Basque team sparks row

A BITTER row has flared between Spain's conservative government and its regional Basque and Catalan allies since the autonomous Basque parliament approved a law last week permitting the formation of a national Basque football team.

The Basque decision, supported by all the regional MPs from the conservative ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to the pro-separatist Herri Batasuna (HB), allows Basque sports federations to remain outside Spanish ones if they choose.

The gesture prompted a furious response from Madrid. The government spokesman, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, said the Basque sports law was probably illegal and threatened to challenge it in the constitutional court. He accused his PNV allies of playing into the hands of the separatist group Eta. "It is a mistake to approve a law with the help of the slaves of Eta," he said.

However, the Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol, whose Convergence and Union Party keeps Jose Maria Aznar's minority government in power, said he wanted to study the Basque move, to see if it could be applied to Catalonia. He recalled a recent attempt to launch form a Catalan football team, a proposal rubbished by the government and blocked by the Fifa world football authority.

The initiative is mainly symbolic, as international sports bodies accept only teams from national states. But the Basques and Catalans point out that England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have national teams. David Moner, president of the Union of Catalan Sports Federations, contrasted Madrid's response with that of Tony Blair, who said he would love to see a World Cup final between England and Scotland.

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