A derby to recover the flag of a people

Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, who play in the pending 2020 Copa final this Saturday, defied the authorities 45 years ago to honour the ikurriña

Arnau Segura
4 min
Kortabarria and Iribar wear the ikurriña before a derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic Club at Atotxa.

Torelló"We have authorized all regional flags except the Basque flag [the ikurriña] because it is not a regional flag. It is a separatist flag. It is an insult. Before allowing this flag to be displayed, they will pass over my corpse", Manuel Fraga Iribarne, then Minister of Home Affairs and vice-president of a government full of heirs of the dictatorship, stressed in May 1976, a few months after Franco's death. On January 19, 1977, however, less than a year later, the ikurriña was hoisted in the Plaza de la Constitución in San Sebastián. Thanks, in part decisively, to a football derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic which, 45 years ago, helped recover the flag of a people. This Saturday, almost a year after the coronavirus, and with the stands of La Cartuja in Seville empty of people and colour, one of the historical clashes with more tradition in European football will live a special edition on the occasion of the final of the Copa del Rey in 2020 (21.45 h, Telecinco and DAZN). Marcelino's Athletic are looking for their second title of the season after lifting the Spanish Super Cup in January. Imanol's Real are looking to win their first trophy since 1987.

Real Sociedad's coach before leaving for Seville to play in the Copa final

In 1976 the Spanish state was slowly moving towards democracy, and Euskadi took to the streets to demand freedom and liberties, with a widespread clamour for the legalisation of the ikurriña, banned since the Civil War. "In Vitoria, workers had died and students were beaten every now and then, and we did not want to and could not limit ourselves to being the pretty boys who were clapped to kick a ball. We didn't live in the stratosphere, deified and untouchable. We belonged to society, we were part of the people, with the same feelings, and we were unhappy about social and national oppression. Everyone was raising their voices, and we wanted to take advantage of the fact that people were taking a lot of notice of us to set an example", says Josean de la Hoz Uranga (Getaria, 1949), the former Real player who came up with the plan to display the ikurriña in the derby on December 5, 1976, from his law office, and a footballer who had once before been arrested at a demonstration. "In the barracks they beat me as much as they wanted and afterwards one of them went around the shops boasting about having harassed a Real player," he said.

The ikurriña was sewn by his sister, since, as it was illegal, it was not sold anywhere, and after eating at his parents' house, in Getaria, De la Hoz himself took it to Atotxa, Real's stadium, hidden under the spare wheel. The police stopped him at a routine checkpoint just before arriving at the old Txuri-urdin stadium and thoroughly searched his blue Fiat 128 Sport, opening the boot. "It was there, indeed, but they didn't find it", adds a smiling De la Hoz, who was known by the nickname of Trotsky in the dressing room and who once in front of Atotxa banged against the window that led to the Real dressing room to deliver "the package" to Salva Iriarte, a teammate of his.

The plan had been woven in secret, and an hour and a fifteen minutes before the start of the match, De la Hoz, Iriarte, Inaxio Kortabarria and Luciano Murillo, the local captain, went to look for the captain of Athletic, José Ángel Iribar, to propose the action. "The only condition I set was that it had to be unanimous. And yes, we all agreed. It was the moment to do it. It's what we had to do", admits the goalkeeper (Zarautz, 1943), the most-capped player in the history of the Bilbao outfit. "We didn't know anything, just that something would happen", adds Roberto Lopez Ufarte (Fez, 1958), Real's second all-time top scorer, referring back to that "great" day that was a "turning point".

The tunnel that connected the changing rooms and the pitch was "tiny, very narrow, and full of grey", recalls Iribar, and to dribble the police they put the ikurriña in the sponge and water bag. Iriarte, a substitute, took it to the bench, and De la Hoz, who was not called up for that match, jumped over the wall that separated the stands from the pitch, picked it up and gave it to Iribar and Kortabarria to lift; at the front of the two rows of players.

A 5-0 that remained in the background

Atotxa exploded. "Nobody expected it. I remember people crying. Smiles, chants. And a terrible feeling", recalls De la Hoz, who appears in the photo that has remained for the memory of those events covered by the ikurriña, between Iribar and Kortabarria. "It was a burst of joy, of enthusiasm, of emotion. A clamor. An apotheosis moment. Incredible, impressive, unforgettable, unspeakable. The 5-0 scoreline still hurts, but I remember that derby with more pride in what happened than sadness at the result. It was a final push to accelerate the process of democratisation and the legalisation of the ikurriña", said Iribar, who recalls that during the match he was thinking about where he would sleep that night.

But nothing happened, apart from De la Hoz receiving a death threat from the Spanish Basque Battalion. "I had to go back to the stands and I was expecting a beating. But nothing happened. I thought maybe the next day, or the day after, but nothing happened. The civilian government gave orders not to intervene; with good judgment, because the images would have been very harsh. They couldn't do anything to us", concludes De la Hoz. And so, that action became the first time since the end of the Civil War that the Basque flag was displayed in a public act without reprisals and, even more, it represented "the de facto legalisation of the ikurriña". Thanks to football.