture.

The emergent Basque political culture lent ethos and vocabulary to US based jai alai players: an ethos of resistance and struggle, the strategy of hordago or all or nothing, and deeply politicized resistance strategies like hunger strikes were borrowed from their original Basque context and deployed in  the  American one.

These resistance strategies had great success in players` struggle for greater job security and fair treatment.

Football and politics in Spain: An empirical analysis of the social base of the main football clubs

By Ramón Llopis-Goig (University of Valencia)

Complementing qualitative and historical research, Ramón Llopis-Goig offers a quantitative analysis of soccer fandom and political sentiments with regards to the four most politicized and symbolic teams in Spain: Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Club de Bilbao, and the Spanish national team. These teams have been major icons for Spanish, Catalonian and Basque identity construction throughout the twentieth century. Llopis-Goig explores the larger questions of regional nationalism, identity, and left vs. right political leanings through fans` self-identification, their following of the Spanish national soccer team, their preferences with regards to regional autonomy, and their left vs. right ideological orientation. According to this study based on representative sampling and a national survey, the fans of FC Barcelona are most left-leaning, and are most in favor of reforming the current state by increasing the autonomy of the region. This resonates with the larger social impetus of the current Catalonian sovereignty process.

The fans of the Basque Athletic Club de Bilbao have the strongest regional identification with their Basque heritage: fans identify as either only Basque or Basque and Spanish, but not exclusively Spanish.

The fans of Real Madrid are the most right-wing leaning, and most likely to define themselves as entirely or partly Spanish. Llopis-Goig`s research concludes that the symbolic import of these clubs remains important for political-ideological identifications, while radical, exclusive and homogenizing loyalties are not as prevalent as stereotypes would have us believe.


Pulling Up Stakes? Sport and Sub-National Solidarity for Catalonia`s Independence

By Mariann Vaczi (University of Nevada, Reno)

This contribution was inspired by an episode the author witnessed in Arrasate and Azpeitia in the Basque Country: Basques invited a Catalan human tower team, the Castellers de Barcelona, to build their breathtaking structures while Basque voted on a symbolic referendum about independence from Spain. This old traditional sport is an emergent symbol of Catalan nation building for the current sovereignty process, and the performance in the Basque Country expressed sub-national solidarity in Basque and Catalonian desires to vote about independence. The iconicity of tower building, and the sport`s ethos of cooperation express joint efforts in the pursuits of regional autonomy. The author takes the emblematic Catalan liberty song, Lluís Lach`s L`estaca (The Stake), which was performed at the event, as a metaphor for the agonic state-region relationships of Spain. During the Franco dictatorship, the stake was an image that tied people, and did not allow them to walk freely—a logic Basque and Catalan pro-independence actors argue they continue to feel. Pulling the stake from several sides, however, wears it out and eventually causes it to collapse.

Lluís Lach`s stake metaphor maps a particular political geography of Spain: the agonic relationship between the center (stake) and the periphery (pull away regions), as well as solidarity and united struggle among them. Sports have eminently contributed to this agonic relationship.

Vaczi examines how the two political peripheries have progressively conspired to “wear out” Spanish sovereignty through sport and physical culture, which are particularly apt to present these agonic interactions due to their physicality.