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Imagining a Basque National Team Ahead of the World Cup

Tre' AtkinsonFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2014

Imagining a Basque National Team Ahead of the World Cup

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    The recent re-emergence of Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Sociedad has put Basque football back on the map. The Basque Country, located in Northern Spain, has a population of around 3 million with football in their blood.

    Throughout the years, Basque players have helped the Spanish national team achieve success. Legends from the region, such as Joseba Etxeberria, have been regular faces for La Roja, while the likes of Fernando Llorente and Xabi Alonso helped the country win its first World Cup back in 2010.

    In Spain, Catalonia has received major attention over the years due to the success of Barcelona and calls for independence. But the Basque Country also has a lot to say for itself.

    Historic clubs like Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Sociedad have seen major success throughout the decades, and they are once more making their presence felt in the country. But other Basque clubs, such as Eibar, who will likely be promoted to the first division for the first time next season, are beginning to find success as well.

    With the Basque Country being a very independent area that is constantly churning out top footballing prospects, it would be amazing to see the Basque national team one day competing against other European nations.

    For now, Euskal Selekzioa has to settle for one friendly every year. Last December, several stars were called up to represent the Basque Country in a friendly against Peru at the new San Mames. The Basques came out 6-0 victors.

    With that in mind, this article will take a look at what the Basque national team could look like today, as well as discussing just how competitive Euskal Herria could really be.

     

    Note: For this list, a player must be born in the Basque Country, have Basque parents/grandparents, or have spent enough time in the Basque Country to qualify, just as players today must do for other countries.

Gorka Iraizoz—GK

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    Place of Birth: Pamplona, Navarre

    Current Club: Athletic Club Bilbao

    Selecting a keeper for the Basque National is very easy, because there is already a first-choice in Athletic's Gorka Iraizoz. The 33-year-old is one of the most dependable keepers in La Liga and is a regular in Basque friendlies.

    Iraizoz is currently having one of the best seasons of his career, earning 10 clean sheets in 33 league appearances, while also boasting a goals-conceded-per-game average of 0.97 percent, via Squawka.com.

    Due to his consistency and experience, Iraizoz would be a great keeper in international competition. And, though he wouldn't be among the best around at his position, there are many keepers going to the World Cup this summer who are not on the same level as Iraizoz.

Cesar Azpilicueta—RB

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Place of Birth: Pamplona, Navarre

    Current Club: Chelsea

    Chelsea full-back Cesar Azplicueta will be going to the World Cup this summer with the Spanish national team and for good reason. Not only has the 24-year-old become the best Spaniard at his position, he may very well be one of the best full-backs in the world.

    Despite being mainly used a left-back under manager Jose Mourinho, Azpilicueta has played the majority of his career as a right-back and will likely do so with Spain in Brazil this summer.

    The defender from Pamplona is quick and very smart. He knows how to take the ball off of an attacker and isn't afraid to make a difficult tackle. Azpilicueta is also capable of getting involved in the attack, making him an important player in any squad.

    Andoni Iraola could also start at right-back with Azpilicueta on the left. But with the players available to the Basque national team, starting the Chelsea defender on the right is the better move.

Inigo Martinez—CB

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    Place of Birth: Ondarroa, Basque Country

    Current Club: Real Sociedad

    Inigo Martinez is seen as the future of the Spanish national team, with the 22-year-old having already made his official debut last year. Though he will not be going to Brazil this summer, he is destined for a long and successful international career.

    Currently, Martinez is leading the back line of Real Sociedad.

    Despite his age, Martinez plays with a commanding presence and isn't one to shy away from a challenge. He has all the right tools of a great defender and will only get better with more experience.

    The left-footed defender is known for his physicality and ability to handle aerial battles, but he is also a very good passer. Martinez would be a staple in the Basque national team.

Aymeric Laporte—CB

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    Place of Birth: Agen, France

    Current Club: Athletic Club Bilbao

    Including Aymeric Laporte in the Basque national team is a bit of a stretch.

    The 19-year-old was born in Agen, France, but he did spend a year at French-Basque club Aviron Bayonnais, plus he has Basque grandparents. Laporte would have a tough decision to make if presented with the choice of playing for the Basque national team, but for this list we will include him.

