Athletic Bilbao: A history of overachievement

While the modern era of Spanish football will inevitably be remembered for the glamour of Real Madrid (from José Santamaría, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás to Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo) and the brilliance of Barcelona (from Sándor Kocsis, László Kubala and Luis Suárez to Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi), just one other  Spanish team has never been relegated from La Liga and has also been run by socios – all without spending large sums: Athletic Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao were founded in 1898, therefore becoming one of Spain’s first professional clubs, with a massive British influence. Firstly, many British iron, chemical, steel and shipyard workers migrated to the Basque region in the late 19th century, with Bilbao a crucial source of raw materials and industry for the Spanish economy. Then, in turn, this migration was reversed when upper-class Basque students went to Britain to complete their studies in specialist courses like commerce and civil engineering. From this, games were arranged between the workers (Bizcaya) and the students (Athletic Club), upon returning, and the result was the unique, in Spanish football, English spelling and formation of a Basque club: Athletic Bilbao. Juan Elorduy, a Basque student who spent the Christmas of 1909 in the South of England, was entrusted with buying the club 25 new shirts in the style of Blackburn Rovers (migrants’ influence). Struggling to find anything similar to the Lancashire club’s colours and pattern, Elorduy panicked somewhat, even though these were the traditional red and white colours of the city of Bilbao, and bought 50 (25 would be given to what would  eventually become Atlético Madrid, who originally began as a youth branch of Athletic) shirts in the Southampton colours.

Impressed, despite Sporting Gijón having the same colours from 1905 (led to Bilbao using black shorts instead of Gijón’s ‘trademark’ white shorts) and left with little other choice given the cost, the club permanently switched to the red and white strip from January, 1910. Then, the club sought a permanent stadium, opening Spain’s first professional football stadium, San Mamésthat cost 50,000 pesetas. Given the nearby church, the stadium was given the nickname of La Catedral and the story behind Saint Mammes, who was thrown to the lions by the Romans but the lions refused to kill him due to his divinity, would reflect the ‘against all odds’ philosophy that Bilbao would soon carve out for itself in La Liga. With Basque football beginning the century as one of the trailblazers ( Real Unión, Arenas Club de Getxo and Real Sociedad were among La Liga’s founders in 1928) and organisers of professional Spanish football, there was little need for players to be signed from outside the region. This led to Bilbao’s unofficial club slogan of Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación (with home-grown players and supporters, there is no need for imports), which was aided by La Liga’s old regulations of just three non-Spaniards per team upto the late ‘50s.

Rafael Moreno ‘Pichichi’ Aranzadi epitomised Basque brilliance and would go on to score an astonishing 468 goals in 267 games for Bilbao between 1911 and 1921, helping them win four Copa Del Reys between 1914 and 1921, and inspiring Marca’s Pichichi top goalscorer award from 1929. For the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Pichichi was among an incredible fourteen Basques of the twenty players selected for Spain. Yet, despite this, partly why Bilbao thrived post-Pichichi was because of the managment of Fred Pentland. Nicknamed El Bombín, due to his trademark bowler hat (Poco te queda bombín! Sólo tres minutos!’ led to a ritual of the players jumping on his hat after every victory), Pentland revolutionised Bilbao’s philosophy when he joined as manager from Racing Santander in 1921. Pentland favoured what is now a trademark Spanish short-passing game, but he combined this with the English influences of player robustness and a higher tempo. Pentland would coach Bilbao in two reigns, naturally affirming his philosophy, and in his first from 1921-27, Bilbao won two Copa del Reys. His return from 1929-33, though, following spells with Atletico Madrid, Real Oviedo and Spain (tactically assisted José María Mateos’ 4-3 win over England, which was England’s first ever defeat to a non-British team), would leave a huge mark on Bilbao’s history.

