As soon as the ball crosses the line, Juan Iturralde is on his feet. He darts back inside his suite, heading for the door. He pauses only briefly, to snatch two bottle rockets from a plastic bag placed carefully, deliberately, in his path. Its location is strategic: Iturralde is, essentially, in the news business, and every second counts.
He bounds — as fast as his knees will allow — down two flights of stairs, clasping the fireworks by their stalks. He sprints out of Gate 18 at the Reale Arena, home of the Spanish soccer team Real Sociedad, and onto the street outside. He checks that the coast is clear, slips the first of his two rockets into his hand-held launcher, and breaks his story across San Sebastián’s night sky.
His news, this time, is good. As the first rocket shrieks above his head, Iturralde sets off another, another shower of sparks falling at his feet, another cloud of cordite writhing around his sleeve. Everyone in the city knows how to crack the code.
One explosion means Real Sociedad has conceded a goal.
Two signify that the home team has scored.
It has been that way in San Sebastián for more than half a century. Other than a short lacuna in the 1990s and early 2000s, the fireworks have accompanied every Real Sociedad home game since 1960, enmeshing themselves in the city’s sonic fabric, part of the soundtrack to thousands of weekends, interrupting countless conversations, bringing glad and glum tidings to successive generations of fans.
“It’s a big responsibility,” said Iturralde, who has served as cohetero — rocketman — since 2006. It is one he takes seriously. There have been no fans in the Reale Arena for a year, the stands silent in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. But he is there for every home game, armed with the fusillade the club has provided, ready to rush outside the moment a goal is scored to spread his word to the city.
He keeps an ear tuned to a radio commentary of the game, in case a goal is disallowed for any reason while he is on his way outside. (The introduction of the video assistant referee to Spanish league matches has made his life much more complicated, and led to at least one near miss.) Being first, Iturralde knows, is important. But so is being right.
On the rare occasions he is unable to attend, he entrusts the job to his deputy: his brother, Fernando. “It’s a real privilege,” Juan Iturralde said. “I remember hearing them myself when I was a kid. You can hear them all over the city. It’s something that means a lot to the fans. It’s a sweet tradition. I’m really proud to do it.”
Iturralde, though, is not the first cohetero. He is, instead, the successor to a tradition and a system devised by his predecessor, Patxi Alkorta. “He was an eccentric,” said Ander Izagirre, a journalist and author, and Alkorta’s great-nephew.
“He had lots of outlandish ideas,” he said. “He once had a plan to win a bet by flying a donkey, by kite, from La Concha, the beach in the city, out to Santa Clara, the island in the bay.” (It did not work.) In 1968, Alkorta traveled to the Olympics in Mexico City to hand out txapelas — the beret that is traditionally given as a prize in the Basque region — to victorious athletes.
“I don’t know where he got the idea for the fireworks from,” Izagirre said. “He always said the beret plan came to him in a hallucination — he struggled with alcoholism for a long time — so maybe it was the same with the rockets.” Whatever the source of his inspiration, in 1960, Alkorta set off his first rockets outside Atotxa, Real Sociedad’s longstanding (and now demolished) home.
“The story goes that it was a way of letting the fishermen, working in the Bay of Biscay, know how the team was doing,” Izagirre said. “But I’ve always thought that was maybe just an excuse. It was to let all of the people in the city who liked soccer — and even those that didn’t — know how the team was doing.”
When Real Sociedad moved to its new home at Anoeta in 1993, it left the fireworks behind — in theory because the Reale Arena, as the stadium is now known, was further from the sea — but it was revived in 2005, at the prompting of Iñigo Olaizola, a board member and a cousin of Alkorta.
Iturralde, a 56-year-old elevator engineer by trade and a lifelong fan of both Real Sociedad and fireworks, got the job. “The club’s announcer is from Hernani, the same town as me,” he said. “He called me and asked if I’d like to do it.”
By that stage, of course, the value of flares as a news source had diminished: radio, television and the internet meant people in San Sebastián did not need to check the sky to know if their team had scored, or conceded. Izagirre found it helpful if he was unable to watch a game, though perhaps a little unreliable. “If you’re in the kitchen and you heard one bang, you could never be sure if you’d missed the other,” he said.
That the tradition’s appeal endured, though, was not only because it was something unique to San Sebastián — “the fans see it as something that belongs to us,” said Iñaki Mendoza, Real Sociedad’s club historian — but because of the simple genius of Alkorta’s idea: that perfect moment of suspense between the two bangs, the silence filled by hope and dread.
“When people are walking through the city on the day of a game and they hear the first rocket, they wait in suspense for the second,” Mendoza said. “And when they hear it, they resume their walk with a smile, because La Real has scored.” Izagirre described it as “a beautiful moment, where everyone is waiting.”
Over the last year, though, the fireworks have come to symbolize something else. Iturralde has had to change the way he works because of the pandemic. He can no longer watch games from close to the field at the Anoeta, as the Reale Arena is known locally, darting down a tunnel to quickly reach the street; instead, he must sit in an executive box in the corner of the stadium, and navigate those stairs on his way out.
But his role is, if anything, even more important now. When soccer resumed after its coronavirus hiatus, 11 other towns in the Basque region around San Sebastián started setting off their own fireworks every time the team scored at home. The circumstances — fans are still barred from most stadiums today — have changed the meaning of the tradition. “In the time of the pandemic, it is a way of feeling close to the team,” Mendoza said.
The Reale Arena, like almost every other stadium across Europe, has stood empty since last March. Those supporters who would be there to greet every goal with joy or resignation, whose roar Iturralde would hear as he ran to the exit, are locked in enforced, unhappy exile. It is still not entirely clear when they might be able to return.
In those circumstances, in the silence of the stadium and the city, Iturralde and his fireworks demonstrate the true power of tradition. “It is strange,” Izagirre said. “You can walk to the stadium, but it is a world we cannot access. There is a barrier between here and there, but the rockets get over that barrier. They are a way of bringing La Real home.”
Iturralde does not wait to watch his rockets explode. As soon as the second has screeched into the sky, ending those torturous few seconds of suspense, he sprints back into the stadium, back up the stairs, back into position.
His fireworks have long bound the fans, and the city, to their team, but the pandemic has turned them into something more than a tradition, given them a new, and vital, meaning. “They are,” Izagirre said, “a message from another universe.”
Audio courtesy The Spanish Football Podcast.