Bilbao break silence by honouring Carrasco

Before every La Liga game last Sunday, a minute’s silence was held in memory of Isaías Carrasco, the PSOE councillor from Mondragón who was shot three times and killed by ETA as the Basque terrorist group sought to disrupt the run-in to the Spanish general elections. The silence was impeccably observed everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except for two places: Osasuna’s Reyno de Navarra stadium, where they instead opted (as is the club’s tradition) for applause, and Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés, where the response of some radical fans turned a minute’s silence into sixteen seconds of quiet punctured with shouts and abuse. The failure to complete a minute’s silence at San Mamés has inevitably brought criticism of a club that has often been seen - and seen itself - as the footballing expression of Basque nationalism. It has been attacked as another example of the institution being tacit, implicit supporters of ETA. And yet there is another way of looking at it. Athletic have long-since claimed that it is their policy not to hold a minute’s silence for anyone. The claim is not quite true --  in 1978 there was a minute’s silence for the etarra José Miguel Beñarán and in 1984 Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao together carried a Basque flag onto the pitch after the assassination of the leader of the Basque separatist party Herri Batasuna, Santiago Brourard.

But it is a policy which has remained fast for a long time now, even going so far as to ignore people who would be impeccably honoured by everyone, those with an important place in the club’s history.  Like Osasuna’s decision to use applause rather than silence -- based, some critics insist, on the realisation that if they opted for silence for victims of terrorism at a ground where many fans consider themselves Basque nationalists, the silence would inevitably be broken -- the decision was in many ways a pragmatic one, and a political one too.

Athletic did not want to create an even greater issue by watching a minute’s silence all too predictably sullied, nor be seen to honour those that are often considered enemies of the “Basque cause”, nor illustrate the political and social fractures that run through the institution. The Athletic support is not, after all, a homogenous block.   In breaking with the tradition (under pressure from the league, it should be added), Athletic president Fernando García Macua broke a taboo. He also allowed the supporters, Basques almost to a man, to make an important statement. By having a silence and having one that was ruined, the effect was in many ways to underline the isolation of the real radicals amongst the Athletic support (and, some would argue, by extension the Basque Country). It really did allow Athletic fans, most of them, to show their rejection of the killing.By doing nothing, by refusing to hold a minute’s silence in respect of any victims however innocent, you show nothing. In fact, the implied message is that you agree with the radicals who support ETA’s cause. You also fail to support those - the majority - who, whatever their past position, whatever their beliefs regarding Basque identity and the Spanish state, reject violence and reject ETA’s continued killings.   By holding a minute’s silence that gets ruined, you lay bare how untenable, how unpopular, is the position of those who do not condemn the assassination of an innocent man (an unimportant, far from tub-thumping councillor).

And that was the thing that really mattered at San Mamés: that for all that there were a handful of fans determined to ruin the minute’s silence, there were over 30,000 determined to honour it. And at last, an institution that would not hide behind a policy of officially doing nothing - be that for reasons of fear, conviction or whatever. By refusing to hold a minute’s silence over so many years, Athletic as an institution stood in silence; now, they too, like their most radical fans, have broken that silence. The difference is, that the club has done the right thing.

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