Aided by the prolific Basque talents of forwards Bata and Guillermo Gorostiza, Pentland led Bilbao to back-to-back Doubles in 1929/1930 and 1930/1931 (included a 12-1 La Liga victory over Barcelona, who were serious title challengers and went on to finish just a point off Bilbao), four Copa del Reys in a row from 1929 to 1933 and second-place in La Liga in 1931/1932 and 1932/1933. With Pentland again departing for Atlético Madrid, before fleeing to Barrow after the breakout of the Spanish Civil War in 1938, Bilbao stuttered somewhat but still managed to win the 1937/1937 La Liga under another Englishman, William Garbutt. Still, there was no understating the impact that General Franco would have on the Basque region, without even addressing the horrors of Guernika, and he soon turned his attention towards sport and culture. From this, Franco forced Bilbao to scrap the English Athletic part of their name, in favour of Atlético in 1941, and banned their use of Basque-born players. This united the club, however, rather than comprising their identity, and Bilbao devised a loophole whereby a player with Basque grandparents was eligible to play for the club when football returned to Spain from 1939.

Still, though, Telmo ‘Zarra’ Zarraonaindia managed to sneak under the radar somewhat, as a native of Bilbao, and went on to become Bilbao’s most talented forward since Pichichi: scoring an incredible 252 goals in 278 matches from 1940-55. Such were his exploits, Zarra’s 38 goals in 1950/1951 stood as the Pichichi trophy record up until Cristiano Ronaldo’s 40 La Liga goals in 2010/2011. Under Juan Urquizu’s tutelage and the legendary front line of Zarra, Panizo, Rafa Iriondo, Venancio and Agustín Gaínza, Bilbao won the 1942/1943 La Liga and three Copa del Generalisimo (rebranding of the Copa del Rey during Franco’s reign) in 1943, 1944 and 1945. Still, though, there was no preventing the centralising of Spanish football, particularly when Franco realised the power of the propaganda platform of sport (leading to some questionable refereeing decisions), with Real Madrid going on to win an incredible fourteen La Liga titles (1954-1975) and six European Cups (1956-66) during the Franco era – having previously won just two La Liga titles between 1928 and 1954. This made Ferdinand Daučík’s 1955/1956 Double and 1955 and 1958 Copa del Generalisimos with Bilbao all the more admirable and the club made their European Cup debut in 1956/1957: going out to Manchester United in the quarter-finals.

Partly why Madrid and Barcelona edged Bilbao out of the upper echelons of La Liga in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was their manipulation of the foreign player rules – leading to the likes of José Santamaría, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskás and László Kubala all claiming dual-citizenship. Bilbao, though, reverted back to their strict cantera policy (overlooking the talented Jesús María Pereda, Miguel Jones, and José Eulogio Gárate who qualified through relations) and while admirable, it led to just one Copa Del Generalisimo, their first trophy for eleven years, in 1969. However, Bilbao, naturally, had to manipulate their recruitment policy as competitiveness grew and the grandparent rule became more and more important, with names such as Armando Meredio, from Barcelona, qualifying through their Basque grandmothers. Perhaps, Bilbao’s general stubbornness, or xenophobia and perceived regional superiority in some cynics’ eyes (regional case seemingly not aided by poaching of overall Basque pool, including Osasuna’s Navarre region and Sociedad’s Gupizoca area), was rewarded with the emergence of the 19 year old José Ángel Iribar, though. Signed for a record one million pesetas from Bilbao’s feeder club, Baskonia, the goalkeeper immediately dislodged the briefly injured Carmelo Cedrún, would go on to play 466 matches for Bilbao from 1962-1980 and kept a then record ten successive home clean sheets (1,071 minutes) in 1970/1971.

