31 March 2012

Spotlight on Athletic Club Bilbao

“The Lions” are one of the most successful teams in Spain and their unique policy of playing only Basque players, together with the fact they are owned by their members, gives them a special place in the Basque social fabric.

Athletic Club are, together with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, one of just three teams who have never dropped out of the Spanish first division since it was founded in 1928. During that time they have won the league title eight times and on five of those occasions they won a league and Cup double, indeed only FC Barcelona have won more Spanish Cup titles. Athletic Club Bilbao was founded in 1898 by a collection of expat English shipyard and steel workers together with young Basques who had travelled to Britain and 31 years later they became the
first team to win a La Liga title without a single defeat during the season. In all, they won four titles in the pre-civil war era, although they also managed one in the 40s and 50s (when the team featured the legendary Telmo Zarra up front) it wasn’t until the early 80s that they managed another, taking the ‘81 and ‘82 titles
under Javier Clemente.

Athletic Club are closely associated with the cause of Basque nationalism, with their policy of only playing Basque, or Basque connected players. The team’s second kit has the Basque flag colours and the first ever public display of an Ikurrinea after the death of Franco was at a game against Real Sociedad in
December 1975, when the two captains ceremoniously placed a giant Basque flag in the centre of the pitch.

This has been a great season for Athletic, with Marcelo Bielsa introducing a level of skill and passing, which has sometimes been lacking from the Basques traditional blood and thunder approach. They seem to have saved their best form for the Europa Cup, with two great games against Manchester United and this week’s win over Schalke, which looks to have virtually assured a semi final slot, but their league form has suffered something of a dip, with three defeats and a home draw against Sporting Gijon in their last four games. That run has
seen them drop from being Champions League contenders to their current more modest 11th spot in the table. Athletic are also, of course, due to play FC Barcelona in this year’s Spanish Cup final.

The Cup Final will just be the latest time the fates of the two historic teams have been entwined. Right back in 1930, the Basques inflicted what is still the Catalans heaviest ever defeat with a 12-1 thrashing, whilst in 2009, Guardiola’s team took the Cup title as part of their historic treble-winning season beating Bilbao 4-1 in the final. The rivalry of the 80s and Goikoetxea’s infamous fouls on Maradona and Schuster is water under the bridge now and there was a fantastic friendly atmosphere between the two sets of fans in Mestalla, which is sure to be repeated at this year’s Vicente Calderón Cup final - and indeed at the Camp Nou
on Saturday.

Bilbao’s sparkling young team is full of stars, with Fernando Llorente the main man up front, ably supported by Munuain, Susaeta and De Marcos, whilst many of Europe’s top teams are eyeing up the versatile Javi Martínez, who has shown he can be equally effective at the back or in midfield. (via FCBarcelona.com)