Athletic Bilbao, historically, are the third most successful football club in Spain. As well as being one of only three clubs never relegated from the top division of La Liga – there are no prizes for knowing the other two – they are also third in the number of titles won over the years. Sadly for their supporters the last title was won, along with the Copa del Rey, as far back as 1984.
Most football followers know about the long-standing Basque only policy of Athletic, which has been the subject of much debate, but I suspect that fewer are aware of the benefit that this concentration on home-grown players has had to the Spanish national squad. Athletic Bilbao has had more players representing Spain than any other Spanish club – including Real Madrid and Barcelona. The club has continued its tradition of signing players born in the Basque provinces of Spain or France, although in the late 1980s this was broadened to include players who had moved to the region at a young age.
History of Athletic Bilbao
Founded in 1898 by a group of students from the Gymnasium Zamacois – who adopted the English spelling because they had studied in England – Athletic Bilbao merged with Bilbao Football Club, consisting of mainly ex miners from the north-east of England and shipyard workers from Portsmouth and Southampton, in 1902. After calling themselves Club Vizcaya for a season they reverted to the name Athletic Club de Bilbao in 1903. After playing in blue and white stripes for a few seasons, in 1910 they changed to the red and white they still play in today – the possible reasons for this can be found in the Atlético Madrid article, as the two clubs shared founders and have entwined early histories.
During the early years, the club was immediately successful, frequently winning the Copa del Rey title. The star player of the time is still remembered in Spanish football today as the leading scorer each year is known as the ‘Pichichi’, which is named after the Athletic player who once scored a hat-trick in a Cup Final.
The appointment of English coach Fred Pentland, El Bombín (the Bowler Hat) led to even more success. A great coaching innovator, who was also in charge of Atlético Madrid and the Spanish national team, Pentland was an early advocate of the style that became known in England, much later, as ‘push and run’ when introduced by Arthur Rowe with Tottenham Hotspur. He was not the only English manager employed by the club; in later years, Ronnie Allen and Howard Kendall also coached here. Their choices of headgear, though, went unrecorded! It is, however, known that Kendall found it so frustrating being unable to buy the players he wanted that it was cited as his major reason for leaving the club.
Under Pentland’s stewardship, Athletic won the League – of which the team were founder members in 1928 – and the cup on several occasions, doing the ‘double’ in both 1930 and 1931. In the second of these remarkable seasons, Barcelona were beaten by 12 goals to 1 in Bilbao – a result which is never likely to be repeated.
All of the games in Bilbao were played at the club’s present stadium, San Mamés, named after a nearby church. This has led to the stadium being known as ‘The Cathedral’, although the atmosphere – especially when Real Madrid are in town – can hardly be compared with one! As well as being known as the ‘Rojiblancos’ because of their colours the team is also referred to as ‘Los Leones’ (the lions) as St Mammes himself was an early Christian that the lions had refused to kill.
There was a period when the club had to change its name to Atlético Bilbao, as a result of a decision by Franco to outlaw non-Spanish names and languages. During the 1950s, however, the government’s severe restrictions on foreign-born players in the league greatly helped the Basque club who won several league and cup titles in this time and, in 1956, entered the then-named European Cup for the first time. The club’s successes all helped give the Basque people a sense of identity at a time when they felt very isolated in Spain. There was a famous incident in December 1975, just 15 days after the death of Franco, in which Iribar and Kortabarria, rival captains of Athletic and Real Sociedad, carried the Basque flag – illegal at the time – onto the pitch before a local derby.
Recent History: The only truly successful team of recent years was that assembled by Javier Clemente in the early 1980s, which included the famous goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta and the infamous, in British eyes anyway, Goikoetxea – the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’. This was the team that won the double in 1983/84.
Since then the club has finished near the top of the table on a few occasions and has flirted with relegation more than once including 2006/07 when they only surivived on the last day of the season.
One of the last clubs to sell the front of their shirt to sponsors – the Biscay-based Petronor Oil Company – Athletic Bilbao’s future is constantly under discussion. Their policy of “Con cantera y aficíon, no hace falta importación” (“With home-grown players and fans, you have no need of foreigners”) – has been questioned by some supporters. They feel that with only about three million Basques to choose from they have little chance of competing at the highest level. There remains, however, a significant number who consider that they would rather be relegated than give up their policy and sense of unique Basque identity.
Evidence from the 2011/12 season suggests they have little to worry about as some quite superb football under Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa earned Athletic the runners-up spot in both the Copa del Rey in Spain and the Europa League in which they lost to Atlético Madrid in the final.