Monday, June 29, 2009

Javier Aguirre's Basque Identity

Being a Mexican of Basque background is often misunderstood in Mexico, this is why we are glad to present this article about one of Mexico's must famous Basques, Javier Aguirre, the coach of the national soccer team published at Sign On San Diego:

Patriotic Aguirre leads with passion

El Tri coach follows no-nonsense path

Mark Zeigler

“Guernica” is the famous mural by Pablo Picasso depicting the 1937 bombing of the Basque village during the Spanish Civil War. It is painted in black, white and a dark blue.

Javier Aguirre looks at “Guernica,” at the haunting images of death and devastation, and sees another color.


Aguirre is Mexico's national soccer coach, the man charged with forging a route to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa at a time when a wide freeway has dwindled into a lonely dirt path leading into a dark, uncertain jungle. He is here not because it is necessarily a good career move, or because he thrives on the challenge of qualifying Mexico for the World Cup after a 1-3 start, or because of the six zeros on his paycheck, but because he has to.

“A commitment to my country, you know?” says Aguirre, 50, whose team plays Guatemala in a friendly today at 5 p.m. at Qualcomm Stadium. “I have to give something back to my people.”

Aguirre's nickname is “El Vasco.” The Basque. He wasn't born in the Basque region of northern Spain, but his parents were. His father fought in the Spanish Civil War at 17, was captured by Gen. Franco's nationalist army and later forced to fight for it in North Africa. His mother was from the village of Guernica.

She was there, standing in front of a church, when the planes from Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe began dropping the bombs. She was 7.

Someone grabbed her, rushed her into the church's bomb shelter.

That was 1937. Aguirre's father would get out of the army, meet Aguirre's mother, get married and look for a fresh start.

“Sometimes the worst part about the war is the post-war: no food, no job, (political) parties in jail, persecution,” says Aguirre, who speaks fluent English. “My parents decided to move to Mexico in 1950. My father changed his nationality from Spanish to Mexican.

My parents spoke Basque at home, the food was Basque, but they knew that I was Mexican and I was born in Mexico. They told me the Mexican flag, the Mexican anthem, the Mexican language was the most important thing. My parents, they told me I have to love Mexico.

In April, the bosses from Mexico's soccer federation called. They were desperate. The grand experiment of hiring a Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson, had gone terribly wrong and El Tri found itself on the brink of not qualifying for a World Cup, on the brink of the unthinkable, the unfathomable.

Would he help?

Aguirre did this once before, swooping in during the rocky 2002 qualification and going 4-0-1 over the final five matches to secure a World Cup spot. He left to guide Osasuna, an unfancied club from the Basque city of Pamplona, to the UEFA Cup. From there he took Atletico Madrid, after a decade of embarrassing finishes, to the UEFA Champions League before a string of poor results led to his dismissal in February.

He was in demand. He could wait for another big club's job to open. He could stay in Spain, where his two sons attend college. He could let someone else step onto the bridge of El Tri-tanic.

And he couldn't.

A commitment to my country, you know?

There was the new life that Mexico gave to his parents, and the life it gave him. There also was 1981, when Aguirre was part of the national-team player pool that failed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

“I don't want to talk about it, but of course I know what would happen if we don't qualify for this World Cup,” he says. “I remember that feeling. It was a disaster, terrible. It was devastating, for the federation, for the people, for everyone.”

So he said yes.

San Diego is a city Aguirre knows well. He has owned a condominium in La Jolla Colony for the past decade, vacationing here with his family during the offseason, going to beach, attending Padres games.

But this trip is no vacation. “We are not here to relax,” he says.

Aguirre is known for crafting teams in his image, of a kid discovered by pro scouts relatively late in his career, of a player who relied on raw grit more than raw talent, of someone who never stops working. Superstars often don't flourish in his system, and he is not afraid to jettison them if they pout.

“He tries to make a good group,” goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa says.

Aguirre also talks of wanting “hungry players,” and one of his first acts as national coach was to eliminate their per diem on road trips. Not so they literally wouldn't eat, but to reinforce the notion that you play for pride on the national team and nothing else.

His roster for today's game, and for the CONCACAF Gold Cup that begins next week, has few of the veterans who play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe – much to the consternation of Mexico's predatory soccer media. In their place are youngsters with little international experience.

Or, in other words, the exact type of player Aguirre loves to coach. To mold. To motivate.

“The Mexican national team does not depend on anybody,” Aguirre says. “There are no starters. We are all Mexican. There are some people who may not agree with me. They may have favorite players. But that's the right I have been given, to choose who I want.”

He taps his coaching jersey. It's green.

“I need people who want to win, who are proud of this shirt,” he says, “proud to be on the national team, proud of the anthem, proud to be Mexican.”

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