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How Boise State Came to Host a World-Class Soccer Exhibition

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 9:06 am / July 6, 2015

John Bieter gives a tour of the Basque block in downtown Boise.

John Bieter gives a tour of the Basque block in downtown Boise.

On July 9, workers will pour into Albertsons Stadium and begin covering Boise State’s iconic blue football turf with vibrant green sod for the first time in its 19-year history. Over the course of a few days, yard lines and end zones will be replaced with touch lines and goal lines, football goalposts will be replaced with soccer nets and two new team flags will fly over the stadium: the red-and-white crest of soccer club Athletic Bilbao and that of a Mexican hairless dog — the mascot of Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente.

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 18, these two renowned men’s soccer teams, both of which rank in the top 100 teams in the world, will face off at Albertsons Stadium for Boise’s first international soccer friendly, thanks to a five-year, behind-the-scenes effort of Boise State history professor John Bieter.

How did a history professor with no athletic experience, let alone professional soccer connections, realize a dream of hosting a world-class soccer exhibition on a college football field?

To understand the answer to that question, it helps to know a bit about John Bieter. The surname is a familiar one around town and campus; his brother, Dave Bieter, is Boise’s current mayor, and his father, Pat Bieter, was a beloved Boise State faculty member who started the university’s first study abroad program to Onati, in the Basque Country, when John was 12.

“That changed the trajectory of my life,” John Bieter said. “I became curious about America and fascinated with immigration. I didn’t know it at that age but it would define my research agenda later on in life.”

Currently, Bieter wears three hats on campus: He’s a professor of history and the American west, he teaches secondary education classes and he serves as the assistant director of Boise State’s Basque Studies Center. It’s in this third role that Bieter’s leadership often shines both on campus and in the Treasure Valley. Not only did Bieter follow in his father’s footsteps and help found the university’s Basque Studies program in 2006, but for nearly two decades he has helped plan and execute the week-long Basque festival in Boise known as Jaialdi, which is scheduled to take place July 28-Aug. 2 this year.

Loosely translated, Jaialdi means “festival” in Euskara, the Basque language. More broadly, Jaialdi is a celebration of Basque heritage, as well as a local, regional and international reunion of those connected to its culture. Locally, it’s a testament to community collaboration featuring everything from great food and traditional dancing to a two-day academic symposium hosted by Boise State and featuring the world’s most prominent experts in Basque immigration.

“Other Basque festivals happen in the world but nothing of this scale,” Bieter explained. “Because of that, it truly has become an festival. People come from across the U.S., as well as the Basque country, Argentina and Australia. There’s a novelty to it since it happens only once every five years.”

Bieter was on the first Jaialdi organizing board in 1987. When Idaho celebrated its centennial birthday in 1990, state officials asked the Basque community to host another Jaialdi. Since then, the festival has taken place every five years. In 2010, organizers estimate Jaialdi attracted 40,000 participants.

It was during Jaialdi 2010 that the seed for hosting an international soccer match was planted. As Bieter remembers it, a number of prominent Basques were gathered for a lunchtime tribute to retiring Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa.

“My brother Dave was there, the wine was flowing, everyone’s talking and somehow the idea popped up,” he said. “Dave called me over and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if an American team played a Basque team during the next Jaialdi?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be nuts?’ I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.”

Not only would such an event expose Basque culture to up to 40,000 people in one screamy sitting, if it was organized right, it could help financially secure and expand Boise State’s Basque Studies program. The program wants to bring visiting professors from the Basque country to campus on a regular basis and provide scholarships for Boise State students and Basque student exchanges.

“We’re talking about taking a minority group and a sport beloved by the global majority and marrying the two,” Bieter said. “It was the largest bake sale we could think of.”

In spring of 2013, Bieter and Dave Lachiondo, fellow associate director of Basque Studies, met with members of Boise State Athletics — assistant athletic director for football Brad Larrondo and assistant athletic director Anita Guerricabeitia — to pitch their idea. The duo came away with the athletic department’s support and a lead for a team: Athletic Bilbao from Spain’s Basque region. The team exclusively features Basque players and is currently ranked the No. 23 club in the world, according to the Football Club World Rankings.

“That was a turning point for us,” Bieter said. “Once we knew people in athletics were supportive, we decided to keep meeting. We kept talking to people in the community. The more people we talked to, the more loved it. But man, the idea does not equal the reality of putting it together. Those were two very different things.”

Bieter next approached the Basque government to ask for help in reaching out to Bilbao. This connection came easy, as the Basque government partially funds Boise State’s Basque Studies program to the tune of 50,000 euros annually. (In fact, their support agreement is renewed every five years during Jaialdi.)

There, Bieter hit another hurdle.

“The team’s appearance fee is between $300,000 and $325,000,” Bieter said. “There was no way we could pay that. But they didn’t hesitate, they told us, ‘We’ll come if you can pay our expenses.’ It was insanely generous. Once we had them lined up, we had a possibility. But then we had other logistics to consider: covering the blue, arranging hotels, finding sponsors.”

Not to mention finding the right team to face them on the field. For these tasks, Bieter reached out to Argia Beristain, a workshop contributor to Boise State’s Basque Studies program and a woman with expansive planning and event experience. Beristain took the lead on administrative duties and brought the Idaho Youth Soccer Association to help plan the event and founded Basque Soccer Friendly LLC. From there, the group reached out to the City of Boise and KTVB Channel 7, among many others, to help organize and promote the exhibition game.

The LLC first had to raise $500,000 to get the game secured. (The LLC estimates that the total cost for the game will be between $750,000 and $1 million. Once the group recoups its expenses, the profits will go towards funding the university’s Basque Studies program). From there, pieces began falling into place: Boise State’s athletic department generously agreed to hand over the blue turf for a week (and avert their eyes as it was covered with green) and Club Tijuana, the No. 94 club in the world, agreed to face off against Bilbao. After the event, it was decided the sod would be re-purposed by Boise City Parks and Recreation for two soccer fields in nearby Ann Morrison Park.

The LLC faced another hiccup when the soccer exhibition had to change its date from its late July date, during Jaialdi, to July 18 due to one team’s scheduling conflict. While the game will no longer coincide with Jaialdi, organizers are hopeful it will benefit both events in the long run.

“It gives both events room to breathe and it extends the spotlight on us,” Bieter explained. “This is our opportunity to educate a new audience about the Basques. The Basque population here is a case study in the globalization of an immigrant community. From understanding us, people can connect the dots to larger themes of immigration, globalization, and how minority cultures survive in a globalizing world — not just survive but preserve and grow, and why that’s important. I know that’s a pretty tall order for a soccer game, but Albertsons Stadium is the largest classroom we have on campus. I want to get in there and use it.”

Now entering the final weeks of a five-year dream, Bieter and his partners are rushing to hammer out last-minute details, including setting up educational components for Boise State students, like translation opportunities for Spanish majors and (fingers crossed) kinesiology students who can job shadow athletic trainers during the game. “We don’t know how much we’ll make on this game, there’s no guarantee of a pot of gold at the end, but either way, we win: We get to educate folks on the Basque people and we get students out there learning in new fields,” Bieter says. “Watching these exchanges take place, large and small, that’s what keeps me going.”

To purchase tickets to the July 18 soccer friendly, go here. To learn more about Boise State’s Basque Studies program, go here. To learn more about Jaialdi happening July 28 – August 2, go here.