The 2009/2010 Spanish football season will be remembered as one of last day drama. Going into the final weekend of the season, nothing except third place had been decided. While most eyes were focused on who would win the championship, another fight was going on to see who would remain in the league. While all that was going on, I was engaged in my own fight to finish el Camino de la Liga and this led me to Pamplona, home of Club Atlético Osasuna.
Pamplona is famous for its annual San Fermín festival which involves the running of the bulls. For many foreigners, San Fermín is a typical image of Spain but Pamplona is far from a typical Spanish town. Pamplona is the capital of Navarra, a region in the north west of Spain. The region has a border with France to the North, Aragón to the East and La Rioja to the South, however, Navarra’s Western border is its most controversial. To the West, Navarra has a border with the Basque Country. In Navarra, Basque is an official language, along with Spanish, and there are some who would like Navarra to join with its Northern neighbour. In fact, shortly after arriving in Pamplona I saw a demonstration calling for a union between the two regions. So despite it being home to one of Spain’s most well known festivals, Pamplona is a city where you see very few Spanish flags and where there are some who openly don’t feel Spanish. There is something of an anti-establishment, anarchist feel to the place and people, many of whom definitely don’t conform to the traditional, conservative, facha image of being Spanish.
As has become clear throughout el Camino de la Liga, the link between politics and football is never far away in Spain and Pamplona’s football team, Osasuna, is no different. Before the match I met with Fernando Urra Goñi, commentator on all the Osasuna games for the local radio station. Fernando told me how Osasuna is a club that is very close to the people and this is reflected in almost full stadiums for every home game. Osasuna’s stadium, El Reyno de Navarra, may only hold 19,500, but it is almost always full and getting a ticket can often be difficult. Fernando told me that attendances weren’t always so high, especially when the club was in the lower leagues, however, everything changed one season when the club came close to relegation. With club languishing bottom of the league a campaign called “we’re not going down” started with the aim of filling the stadium for the remaining fixtures. The campaign was a success and the full stadiums led to Osasuna going on a good run and avoiding the drop. Since then, the club has continued to enjoy a healthy support and have remained in Primera División. Like almost all clubs, Osasuna has a group of ultras and it’s them who add the political edge. The Osasuna ultras are known as Indar Gorri which is Basque for Red Strength. Their political philosophy is far left, Basque nationalism and they have turned the Reyno de Navarra stadium into an intimidating atmosphere for many teams, especially Real Madrid.
The match against Real Madrid is one I would like to return and see but I was in Pamplona to see the final match of the season against Xerez, one of five teams fighting against relegation. The importance of the match led to a very large away support making the long trip north. Large away supports are one of the things most lacking in Spanish football and I was curious to see the reaction the Andalusians would get. To my surprise it was an extremely friendly one, with supporters mixing before, during and after the match without any problems whatsoever. As Fernando informed me, as this was Xerez’s first ever season in Primera División, this was the first time the teams had ever met and therefore they had no historical reasons not to get along.
If the friendliness outside the stadium surprised it was nothing compared to what I witnessed inside. With Osasuna already safe from relegation, the home supporters decided to support Xerez who needed to win and hope others lost. That’s right, as well as the couple of thousand Xerez supporters, the Osasuna supporters were also cheering on the away side. Extremely confused, I asked the people sitting around me why they wanted Xerez to win. Did they want someone else to go down instead? Perhaps a rival they don’t like? No, the answer was that it would be nice to see Xerez survive. Spanish football fans never cease to amaze me.
The match itself was a typical end of season game with the majority of the crowd listening to the radio for scores in other matches and random cheers going up around the ground when goals went in elsewhere. To the disappointment of the vast majority of the crowd, Osasuna took the lead, plunging Xerez closer to the drop. Hope was restored when the away team equalized but despite the home supporters urging their goalkeeper to “let one in”, Xerez couldn’t find a second and when the final whistle went, they were relegated. There then followed a pitch invasion by the home supporters which ended with the riot police coming out and chasing everyone back into the stands. As I stood watching this I reflected on my journey to every stadium in Primera División. I have learned a lot about Spanish football culture but there is still so much that surprises me, so much that is different from what I am used to, so much more I have to learn. El Camino de La Liga may be finished but my Spanish football education has just begun. Viva el Fútbol!!!