Having just opened the Lezama facility in 1971, Bilbao’s equivalent of La Masia, Bilbao won the 1973 Copa de Generalismo and the death of Franco in 1975 revived the united Basque cause. After all, as much as Franco clearly resented and repressed Catalonia, the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, aka, Basque Homeland and Freedom) assassinated Admiral Carrerro, Franco’s inevitable successor, in 1973. So, in December, 1976, when Bilbao played Real Sociedad in the usually intense Euskal Derbia in the Anoeta in San Sebastián, captains Iribar and Ignacio Korbarria walked out to the Eusko Gudiariak (ETA theme) and carried the Ikurriña, the Basque flag, together and placed it on the centre-circle. This would lay the foundations for the united celebration of Sociedad’s 1980/1981 title win, but they would soon be torn apart again over the cantera (José Etxeberria’s 1995 transfer, for example), ETA violence and lop-sided success. This was the first public display of the flag since Franco’s death and with Bilbao reviving the use of Athletic instead of Atlético, democratic rehabilitation and club revival had become symbiotic. From this, Koldo Aguirre, who could call upon the peak-aged Andoni Goikoetxea and Dani (Daniel Ruiz), led the club to the 1977 UEFA Cup final, which they painfully lost on penalties to Giovanni Trapattoni’s talented all-Italian (five of the eleven would start in Italy’s 3-1 1982 World Cup final over West Germany) Juventus outfit.

Bilbao’s next move would be crucial, if they had hopes of challenging for La Liga again having not won the title since 1956, and following the interludes of Helmut Senekowitsch and Iñaki Sáez, Javier Clemente was appointed in 1981. Clemente, from Barkaldo in the Basque country, started his playing career with Bilbao in 1968 but it was cut short by injury at just 21 years of age in 1971. He was well aware of the club’s traditions and prestige, and having managed Baskonia with distinction, earned a chance with Bilbao at just 31. The authoritarian Clemente put together one of the greatest and well-balanced Bilbao sides in history: using a cynical (utilised two defensive midfielders and a sweeper) but brilliantly effective 3-4-1-2; encouraging highly aggressive pressing; and combining the veterans Goikoetxea (Clemente’s lieutenant, whose tackle on Diego Maradona on 24 September, 1983 sent shockwaves around Europe) and Dani with the youth products of Andoni Zubizarreta, Santiago Urkiaga, Miguel De Andres, Ismael Urtubi and Estanislao Argote. In 1981/1982, Bilbao finished 4th, a rise of five places on 1980/1981, and then brilliantly won the 1982/1983 title with a narrow one-point finish ahead of Real Madrid.

Clemente bettered this achievement in 1982/1983, winning a Double, and Bilbao then finished 3rd and 4th in 1983/1984 and 1984/1985 respectively. However, feeling that he had taken Bilbao as far as he could, following a 3rd place finish, some thirteen points behind champions Real Madrid, in 1985/1986, Clemente left for Espanyol. From this, Bilbao stuttered up to 1997: having eight (Iribar, Howard Kendall, Txetu Roja, Clemente, Sáez, Jupp Heynckes, Javier Irueta and Dragoslav Stepanović) managers, failing to win a single trophy and finishing 13th, 4th, 7th, 12th, 12th, 14th, 8th, 5th, 8th and 15th from 1987-1997 in La Liga. With the ‘pure’ cantera crop from Lezama starting to dry up, Bilbao began to adopt a more flexible recruitment policy. From this, youngsters were allowed to sign provided they learnt their trade in the Basque Country (as opposed to being signed based on birth nationality) and players such as Bixante Lizarazu (Rodolfo Attaubarrena and Fernando Amorebieta would soon follow suit) and José Extebierrea, who was poached from under the noses of Real Sociedad which led to Sociedad breaking off relations with Bilbao for two years, were signed. Still, even without great success post-Clemente in the ’90s, the cantera policy remained the source of immense pride for Bilbao’s fans and in 1995, a survey revealed that 76% of Bilbao fans questioned would rather have a Basque-filled team than a team of foreigners who won the title.