    Laporte is one of the hottest young defenders in Europe right now after helping Athletic Club secure Champions League football for next season. He excels in using his physicality and ability to read the game to make things hard for opponents, while also being one of the best aerial defenders around.

    While he is rarely caught out of position, he does have decent enough pace to run down many attackers who get in behind the defense.

    Pairing Laporte and Inigo Martinez would be difficult due to both being left footed, but with their quality it would still be an incredible partnership and something that could be worked around. Both players also happen to be good with their weaker foot, which makes things much easier as well.

    If Laporte was to snub the Basque national team for France, there are several other options in defence such as Mikel Gonzalez, Carlos Gurpegui and Mikel San Jose.

Mikel Balenziaga—LB

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    Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

    Place of Birth: Zumarraga, Basque Country

    Current Club: Athletic Club Bilbao

    Had this been one year ago, Mikel Balenziaga would not even be on the reserves of this list. But that has all changed since the 26-year-old returned to his boyhood Athletic Club Bilbao last summer.

    Balenziaga has been one of the best left-backs in Spain this season, pairing up with Laporte to form a solid wall on the left side of the defence. He excels in balancing when to go forward and when to stay back, and he is known for being a player who doesn't take unnecessary risks.

    The Athletic defender also has decent pace and vision, but his passing is what makes him stand out. He is more than capable of keeping possession and also boasts a keen ability to cross the ball.

    Apart from Balenziaga, Nacho Monreal is another prime candidate to start at left-back for the Basque national team if Azpilicueta stays on the right.

Javi Martinez—DM

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Place of Birth: Estella, Navarre

    Current Club: Bayern Munich

    Javi Martinez needs no introduction. The 25-year-old is one of the best Basque players in the world and is very experienced, having recently won the Champions League with Bayern Munich and featuring regularly in the Spain national team.

    Martinez is one of the best holding midfielders in Spain and will definitely be on his way to the World Cup this summer. He can also feature as a centre-back, which makes him a very useful player in any squad.

    The former Athletic Club star is known for his ability to read the game and keep possession. He is a lot like Sergio Busquets, just with more of a defensive mindset.

    Martinez would form a solid pivot in front of the defensive and would partner well with the Basque midfielders. He could also slip back into defence if needed without the team skipping much of a beat.

    If he was to play as a centre-back, then Ander Iturraspe could easily take his spot as holding midfielder.

Xabi Alonso—DM

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    Michael Sohn/Associated Press

    Place of Birth: Tolosa, Basque Country

    Current Club: Real Madrid

    Xabi Alonso is a World Cup winner who has also won almost everything else in his footballing career. Pairing Alonso with Javi Martinez would give the Basque national team one of the best double pivots in the world and would make scoring goals nearly impossible for opponents.

    Yet, it is not certain that Alonso would elect to play for the Basques. He was recently left off the squad list for last friendly against Peru, presumably because he has never been that outspoken about supporting the Basque Country.

    Regardless, having the experience and leadership of Alonso in the squad would be massive for a team that would be relatively untested on all fronts.

    Alonso's passing and ability to dictate play would fit in perfectly with the Basque footballing style, and he would likely be able to go forward more than usual with Martinez covering the defensive duties.

    If Alonso was to snub the Basque National Team, Iturraspe could fill in for him, as could Real Madrid teammate Asier Illarramendi, who is already seen as the 32-year-old's eventual replacement.

Ander Herrera—CM

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    Place of Birth: Bilbao, Basque Country

    Current Club: Athletic Club Bilbao

    Ander Herrera was born in the city of Bilbao, but grew up in the youth ranks of Zaragoza. It wasn't until 2011 that the promising midfielder made the return to the place of his birth, and he has been a driving force at Athletic ever since.

    The 24-year-old is a exceptional midfielder who can do it all. His passing ability is exquisite and he loves tracking back to make tackles as well. Herrera is an engine that is constantly running and would be a major catalyst in the Basque national team.

    This season under Ernesto Valverde, Herrera has broken out of his shell and has developed even more as a complete midfielder. He now has an eye for goal and is able to pull all of the strings in the middle of the pitch.

