Bixente Lizarazu: Le Basque

By Tom Wardle

On a balmy July night in Paris in 1998, France’s ‘Rainbow team’ lifted its first World Cup. A racially diverse squad had not only enthralled the nation with its football but also sent a message to the Front National that players of different origins and creeds could come together and unite France. Naturally, the racial composition of the squad was explored and celebrated. Desailly was born in Ghana, Karembeu grew up in the French pacific and Zidane was the son of Algerian parents. Nevertheless, the backgrounds of two players, Didier Deschamps and Bixente Lizarazu, went somewhat unnoticed. Lizarazu and Deschamps, starters in the final against Brazil, both hailed from an often-forgotten south-western corner of France: le Pays Basque, the Basque Country.

The decision to dedicate a week of this blog to Basque football is testament to its strength and to the entertainment it provides. Remarkably, one in five teams in La Liga are Basque yet the French Basque Country, Iparralde, does not boast a single professional football outfit. At the beginning of the 20th century, the English sport of “foot-ball” began to lay down its roots in the Iberian peninsula whilst Rugby Union sprung up in south-western France in football’s absence. Even a century later, this shows little sign of changing as the oval ball still dominates. How then did two players from a corner of France which football had forgotten go on to lift the World Cup?

Whilst Didier Deschamps has said very little to position himself as Basque rather than French, Lizarazu has never shied away, throughout his career, from saying that he feels Basque. After a trophy win with Girondins Bordeaux, Lizarazu effusively waved the Basque flag on the pitch. Yet in addition to his pride in his Basque homeland, Lizarazu is one of France’s most successful footballers and happily represented Les Bleus for twelve years. It is apparent for Lizarazu, there needn’t be a contradiction between Basque and being French and when questioned on it in an interview with FourFourTwo, Lizarazu did not hold back from saying that he was comfortable being both French and Basque. Nevertheless, Lizarazu is part of the minority who feel Basque. A 2007 survey on identity in France’s Basque territories published in the Diario Vasco found that only 24% of those surveyed felt as Basque as they did French with 52% feeling either completely French or more French than Basque.

1996 proved to be a crucial year in the trajectory of Bixente Lizarazu’s career. First of all, the left-back captained Girondins Bordeaux, who then had a young Zinedine Zidane in their ranks, to the UEFA Cup final where they ultimately came up short against Lizarazu’s future club, Bayern Munich. Then, across the Channel, France crashed out of the Euro 1996 semi-final against the Czech Republic on penalties, although Lizarazu had scored his spot kick. Before the tournament, Bixente had taken the bold step of signing for Athletic Club de Bilbao, a club with a philosophy of only fielding Basque players. Fittingly, Lizarazu also made sure that his French carte d’identité stated that he was legally ‘Bixente’ rather than the French ‘Vincent’ under which local authorities had registered him at birth, in opposition to his Basque heritage.

Lizarazu claimed that for him, moving to Bilbao wasn’t moving abroad. Crossing the French-Spanish border at Hendaye (or Hendaya, or Hendaia, depending on the language you speak) is a subtle reminder of the differences between the French Basque Country and the Spanish. In addition to having to swap SNCP for RENFE as a result of differing train gauges, the strength of Basque identity and nationalism is much stronger on the Iberian peninsula. For the French, ‘Basque’ is a relatively neutral term with many believing it refers simply to a section of the Atlantic coastline and its local gâteau. Conversely, if you cross the Spanish border ‘Basque’ is a much more loaded term, conjuring connotations of claims to nationhood, terrorism and what is claimed to be the oldest language in all of Europe.

