Athletic Bilbao, historically, are the fourth 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, was back in the 1983-84 season under the management of Javier Clemente.
Athletic Bilbao Stadium
From 1913 Athletic Bilbao played at the San Mamés Stadium which was named after a nearby church leading to the venue being known as ‘La Catedral’. In 2013 this historic stadium which had a capacity of 40,000 was demolished and replaced by the 53,289 seater Nuevo San Mamés which was built right next to the original site. Football fans visiting Bilbao can visit the club’s fascinating museum and take a stadium tour of the new stadium.
Athletic Bilbao Stadium Tour
Football fans visiting Bilbao must take a tour of the San Mamés Stadium and learn about the colourful history of Athletic Bilbao. You can download a booking voucher to your mobile phone below.
Getting to San Mamés
The stadium is within the city centre area and an easy walk from the majority of hotels. The Euskotran tram network is is superbly efficient and on match days they there are special services beginning 1½ hours before kick off and running every 10 minutes to San Mamés. Similarly, after the game the service operates every 6 to 10 minutes to get you back to your destination.
Athletic Bilbao Fixtures 2022-23
Athletic Bilbao Tickets
For many home game you can buy Athletic Bilbao tickets at their 40,000 seater San Mames stadium before the match. If you arrive in the city before the weekend of the game it’s worth finding out when tickets go on sale as they’re usually available a couple of days in advance. Tickets are also available from the ATM machines of the local BBK Bank which has branches all over the city. Tickets for matches against FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad often sell out well in advance.
History of Athletic Bilbao
Origins: Athletic Bilbao was founded in 1898 (using the English spelling of the name) by a group of students from the Gymnasium Zamacois who had studied in England. On their return they arranged football matches against British migrant workers living in Bilbao who played as Bilbao Football Club. This team was made up of ex-miners from the north-east of England and shipyard workers from Portsmouth, Southampton and Sunderland. In 1902 Athletic Bilbao merged with Bilbao Football Club calling themselves Club Vizcaya for a season before reverting to the name Athletic Club de Bilbao in 1903.
Club Colours: A young man by the name of Juan Elorduy was one of the students from Bilbao. He was supposed to be buying 25 new shirts for the team in London in 1909 but couldn’t get enough of them. He travelled to Southampton to return to Bilbao when he noticed that the red and white stripes of the Southampton FC shirt was the same colour as the city of Bilbao’s flag. He bought 50 shirts and on his return the club directors agreed to change their colours to the red and white that remains to this day. Interestingly, Juan Elorduy had previously played for Atlético Madrid and was a committee member of the club so he sent them half of the shirts he’d bought in Southampton. As a result the Madrid team adopted the same shirt which remains their home shirt today.
Nickname: Athletic Bilbao are commonly known as the ‘Los Rojiblancos’ because of their colours. They are also referred to as ‘Los Leones’ (the lions) as Saint-Mammès himself was an early Christian that the lions had refused to kill.
Early Years of Athletic Bilbao
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.
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.
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.
Athletic Bilbao in the Modern Era
Since Javier Clemente’s double winning team of 1983-84 on the filed successes have been few and far between. A second place finish in 1998 under Luis Fernández was a cause for celebration but too subsequent seasons saw the club flirting with relegation.
Renowned Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa led Athletic to the 2012 UEFA Europa League Final and the Copa del Rey Final. This exciting team finished runners-up in both tournaments, losing to Atlético Madrid and FC Barcelona in the respective finals. At the end of the 2012–13 season Athletic Bilbao played their last game at their historic San Mamés stadium before moving to their new San Mamés Stadium.
Under Ernesto Valverde Athletic qualified for the Champions League, going out in the group stage, and again lost in the final of the Copa del Rey to FC Barcelona. However, beating Barcelona over two legs in the 2015 Supercopa de España ensured their first trophy since 1984. The 2019-20 season saw Athletic Bilbao reach the final of the Copa del Rey against Real Sociedad but the game has not been played at the time of writing due to the Covid pandemic.
Athletic Bilbao Transfer Policy
Athletic Bilbao are famous for their Basque-only transfer policy which only allows the signing of players born in the Basque provinces of Spain or France as well as players who moved to the region at a young age.
This 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.
Official Website of Athletic Bilbao
The official website of Athletic Bilbao with upto date fixtures, results and ticket information is available in English.
History of Athletic Bilbao
Read the fascinating history of Athletic Bilbao and their strong early ties with the English game.