    Seeing as though Herrera is yet to receive a call up from Spain, he would likely feature in the Basque national team. Though he is only Basque by birth, he relates well with the culture and has found a home in Bilbao.

    Other stand-ins for Herrera would include Mikel Arteta, Benat and Raul Garica.

Antoine Griezmann—RW

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    Place of Birth: Macon, France

    Current Club: Real Sociedad

    If Aymeric Laporte is eligible to play for the Basque national team due to his extended bloodline and youth football, then Antoine Griezmann is certainly able to as well. The 23-year-old French winger joined Real Sociedad's youth academy back in 2005 and it has been all success ever since.

    Griezmann is a fast winger who loves to run with the ball and take a lot of shots. He can put a lot of pace on his shots and is already known for scoring some unbelievable goals in his time at Real Sociedad.

    Playing on the right-wing would put him a bit out of his normal position, but Griezmann has played on that flank before and has the ability to do the job well. His pace would make him a dangerous weapon, and the Basques would benefit from his endless energy and competitiveness.

    In all likelihood, Griezmann would still choose to represent France and has been listed in the country's squad list for the World Cup. Were that the case, Athletic Club winger Markel Susaeta would have no problems slotting in on the right.

Iker Muniain—LW

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    Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

    Place of Birth: Pamplona, Navarre

    Current Club: Athletic Club Bilbao

    Iker Muniain broke onto the scene at just 16 years old when he debuted for Athletic back in 2009. Since then, the Basque winger has been a regular in the line-up and a fan favorite at the San Mames.

    Muniain has fantastic dribbling abilities and incredible pace to go along with it. He is able to dance his way through defenders with ease and has become more of a creator in recent years.

    The 21-year-old is capable of scoring wonderful goals and will regularly try his luck from distance. Though he can score from well outside the box, Muniain does his best work inside the box when he creates his own chances or finishes off missed opportunities.

    The Athletic Club winger would be a great player opposite to Griezmann for the Basques, as both would be able to beat defenders with pace and also provide assistance in defence.

Fernando Llorente—ST

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    Massimo Pinca/Associated Press

    Place of Birth: Pamplona, Navarre

    Current Club: Juventus

    Fernando Llorente is a World Cup winner and has experience playing in Europe since he joined Italian giants Juventus last summer. El Rey Leon would lead the attacking line of the Basque national team and is the perfect striker to do so.

    Llorente is best known for being able to score headers from anywhere in the box, but he has a strong shot. Above all else, he excels in holding up play and can create chances for others—something that would come in handy with Muniain and Griezmann flanking him on the wings.

    The Juventus target man would be able to capitalize on the wealth of crosses that he would see every game and would easily lead the Basque national team in scoring.

    Whether Llorente would elect to represent the Basque Country or not is a big question. He has never been outspoken about being Basque, but there are options to replace him in Aritz Aduriz and Imanol Agirretxe.

    It is also interesting to note that South American strikers Gonzalo Higuain, who speaks perfect Basque, and Diego Forlan both have Basque blood due to family members. They could, in truth, elect to play for the team if given the choice.

Ernesto Valverde—Manager

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    There really is only one man who would be the best candidate to lead the Basque national team—Athletic Club legend Ernesto Valverde.

    Valverde returned to Athletic last summer and has guided the club back to glory in La Liga, earning a fourth place finish and Champions League football next season. Txingurri, as he is affectionately called, would provide the leadership and direction to help the team achieve success.

    The Basque National Team would likely utilize a 4-2-3-1 formation, as is normally the case, however, a 4-3-3 or even a 4-3-2-1 is not out of the question. Basque football hinges on having a strong defense, fast wingers and a target man who can finish off chances.

    If Valverde was not up to the job, former Athletic Club manager Jupp Heynckes or current Sevilla coach Unai Emery, who is a full-blooded Basque, could lead the team.

Alternative Defenders and Goalkeepers

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    Jon Super/Associated Press

    The Basque Country boasts a deep pool of talent at the back. There are several veteran players that would be able to lead the team, as well as plenty of young stars that would provide energy and a strong work ethic.

    Beyond Gorka Iraizoz, there are other promising keepers. Enaut Zubikarai is a regular during friendlies, while young Kepa Arrizabalaga may turn out to be one of the best Basque keepers of all time.