Lizarazu was entering unchartered territory in Bilbao as the first Frenchman to ever don the red and white stripes of Athletic. Luis Fernández, Athletic’s new Spanish-born French manager, convinced the left-back to join the Bilbao-based side, who had just finished 15th in La Liga. Lizarazu missed the first game but then started the next three. A groin injury then hampered Lizarazu’s run in the team and he made just one more appearance before the New Year. He returned and started six consecutive games for Athletic in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Against their neighbours, Racing Santander, Aitor Karanka was sent off, leaving Athletic with 10 men. Lizarazu was then shown a second yellow card by the referee with Athletic and Racing going to draw 2 apiece. As a consequence, Lizarazu missed the Basque derby against Real Sociedad, the club his father had taken him to watch as a boy. After sitting out that game, Lizarazu returned to Fernández’ starting 11 against Real Zaragoza, bombing forward to put in a deep cross for Joseba Etxeberria to open the scoring. Just before half-time, Kily González went in on late on the Frenchman. Lizarazu lashed out at González and the pair had to be restrained by their teammates but not before a few punches had been thrown. Both players were sent off. Lizarazu had to wait a month before his next opportunity to play for Athletic by which time La Liga was reaching its conclusion. He made just 16 league appearances for los Leones as they finished 6th in the league before packing his bags and heading off to Bayern Munich.

On reflection, the motivation to sign Lizarazu might be questioned. Was he required or was he just signed so that Athletic Club could say that they had a Basque from Iparralde play for the club? Without a doubt, Lizarazu was talented, having represented France for four years and having captained Bordeaux to a UEFA cup final but Athletic already had a perfectly capable left-back. Before Lizarazu’s arrival in Bilbao, Aitor Larrazábal had played 36 league games at left-back for Athletic. Larrazábal was also an attacking left-back, like Lizarazu, and was pushed to left-wing to accommodate Lizarazu. Ultimately, it was Larrazábal who came out on top as Lizarazu pushed for a move to Germany.

21 years on, in an interview with L’Équipe du Soir, Lizarazu declared adamantly that he will never forgive Fernandez. Following a miserable season, Lizarazu had asked to leave Athletic. In his autobiography, he alleges that he was threatened not only by Fernandez but by the club president of disrespecting his ‘patria’, his country. Ultimately, things did not work out at for Bixente Lizarazu at San Mamés with his injuries, red cards and difficulties with his manager. As so often happens, a historic transfer, which had promised so much left both parties disappointed and the French full-back left the Basque Country with a bitter taste in his mouth.

Despite this disappointment with Athletic, Lizarazu’s move to Bayern in 1997 was a big success. In addition to the World Cup and European championship won at international level, the Basque won six titles in nine seasons with the Bavarian club. However, even after leaving France and Spain, Basque nationalism still followed him. Lizarazu received a menacing letter demanding the so-called ‘revolutionary tax’. This attempt to extort Lizarazu came from the infamous Basque terrorist group, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). ETA charged Lizarazu with representing an ‘enemy state’, by virtue of playing for France. Certainly, Lizarazu had often stated that he was proud to be Basque but also to be French and the dual allegiance was incompatible with how ETA wanted Basques to act. Extra security was ordered for Lizarazu and fortunately the threats never came to fruition but the menacing letter serves as a reminder of the potency of Basque terrorism at the time.

Unlike many of his colleagues from France’s 1998 World Cup-winning squad, Lizarazu did not see a career for himself in coaching or in management. He has worked as a pundit on French television and radio, offering his insight, but it is apparent that football is not Lizarazu’s only love. The former full-back has returned to his hometown of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and has had something of a sporting renaissance, dedicating his time to yoga, surfing, skiing, sailing, Jiu-Jitsu, diving, windsurfing and cycling to name a few. In spite of ETA’s threats and his ill-fated time in Bilbao, Lizarazu remains defiantly proud of his Basqueness, recently declaring himself a ‘real Basque’.

Bixente Lizarazu was something of a social and footballing anomaly in France. Not only did the left-back come from a region where the oval ball dominated, he was part of the region’s minority of those who identified as Basque. His Basque heritage seems to have had as profound an impact on his identity as it has his career, taking him to Athletic Club de Bilbao, where he blazed the trail for another young Frenchman, Aymeric Laporte. Unfortunately for Lizarazu, his highly-publicised return to the Basque Country might be considered the only blemish on an otherwise outstanding, trophy-laden career. Not only is Bixente Lizarazu one of the most-decorated French players of all-time, he is one of the most successful Basque players of all-time.

Artwork by: Sandra Sanchez

This article is part of a series based on Basque football made in collaboration with Row Z.
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