I was in Galdakao on Saturday night for the farewell match of local pelotari Oier Zearra, who has retired after fourteen years as a professional. The 34 year old made his debut in Eibar in 1997 and his greatest achievement came in 2006 when he finished as runner up in the Pairs Championship alongside Olaizola II. In addition, he triumphed in the second tier Pairs and second tier Manomanista, both in 1998.
Oier Zearra’s swansong coincided with Galdakao’s fiesta and the streets of the Bizkaian town were awash with people, many bedecked in local dress, celebrating under ikurriña bunting. I had arrived by train directly from Durango, to which I had walked from the summit of the Urkiola climb having watched the Vuelta a España pass through a sea of orange. The party atmosphere I had witnessed on the mountain appeared set to continue into the night. Almost as soon as I entered the main street from the station, I was passed by groups of people wearing stickers which bore Zearra’s portrait; it seemed the whole community had pulled together to celebrate the career of their famous son, while also still revelling in the glow of fellow local Igor Antón’s Vuelta triumph the previous day.
The jubilant atmosphere extended from the street into the fronton, which was nigh on sold out for the big game. I had secured my ticket in the standing section of the balcony by calling past the box office two days before, desperate not to miss out. As the first match got underway there were still some empty seats below me but as the start of the second drew closer, the throng of people on the street migrated to their positions for the big event, with the strains of a traditional band, who were perhaps somewhat incongruously playing Yellow Submarine, growing louder. The curtain raiser appeared as if it would expire with the whimper of a routine win for Olaetxea and Iza, but the crowd was whipped into fervour by a near miraculous comeback from Urrutikoetxea, only for he and Ibai Zabala to fall three points shy of victory. But this was a mere amuse bouche and a respectful and almost religious hush descended as Oier Zearra took to the fronton, a warrior about to play his last.
Zearra stood alone, facing his friends, family and fellow citizens, backed by his sporting colleagues. Two dancers, clad in white with traditional red belts faced him and bowed. Accompanied by a single musician in command of both a txistu and a drum, they performed for his honour, a touchingly intimate tribute in the midst of something far larger. There followed a procession of gifts, presented one by one, culminating in the granting of that most evocative Basque prize, the txapela. From the mass of players, well-wishers, and young boys dreaming that someday such honours might be afforded to them, stepped a lone singer. His haunting melody made the spine shiver, and his swirling notes rose and met with the rafters as if another chapter in the history of the sport was being soaked up by their all-seeing beams before our very eyes.
As the ceremony ended and its various characters left the playing area to the slap of ball on stone, we awoke to the reality that Zearra had one more war to wage. He took to the fronton alongside the great Aimar Olaizola, with whom he had journeyed to the Pairs final in 2006, the best possible partner to assist him to a fitting final victory. In their way stood Pablo Berasaluze and Oier Mendizabal, in the unenviable position of potential party wreckers, knowing they must play their match despite the baying crowd’s fervent support of their retiring friend. In the emotion of the circumstances one might have forgiven Zearra for blowing it, but he and Olaizola were a steady and serene ship, long delivery feeding winners at the frontis. They held their nerve despite the typically dogged efforts of Berasaluze, who grew in stature and venom but could not stand in the way of a 22-20 win at the last. We applauded Zearra as he stood alone and applauded us, before leaving the fronton behind, we to the continuing fiesta, Zearra to the next chapter of his life.
All the photographs are mine