    French keeper Stephane Ruffier is also Basque and could fight for a starting role.

    The defence could be stacked as well. Andoni Iraola, Carlos Martinez and Carlos Gurpegui are all proven and experienced defenders. Couple that with young talents such as Joseba Zaldua and the Basque Country has a lot of options to choose from

     

    Goalkeepers and Defenders

    Enaut Zubikarai (GK)

    Kepa Arrizabalaga (GK)

    Stephane Ruffier (GK)

    Andoni Iraola (RB)

    Carlos Martinez (RB)

    Joseba Zaldua (RB)

    Carlos Gurpegui (CB)

    Mikel Gonzalez (CB)

    Mikel San Jose (CB)

    Borja Ekiza (CB)

    Xabi Etxeita (CB)

    Jon Aurtenetxe (LB)

    Nacho Monreal (LB)

Alternative Midfielders

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    Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

    Like the rest of Spain, it is in the midfield that the Basques would boast their biggest talents.

    From experience to young raw talent, the Basque midfield would have it all.

    Xabi Prieto could likely make a case for a starting role, maybe even as captain, while the likes of Mikel Arteta and Markel Susaeta have plenty of matches under their belts.

    The likes of Ruben Pardo and Asier Illarramendi are also immensely talented despite their age and would add a lot to the squad. Finish off the alternatives list with quality stars such as Ander Iturraspe and Raul Garcia and we really begin to get a picture of how strong the Basque midfield can be.

    More than any other area of the pitch, picking who would fill the midfield roster spots would be almost impossible for the Basque national team.

     

    Midfielders

    Ander Iturraspe (DM)

    Mikel Rico (DM)

    Ruben Pardo (DM)

    Asier Illarramendi (DM)

    Markel Bergara (DM)

    Mikel Arteta (CM)

    Xabi Prieto (CM)

Alternative Forwards

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Contrary to popular belief, Fernando Llorente isn't the only talent forward who could represent the Basque Country.

    In fact, Aritz Aduriz has featured in more friendlies than El Rey Leon and is an accomplished goalscorer in his right. Imanol Agirretxe has also turned out to be quite a lethal finisher up front for Real Sociedad and would fight for a place as well.

    There are several young strikers that could fight to make the cut too. Iker Hernandez and Guillermo have been lighting up the lower divisions and would provide an energetic spark that often comes in handy.

    Though Llorente is easily the top choice to start up top for Euskal Herria, make no mistake about it, he is by no means the only option.

     

    Forwards

    Ibai Gomez (LW)

    Aritz Aduriz (ST)

    Imanol Agirretxe (ST)

    Guillermo (CF)

    Iker Hernandez (CF)

    Kike Sola (ST)

    Gaizka Toquero (ST)

    Borja Viguera (CF)

    Gonzalo Higuain* (ST)

    Diego Forlan* (ST)

How Competitive Would the Basque Country Be?

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    Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

    Even with every star choosing to play, it is safe to say that the Basque national team would not be on the same level as Spain, Italy, Germany and other European giants. That said, the Euskal Selekzioa would definitely be a very competitive team.

    With a deep talent pool to choose from, the Basques would be able to field a team capable of making it out of the group stages of a World Cup.

    Anchored on a very strong defense with experienced holding midfielders in front, the Basques would make things difficult for any opponent. Quick and creative forwards would be able to do the work up front and provide plenty of goals.

    Any chance of having the Basque national team actually competing in international tournaments is surely a long way away—if it ever is to occur. For now, the autonomous community remains a part of Spain for the foreseeable future.

    When looking at a possible Basque national team, it important to realise that there is truly no way of knowing what the team would actually look like.

    The Basque Country would first have to become independent to field their own team in competitive tournaments, and even then eligibility to play for the team would likely be a tense affairs with so many players having already represented other countries.

    Regardless, Basque football is reaching a new age and the world needs to pay attention. Northern Spain is filled with quality players, and one day they just might be waving the Basque flag at a World Cup or European Championship tournament.

     

    Just how good would the Basque national team be? Who would choose to play for the team and what effect would it have on Spain and France? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

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