On the day that the bombs fell on Guernica, the Basque national football team wasn’t in the Basque Country. The squad was in France, where they’d just played a match. The day the Francoist troops captured Bilbao, the Basque national football team wasn’t in the Basque Country. The players were in the Soviet Union, where they’d just played a match. The day the Spanish Civil War came to an end, the Basque national football team wasn’t in the Basque Country. The players were in Mexico, where they’d just played a match.
For the entire second half of the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939, the best players from the Basque Country were travelling the world to play football. These were many of the finest players of all of Spain as their team, Athletic Club, had won the 1935/36 LaLiga title.
They’d been sent by the Basque authorities. The Lehendakari, the name for the leader of the Spanish autonomous region’s government, was José Antonio Aguirre and, as a former Athletic player, he really understood the power of football. While some would argue that there was no place for something so trivial during times of war, he thought the opposite. It was in wartime that people needed a distraction and, perhaps more importantly, it was in wartime that there was a need for the huge revenues that football could pull in at the turnstiles. So a series of Basques vs Basques matches were organised, before Aguirre then sent a select XI to tour the world.
In the view of football historian Carlos Aiestaran, there were two reasons for this initiative. “It helped raise awareness of the interim government of the Basque Country within the Second Republic and its position in the Civil War and, economically, it helped raise funds that were put towards the groups of evacuated Basque children,” Aiestaran stated. “This footballing expedition formed part of a sort of Basque sporting embassy.”
They first played several matches in France, meeting the champions Racing Paris. They also visited Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union, where they were welcomed like heroes due to the left-wing nature of the Spanish Republican movement they were associated with. Fixtures were played in modern-day Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia, before they headed west again and rounded off their tour with games in Finland, Norway and Denmark.
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All of this was in the summer months of 1937, and the Basque side did well. Really well, in fact. They held their own against Racing Paris, winning one of those fixtures, and only lost narrowly when playing in Czechoslovakia, the home of the at-the-time World Cup runners-up. Denmark even suffered an 11-1 defeat when they had to go up against the Basques. Plus, they only lost one of their matches in the Soviet Union – 6-2 in a game against Spartak Moscow where the referee was believed to have been bought and where Spartak brought in several of Moscow’s other top stars to join them for that one-off game. The Basque players even walked off the pitch in protest at one point, before eventually returning and accepting their fate.
A decision made on 10 October 1937 at a dinner in France provided the opportunity for this regional side to further test themselves. They decided to undertake the crossing of the Atlantic by boat and tour Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and Chile. Issues with FIFA made it difficult to organise matches during this tour, as world football’s governing body stood in opposition due to political pressures, but the Mexican FA agreed for the Basque national team to compete in the top amateur Mexican league – in the era before there was a professional league in the country – for the 1938/39 season under the name of CD Euskadi (Euskadi being the Basque word for Basque Country).
And so, after their tour of South America, CD Euskadi returned to Mexico to set up for the long haul, featuring in the 1938/39 Liga Mayor del Distrito Federal, a league for clubs in Mexico City. It was a seven-team league, with the other six participants being Asturias, Atlante, Marte, Club América, Necaxa and Club España. As the names suggest, Asturias and Club España also had links with Spain, having been set up by immigrants, even if they weren’t completely foreign in the same way that CD Euskadi were. Club América, meanwhile, were indeed that Club América, the club that is now the most successful in the country.
CD Euskadi had already played against several of these teams during their first stop in Mexico, while several members of the squad had played against these opponents in 1935 when they visited with Athletic. So there was a greater sense of familiarity than might have been expected for a foreign side jettisoned into a new league.
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They also had local backing from the excited fans, who were intrigued and impressed by these visiting players, some of whom were the superstars of the day, such as Luis Regueiro, Ángel Zubieta and Isidro Lángara. There was one special moment when Lángara was received by the football-loving masses at the train station as CD Euskadi arrived for a game. “As soon as he stepped off the train the enthusiasm exploded and they lifted him up and carried him like this to the doors of the station,” wrote Antonio Andere in La Afición. “I don’t think Mexico had ever given such a warm welcome to a visiting sportsperson.”
Lángara was exceptional and his hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over América in the opening round of the 1938/39 season really set the tone. CD Euskadi were to be taken seriously as a contender. They were regularly near the top of the standings and, in their final match, they had the chance to win the title, only to blow their opportunity. Having regularly travelled between league games to play exhibition matches around the country, their squad was fatigued and had a number of injuries as they were thrashed 7-2 by Club España, opening the door for Asturias to take the honours and become the de facto Mexican champions.
Soon, CD Euskadi would be coming to an end. The Spanish Civil War had ended on 1 April 1939, during the final weeks of the Mexican season, and the Spain of Franco wasn’t one many players could return to. Some moved on to careers in Argentina almost as soon as the final league match had been played, while others looked for new homes at the other Mexican sides as the team prepared to disband.
But there was still one more farewell match for the team as they took on Atlético Corrales of Paraguay on 18 June 1939 in their final match. It was certainly exciting and they went out with a bang, drawing 4-4 in a contest that was described by the local press as violent and that finished with an on-pitch brawl. Back in the Basque Country, the region’s government officially ended the team’s mission and sent 10,000 pesetas to each player to help them begin their new lives.
Their legacy lives on in Mexico and writers from that time believe the presence of the Basque team in the Mexican league and the continuation of certain players at other clubs were catalysts for the country’s love and appreciation of football. As Jesús Galindo Zarate and Gustavo Abel Hernández Enríquez put it in Historia General del Fútbol Mexicano: “The presence of those Spanish players is what really started the process of professionalising football in Mexico.” War sent these players away from their home country, but football allowed them to plant seeds in another.
By Euan McTear @emctear