Maite Zabala can’t remember the name of the exact town, or the exact festival. But the Boise-born goalkeeper said she’ll never forget the feeling as she took the field for an exhibition game in 2004 for Athletic Bilbao’s women’s team.
“I was sitting in the center circle and they’ve got the Basque Ikurriña, the Basque flag, up there,” the 1997 Bishop Kelly High graduate said. “Being a part of that was pretty surreal being an American kid growing up and having known about it.”
Zabala, entering her first season as an assistant coach for the Boise State women’s team, said her grandmother sang the club’s anthem to her as a child. But she only had a vague understanding of what the team meant before spending a spring wearing the club’s red and white.
And Saturday, Athletic Bilbao brings that ethnic significance to Boise when it takes on Mexico’s Club Tijuana in the Basque Soccer Friendly at 7:06 p.m. at Albertsons Stadium.
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“Being a Basque club, it’s a way to celebrate the culture and the people. There is an identity that goes beyond that team,’’ Zabala said.
Athletic Bilbao President Josu Urrutia said his team’s trip to Boise reaches beyond the bounty of European teams crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play and grow their fan base in America in recent years.
“There is a context of emotions and feelings that my club is very connected to,” Urrutia said. “I believe it’s very important for them to have a serious opponent, but at the same time, make a connection with a community, with a group of supporters across the ocean.”
Henar Chico and Joe Lasuen joked for years they should start a peña, or fan club, for Athletic in Boise as they gathered to watch games at the Basque Center. But when rumors started percolating about Athletic’s trip to Boise, Chico, the club president, founded it in September.
As the game has drawn closer, she said membership of one of four official Athletic fan clubs in America has grown to approximately 100 members.
“To have your team from thousands of miles away to play here in Boise, I mean, it’s amazing,” Chico said.
Lasuen, vice president of the fan club, is inviting anyone interested in joining the club’s pregame tailgate to learn more about the team under a bring-your-own-beer policy.
“When the team was being started in the Basque Country in the 1890s, a lot of Basque immigrants, that’s when they all started to come to Idaho to start their lives,” Lasuen said.
The history and Athletic’s policy to only field Basque players creates an atmosphere more intense than that of a Boise State football game, Zabala said.
“Spain is a fractured country ...,” she said. “When you try to wrap it in a Spanish flag, Athletic and Barcelona, these teams allow these people to celebrate their culture in a way they can identify with more than just living in a town or going to a university.”