Basque Soccer Friendly gives Boise plenty of firsts

Saturday marked a series of firsts in Albertsons Stadium history.

The stadium traded its famous artificial blue turf for a fresh sheet of grass — a first.

The stadium filled with fans clad in red instead of blue and orange — a first.

And instead of the Boise State fight song as the home team ran out, stadium speakers blared Athletic Bilbao’s anthem before the game — another first.

The litany of firsts came as Albertsons Stadium hosted the Basque Soccer Friendly, pitting Athletic Bilbao of Spain against Club Tijuana of Mexico. Athletic poured in a pair of goals in the first 22 minutes and held on a for a 2-0 victory in the first international soccer match in Boise history.

The bounty of firsts also extended to the atmosphere in the crowd, one unlike any other at Albertsons Stadium.

“A Boise State game is two times louder, but this is great,” said Enrique Rivera, a first-generation Mexican-American donning a Xolos jersey and a red, white and green wig in the colors of the Mexican flag. “To see the Blue green though, it’s kind of awkward. It’s kind of weird. But it’s great as a one-time thing.”

The first fans through the gates waved Mexican flags instead of Bronco flags. Signs along Broadway campaigned for Basque independence instead of inclusion into college football’s elite. And fans snaked around the stadium waiting in beer lines — again a first.

“That blew my mind,” said Niko Randall, a 27-year-old, life-long Boise State fan.

After kickoff, the crowd of 21,948 fell silent, unsure how to act. A third-minute goal for Athletic when striker Artiz Aduriz headed in a clinical cross from Markel Susaeta loosened the stadium up a bit. And Club Tijuana fans commandeered the crowd during the second half, stomping their feet on the metal bleachers in the north end of the stadium and leading cheers of “Xolos, Xolos, Xolos,” “Sí, se puede” and roaring on each goal kick despite trailing by two goals.

Pedro and John Cortabitarte, whose grandfather hailed from the Basque Country, compared the crowd to U.S. men’s national team’s games they attended in Salt Lake City. Both sported an Athletic jersey and tied a Basque flag around their necks. But without a hometown team, they said you can’t expect everyone in the stadium to stand and cheer all night for players they don’t know like they do in Mexico and the Basque Country.

“They want to cheer, but they don’t know them,” Pedro said while rushing back to his seat with two full beers in hand.

“They don’t know the soccer chants, so it’s like nobody gets into it. We’re up there doing some Basque chants and they don’t know them,” John said with a laugh while also toting two full beers.

But for all the firsts around Albertsons Stadium on Saturday, Athletic and Tijuana fans blended them into Boise traditions with the flavor of the state’s two largest ethnic groups.

Satellite dishes still rode atop pickup truck hoods during the tailgate, albeit with Basque flags on the front grill.

Grills fired up, albeit with tacos al pastor, chorizos and kalimotxos on the menu.

And fans settled into blue-and-orange inflatable couches in front of TVs, albeit to watch the U.S. men’s national team rout Cuba 6-0 in the Gold Cup.

“I didn’t expect that many fans for the Xolos here,” Rivera said. “But walking through the parking lot and seeing all the fans and the horns, and you even had Mexican restaurants coming out here and tailgating, it’s been great. It’s been an honor and really fun.”

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter compared the Basque Soccer Friendly to other major sporting events in recent years that helped put Boise on the map — tennis’ Davis Cup and college basketball’s NCAA regionals.

At a press conference Friday, he acknowledged the game as a first. But he hopes it’s not a last.

“It’s a special time,” Bieter said. “Hopefully, it’s not a unique situation. I hope we can do something like this again.”

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