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Growing Anticipation: Groundwork Laid for Basque Soccer Friendly

Boise's iconic blue turf is covered in green for the big match

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Everyone has had anxiety dreams: You show up to school and you haven't studied for the test; you're running from something but your legs feel like they're made of lead; your teeth are inexplicably falling out.

Argia Beristain dreams she walks into a stadium, and the grass is dead.

Not just any stadium, though, and not just any grass. Beristain dreams of Albertsons Stadium and the sod that has been placed over its iconic blue turf to make way for the first-ever Basque Soccer Friendly.

Beristain has spent the past two years of her life planning the soccer match, which will pit world-class Athletic Club de Bilbao against Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente on Saturday, July 18 at 7 p.m. Beristain is only a few days away from seeing her work pay off, but the nightmares persist.

"Once the sod is installed, I think I'll be able to sleep better at night," she said, a few days before the grass was rolled over the field.

The sod is one of the most intriguing and complicated elements of this soccer match. It required removing the football field goal posts, laying 85,000 square feet of plastic event decking, placing 47 sheets of plywood, then covering it all with a layer of double-sided tarp. It took 117 five-gallon buckets to hold the tarps in place before the sod arrived from Cloverdale Nursery, transported in 4-foot by 60-foot rolls.

The sod installation team, JB Instant Sod, covered the Smurf Turf with 2 1/2-inch-thick grass on July 11.

Turning turf into a field of luscious grass was only one complicated part of planning the Basque Soccer Friendly. Fewer than two months before the game was scheduled to be played—originally it was set for Wednesday, July 29 to coincide with the Jaialdi Basque festival—the Basque team lost a match to FC Barcelona, changing their entire schedule for the summer.

Since Athletic Club de Bilbao couldn't make the July 29 date, Beristain had a new challenge: Change the date of the game to Saturday, July 18—a week earlier than planned.

That caused a hiccup in the sod installation. JB Instant Sod was double booked.

"Our installation crew was also doing an installation in Seattle, then they had to come here to do this, then they have to go back to Seattle, then come back here to remove the sod," Beristain said. "We had not planned to have the sod laid a week in advance."

In order to keep the grass from dying during the week leading up to the game, Cloverdale Nursery put in temporary irrigation systems and monitored the grass with a watering truck.

Changing the date of the game caused Beristain some heartache, since hundreds of people already purchased their tickets, bought airline tickets and booked hotels for July 29. Plus, it served as the perfect kick-off to Jaialdi, which occurs once every five years—Jaialdi 2015 runs Tuesday, July 28-Sunday, Aug. 2—and traditionally attracts nearly 40,000 Basques from all over the world.

"We've experienced a number of refunds," Beristain said. "But for every refund we've had to give, someone else has purchased tickets, so it's picking up."

She estimates about three-quarters of the seats have been sold, and she's expecting many more walk-up ticket sales.

"I know lots of friends and families that aren't going to be able to come to the game because they have their flights booked for Jaialdi, but that's just the way it goes," Beristain said. "There's also the diehard Athletic Club de Bilbao fans of the Basque community that are flying here for the weekend, then going back home, then coming back for Jaialdi."

On Thursday, July 16, Beristain will be at the airport to greet Athletic Club de Bilbao's 50 players. She's hoping to put together a welcome party and autograph signing with the team.

"Of course the Basque community did offer to host the entire team," she said with a laugh, "but they'll be staying in a hotel."

Beristain hopes to give the team a tour of the Basque Block on Friday afternoon, sharing with them the history of Basques in Boise.

"Hopefully we can show them why they flew all the way here," she said. "We want to show them why there are so many of us that are so excited to see them come. [Our Basque history] isn't something that's taught over there, so unless you have family members that come here, you don't know about it."

Athletic Club de Bilbao, which was founded 117 years ago and is ranked 32nd in the world, has never played in North or South America. Their opponents, Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente—from Baja California, Mexico—has been around for eight years and ranks 143rd.

Club Tijuana's 36 players fly in on Friday, July 17, and Beristain hopes to organize a similar welcome party.

After it's all over, the sod will be transplanted into Ann Morrison Park, where two of the soccer fields need to be redone. Beristain wants to see a plaque beside the field, proclaiming that it is the very grass on which the inaugural Basque Soccer Friendly was played.

After several more days of Jaialdi celebrations, performances, volunteering and hosting her own family from the Basque Country, Beristain wants to go on vacation.

"We call Jaialdi the Basque Tsunami," she said. "There's a Basque hangover afterward."