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Spain trip day 4: A triple header in Basque Country

BILBAO, Basque Country — It’s not often that people are able to witness a trio of top level games in one day, but that’s exactly what NorCal Premier Soccer did on its fourth day on the trip, seeing three games Sunday in three different cities each with three different learning outcomes.

First came a Basque derby in Eibar with the locals facing fellow La Liga side Alaves, followed by a women’s first division game in Bilbao featuring Athletic Bilbao and Zaragoza and capped by a third division game just outside of the biggest city in Basque Country.

On our first official day in Spain, we watched a game in Vila-real, where the club in that city is celebrated for it’s great successes despite having a population of less than 60,000.

Eibar makes Vila-real look like New York City in comparison, with fewer than 30,000 people in the entire town and an escalator filled hill carved out of the side of a mountain.

Everywhere you went though — before and after the match — kids were kicking a ball around the surprisingly busy streets of what we imagine is a normally-sleepy village.

What stood out and what’s been standing out in Spain is the continuous passion for the game whether it’s before the game, during the game, after the game, everyone has some sort of involvement in it,” said Zlatan Sahmanovic, a coach at Tri Valley Premier and the Associate Head Women’s Coach at Cal State East Bay. “If you’re an adult, you’re watching, you’re talking about the game. If you’re a kid, you’re playing, if you’re a teenager, you’re talking about your favorite players, so that was great to see.”

“It’s just a fantastic atmosphere,” he added. “There’s a continuous love and appreciation for the game that the States don’t have, but hopefully will one day.”

Though the game ended in a scoreless draw, the youngsters in the town couldn’t wait to show off their moves after the game in the town squares overlooking some of the more scenic views of the Basque Country.

Instead of soaking it up for as much time as we would have liked, the NorCal coaches rushed back over to the Athletic Bilbao training facility for a match featuring their top women’s team, the defending champions of Spain.

While Spanish soccer has recently dominated the men’s game, they have lagged behind the world’s elite on the women’s side.

This may change in the near future though based on what we witnessed in the Basque Country when we had the privilege of meeting with the women’s director at Athletic Bilbao in addition to watching the women’s game.

While the talent on display at the game lagged behind their American counterparts in the physical aspects of the game, they may have already surpassed us in the technical and tactical aspects.

It was the technical ability and understanding of the game in each of the women’s players that stood out to coaches like Sahmanovic.

“I would have to go back to just their culture and their love for the game,” he said. “I think if you watch that game, you can clearly see that every one of the players has a learner’s mind where they’re mimicking players, their movements, the way they express themselves when a foul happens, the way they express themselves when an offside happens. In my six years in the collegiate game, not once have I seen a player complain when there’s a pk either way, whereas it’s just okay, let’s get on with the game, but their involvement it’s more of an experience here.”

“For 90 minutes, the fans, the coaches, the players are all in this magical experience where in the states, that experience isn’t as enhanced as it is here,” Sahmanovic added. “But the level of play was fantastic. The positional understanding of the players, you could clearly see what they were trying to do, both going forward with the ball, when they would win it, when they would try to attack, you could see ideas forming. Just to see how proficient they are technically no matter what the demand was was truly amazing, something that I wish that my girls and future American players can do as well.”

“It was great to see 22 other minds analyzing the game the same way that I was, which I think in the States sometimes is a point that’s missed,” he concluded. “We teach our kids how to play rather than how they think. And if you teach your kids how to think, then they can play however they like.”

Unfortunately NorCal was unable to watch the entirety of the Bilbao women as the President’s box at a local third division club beckoned and the group arrived just in time at a quaint stadium (though one that was bigger in capacity than Eibar’s) for some lower league football at Barakaldo CF.

Out of all the matches in the day, this one was the least skillful and most physical.  Each team brought a high level of intensity to the match and it was clear that players were fighting for the opportunity to earn a spot at a higher level of play.

“You can tell that every one of those players wants to be moving on to the next level,” Sahmanovic said. “The passion from both of the coaches, the coaching staff, the fans, I mean again we talk about experience, they were in the game and they didn’t give a break to the referee, who I thought had some suspect calls, again it just goes back to the experience, which I thought was awesome.”

With that, NorCal headed back to the hotel after a long day of travel and games to rest for the next day of the trip: a more extended visit at Athletic Bilbao.