By Dan Parry
Most of my previous knowledge of Athletic Club de Bilbao comes from my dismal attempts to achieve success with them in Football Manager games and being utterly frustrated by the ‘Basque players only rule’.
However, since moving to this part of the world I have encountered a football team and a city that are intricately linked, on a scale perhaps not seen anywhere else in the world. Bilbao is a true one-club city. The most similar comparisons in English football would be those of Leeds United or Newcastle United. But I would dare to say that even these examples don’t match the intense bond Athletic Club shares with the city of Bilbao. This is due to the fact that Athletic (as it is referred to by its fans) isn’t just a football club. The policy of selecting ‘Basque-Only’ players has lead to the club becoming a symbol of Basque identity and culture. It is a policy which the fans and the city take immense pride in.
Bilbao is a post-industrial city in the North of Spain,that sits approximately 10 miles south of the coast of the Bay of Biscay in the province of The Basque Country. The city used to be most renowned for its iron mines and factories, shipbuilding, general industry-heavy economy and conflict born from political tension. The citizens of Bilbao and the Basque Country are fiercely proud of their culture and are especially protective of their language (one of the most unique languages in the world). Furthermore, Bilbainos (the collective term for people from Bilbao) have a reputation for being stern, down to earth, and industrious.
Over the past twenty-years the city has undergone a cultural revolution of sorts and it is now more famous for its cuisine and culture, as exemplified by the impressive Guggenheim modern art museum (the official name is Guggenheim Museum Bilbao). However, all over the city you can see remnants of the city’s industrious past, such as the Palacio Euskalduna, a theatre that is half made out of iron. In spite of all the changes to the city itself, one thing has remained constant, Athletic Club de Bilbao. Its importance to the city lies not only in the fact that it is the city’s most prominent sports team.
The people of the Basque country were heavily oppressed under the regime of General Franco. Due to Franco’s desire to rid Spain of anything that could be considered not Spanish the Basque culture and language were nearly annihilated. The club was even forced to change its name from ‘Athletic’ to ‘Atletico’ (the latter English interpretation originated from the club’s historical connection to Britain through the British sailors and workers who came to work in Bilbao, and Basque students who learnt the sport in Britain). Undeterred by this though, the club defiantly kept to their policy of only selecting players with Basque ancestry or players who had been trained as youth players by clubs inside the Basque Country.
Obviously all of this history has lead to a certain amount of animosity between Athletic and other Spanish teams, none more so than Real Madrid. Although this footballing rivalry may lack the glitz and glamour, and the international popularity of ‘El Clásico’, make no mistake, it is one of, if not the first match that Athletic fans seek when the fixture list is released. Real Madrid can expect a hostile atmosphere inside the new 60,000 seater San Mamés Stadium, also referred to as La Catedral (‘The Cathedral’) when they exit the tunnel for kick-off tomorrow at 16.15.
The current Athletic team, although not quite reaching the lofty ‘Europa League finals’ heights as the side assembled by Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, is a strong and well organised side that likes to attack and who have on recent past-occasions unstuck both Barcelona (defeating them 5-1 over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup in August 2015) and Real Madrid at San Mamés who were defeated 1-0 a couple of years ago thanks to a fine header from the midfielder Mikel Rico.
Taking into account their superb home record this season (unbeaten in their previous 13 home matches) and recent confidence-boosting derby victory over Real Sociedad, Athletic will be going into this game looking for a positive result to help them with their charge towards Europa League qualification. Real Madrid, on the other hand, will be hoping that this match doesn’t put a dent in their title hopes and Zidane has declared that with the exception of centre-backs Pepe and Raphael Varane his league topping side are at full strength.
Aside from the aforementioned political backdrop this game also represents an obvious clash of recruitment styles. Real Madrid often spend big money in recruiting the worlds best players such as Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo where as Athletic, restricted by their particular transfer policy, are forced to rely on nurturing and developing talent from their esteemed youth system as well as plucking and improving Basque players bought from other clubs. This policy has paid its dividends in recent times with Athletic generating huge profits from the sales of players such as Ander Herrera to Man Utd and Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich before that.
With the exception of midfielder Mikel San Jose, Athletic will also have a full roster of players to pick from. Some current Athletic players to watch out for, if selected, are: ex Atlético Madrid midfielder Raul García, the pacy Juventus coveted winger Iñaki Williams; and the Prince of Bilbao Aritz Aduriz, the striker who continues to turn back the clock and bag goals with a return of 8 goals from 21 appearances so far this season. All of whom are managed by the astute Ernesto Valverde. The man who according to many is the favourite to become the next Barcelona manager. It comes as no surprise that he is supposedly sought after by another club whose identity is intrinsically intertwined with the culture and history of that region.
They say that Bilbainos don’t go to church at the weekend, because they go to ‘La Catedral’ instead. Well you can expect that the bells will be ringing loud and clear when Ronaldo and the rest of the Galacticos turn up. But don’t forget that unlike other clubs, these bells aren’t made of the finest metals imported and paid for by foreign investment and super rich owners; they are made from iron. Pure Basque-made iron. And if recent evidence is anything to go by we should be in for a cracking game.