by Panos Bletsos
Once upon a time, when football was still a game of dreamers and romantics, there was a club which stubbornly refused to kneel before its enemies. Whether it was Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético Madrid, fearless Athletic Bilbao stood up to them and fought hard, like the proud Basques have been doing for centuries. And, mind you, it wasn’t always a losing battle.
With its roots dating back to the late 19th century and under the influence of the British, hence the name, Athletic is one of only three Spanish clubs never to have been relegated from the top flight since the Primera División was established in 1929. But they weren’t just making up the numbers.
Despite winning all but seven of the regional tournaments organized in the Basque Country from the early 1900’s up until World War II, Los Leones earned respect and recognition across Spain thanks to their successes. Within six decades they were crowned national champions six times, including an amazing unbeaten run in the 1929-’30 term, and amassed an incredible 20 Copa del rey victories – just for the sake of comparison by 1960 Barça had won the Cup 14 times and Real Madrid no more than nine.
Together with these two giants and neighbouring Osasuna, Athletic has always been run by its socios and not like your average professional sports company. And, unlike any other club, they have become famous across the globe for relying exclusively on players born in or originating from the greater Basque Country (including parts of southern France), although that policy has not been as strict in recent years. In an era when money wasn’t the only thing that mattered in the game, such diversity wasn’t a problem. The Bilbao club nurtured a number of star players, such as José Ángel Iribar (their all-time appearances record holder on 614), Txetxu Rojo (like Iribar, he later coached the team too), Agustín Gaínza, the late Telmo Zarraonandia (or simply Zarra, Athletic’s leading goal scorer with 333 strikes to his name) and more recently Joseba Etxeberria, Aitor Larrazábal, Julen Guerrero, Ismael Urzaiz, Andoni Zubizarreta and one-club man Josu Urrutia. Special reference should be made to the legendary Rafael Moreno, aka “Pichichi” (The little duck, in English), a recognized goal-getter after whom the Madrid-based sports daily Marca has named its famous trophy awarded to the most prolific striker of each season.
A constant threat to the Madrid – Barcelona dipole, Athletic have given their rich and illustrious rivals some of their worst nightmares. In 1930-’31 they hammered Real 6-0 in Madrid and Barcelona 12-1 (!) in their famous San Mamés fortress, with the mythical Agustín Sauto Arana, affectionately known as “Bata”, bagging seven in the process! And 15 years later, right after World War II, Barça were put to the sword again, this time at the Camp Nou, comprehensively beaten 6-0. Needless to say that all three of those famous scorelines have yet to be beaten by any team as the worst losses ever inflicted on two of the biggest brand names in world football.
By the 1950s, however, both Real and Barcelona had found their way past the Spanish federation rules restricting foreigners to no more than three per club by also fielding players who were either naturalized or had dual nationality (Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, László Kubala, José Emilio Santamaría). With the two superpowers growing stronger with each year since the turn of the next decade, especially by signing more top-class foreigners, Athletic Bilbao found success very hard to come by. Nonetheless, they did manage to add another six pieces of silverware to their trophy cabinet and also reach the UEFA Cup finals in ’76-’77, losing out to the mighty Juventus Turin only to away goals.
After a sensational Supercopa, League and Cup treble in 1984, Los Leones have suffered a slump in fortunes and the longest trophy drought in their history. They came close to breaking that hoodoo a couple of times, finishing runners-up to Barcelona in the ’97-’98 Primera División and also making it to the 2008-’09 Copa del rey final, when they took an early lead through Gaizka Toquero in Valencia only to suffer a heavy 4-1 defeat to Barça – Blaugrana’s first trophy under Pep Guardiola.
Joaquín Caparrós has since been replaced by Argentine tactician Marcelo Bielsa, who knows a thing or two about leading underdogs to unexpected glory – he guided Newell’s Old Boys to two league triumphs in the early ‘90s and repeated the feat with Vélez Sársfield in ’98. A blend of experienced campaigners (Gorka Iraizoz in goal, Andoni Iraola at right back, Igor Gabilondo at left midfield) and talented youths (Jon Aurtenetxe, Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez, Óscar de Marcos, Ander Iturraspe, Iker Muniain) mixed together with Fernando Llorente’s prowess up front has seen Athletic win a tough UEFA Europa League group including mega-rich Paris Saint-Germain, maintain their hopes for international football next season as well via the Campeonato and –perhaps most importantly – maintain course for yet another Cup final, their 35th overall.
Should they overcome the last hurdle of giant killers Mirandés, it’s most likely that they’ll yet again face the incomparable Barcelona at the end of May. Can they beat them and claim the title for a 24th time? They have done it twice in the past, including their latest triumph, back in 1984, when they prevailed 1-0 in Madrid, where this season’s final is also expected to take place. In any case, there is a general sense among the Athletic faithful that the Copa del rey is their own competition, their own trophy. And should they indeed progress to the final yet again, that will arguably be their own Game of Thrones.
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