Still, though, the policy was left open to interpretation as talents like Roberto López Ufarte and Benjamín were not signed, yet the Brazilian-born Patxi Ferreira was. Luis Fernández was the man who benefited from this blossoming and varied cantera, as Bilbao’s manager from 1996-2000, and he was also able to call upon the likes of Pablo Orbaiz, Francisco Yeste, Ismael Urzaiz and José Mari. Fernández steadied the ship somewhat: leading Bilbao to 6th in 1996/1997, a brilliant 2nd in 1997/1998, 8th in 1998/1999 and 12th in 1999/2000. Again, though, just like when Clemente departed in 1986, Bilbao entered a period of incredible instability after the Frenchman left – which proved near-fatal to their La Liga safety. Rojo, Heynckes and Ernesto Valverde kept Bilbao’s mid-table consistency up to 2005, but the club were nearly relegated during José Luis Mendilibar’s reign in 2005/2006. Such was their predicament, in 18thplace, Clemente was parachuted in for the final stretch of the season. Clemente remained an immensely popular figure in the Basque region and the Basques were one of the few Spanish regions to still hold him in high regard following Spain’s disappointing performance at the 1998 World Cup, where Clemente talked of the Basque region as “another country” and continued to pick his “fellow countryman”, Zubizarreta, over the talented Santiago Cañizares from Puertollano.

From this, Clemente’s legacy as one of Bilbao’s all-time legends was established when he kept them up, mainly down to his instillation of a siege mentality and the implementation of trademark defensive solidity. However, Clemente was not offered the job for the 2006/2007 season and this proved near-devastating, with José Esnal being given the job of firefighter after the disastrous reign of Félix Sarriugarte. Athletic again survived by the skin of their teeth, achieving safety on the final day of the season after a 2-0 win over Levante at San Mamés. Joaquín Caparrós drastically improved Bilbao’s fortunes from 2006-2011, though: leading them to 12th, 11th, 13th, 8th and 6th, reaching the 2009 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona and bringing through the exceptional Borja Ekiza, Javi Martinez, Markel Susaeta, Óscar de Marcos, Jon Aurtenetxe, Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente. It was the perfect foundations for the brilliant Marco Bielsa to utilise, after Josu Urrutia won the presidential election and Caparrós’ contract expired.

Bielsa, one of world football’s great tacticians, has Bilbao within just one point of 4th place, into the Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona on 25 May and as one of the favourites for the Europa League trophy. From this, his style of football and innovative decisions have won him many admirers. After all, Martinez has blossomed into one of Europe’s most promising ball-playing liberos, De Marcos has proven himself as a brilliant utility player despite the scrutiny of being a rare Bilbao signing and Ander Herrera has also greatly impressed since arriving from Real Zaragoza. Bielsa’s tactical flexibility, too, has been extraordinary and unprecedented in Bilbao’s history, with the Argentine effortlessly shifting from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 to 5-4-1 to 3-3-1-3, and he has brilliantly used effective man-marking techniques, set-piece plays, relentless pressing all over the pitch, defence to attack transitions and the robustness of star player, Llorente.

From this, Bielsa could well be the man to end Bilbao’s 28-year trophy drought in the coming seasons and Jonas Ramalho’s competitive debut against Sevilla on 20 November has epitomised his groundbreaking reign, with the 18 year old becoming Bilbao’s first ever black player. Also, such has been Bilbao’s attractive and open football yet daunting aura at San Mamés (will undoubtedly continue at the 55,000 capacity San Mamés Barria that is literally across the road from San Mamés and will be open in August, 2013), many are already tipping him as a realistic successor to Josep Guardiola at the Camp Nou.

So, while Bilbao’s current cantera policy may seem a world away from the days of the thoroughly native Pichichi and Zarra, with the likes of Stephane Ruffier, Pantxi Sirieix, Edouard Cisse, Inigo Calderon and Mikel Alvaro all eligible to one day play for Bilbao, Athletic’s continuation of the broad policy -even with the controversy over regional poaching – should still be admired.

However, what makes it all the more remarkable is that while they have remained devoted to the policy, Bilbao, generally, have continued to thrive and have compiled an illustrious (8 La Liga titles and 23 Copa del Reys) history of overachievement.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

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