A first exclusive by Shubhodip Bhattacharya

Spain is widely known for it’s Catholicism and Roman heritage. The roots of aristocracy, artistry and revolution are reflected in the country’s football as well. The footballing culture in Spain is one of pride, politics, nationalism and identity. This arises from cultural diversity and political history. With communities such as Madrid, Catalonia, Basque Country, Andalusia, Galicia, Canary Islands; Spain has many physical divisions and the underlying culture and art and history of these regions are represented by their football teams. Over time, one team, in particular, has surpassed others in being true to their roots.

The vibrant riverside city of Bilbao is a hub of architecture and design, where gritty factories and shipyards give way to cutting-edge landmarks and a culture steeped in history and tradition. Athletic de Bilbao was founded in 1898 near the San Mames church. The club was one of the founding members of the Primera division during its inception in 1929 and along with Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only other clubs to have never been relegated from the top flight. It is also one of four clubs in Spain that are not a sports corporation as it is owned and operated by its club members.

Since 1912 the club developed the policy of only signing players who were born in the Basque Country or learned their football skills at a Basque club. Apart from grooming a generation of loyal players, this policy helps to retain club revenue. It is an unwritten law however and the President can change it if he deems it fit but Bilbao’s loyalty to local talent is non-negotiable. Their philosophy of “con cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion” – which translates as “with homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need for imports”.

On 26th April 1937, an aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War by the Nazi Luftwaffe who were allies to General Francisco Franco sparked controversy due to it involving the bombing of a civilian town by military air force. The incident inspired Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting of the same name. This incident sparked Basque Nationalism on a macroscopic level. Later that year the autonomous government of Euskadi, representatives of the Basque community chose the team to take part in a tour of matches to raise funds and get resources for the purpose of relief and attract the world’s attention to the gruesome situation in Spain.

The club became a tool to convey their political sentiment against the fascist government in the Capital. Gernikako Arbola is an oak tree that symbolises traditional freedom for the Biscayan people, and by extension for the Basque people as a whole. It can be seen on the crest of Athletic Bilbao football club- the pride of Basque Country. Other clubs of the Basque region like Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Deportivo Alaves have been integral to promoting the culture and local talent but none of them have achieved the feat that Bilbao has.

basque invincibles 1929-1930
Athletic were the first team in the history of Spanish football to achieve an unbeaten season in the top flight.  The run ended with the opening game of the following season but Athletic did win back-to-back titles.

Bilbao became the first Spanish Invincibles when they won the La Liga undefeated in 1929-30. The Los Leones added two more league titles in 1931 and 1934. Under British manager William Garbutt, the club became a huge force in Spain and with the emergence of Telmo Zarra after the Civil War, Bilbao enjoyed a productive spell. Zarra went on to score a club record of 294 goals in all competitions. In 1943 the club won the double and retained the Copa in 1944 and 1945. With a forward line of Zarra, Rafa Iriondo, Venancio and Augustin Gainza the club won the Copa del Generalisimo in 1950 in Madrid after beating Real Valladolid 4-1 in the final in Madrid.

Under coach Ferdinand Daucik the club won the Copa again in 1955 and the double in 1956. A  period of extensive domination by Madrid and Barca in the 50s and 60s followed. Bilbao’s glory days returned when Javier Clemente became the manager in 1981. Shortly before this came one of the club’s ceremonious moments when in December 1976, in the Basque derby against Real Sociedad, the Basque flag made its first public display since the death of General Franco. Under Clemente Bilbao won back to back league titles 1983,84. During this period Athletic acquired notoriety for its aggressive style of play that involved heavy marking.

The club pulled up a surprise league challenge in the 1997-98 season under Luis Fernandez who revamped the club’s cantera.  After signing Joseba Exteberria from fierce rivals Sociedad the club secured Champions League qualification. Argentine Marcelo Bielsa became the club’s manager in 2011 and with his revolutionary 3-3-3-1 formation made the Basque outfit one of the most attractive sides in Europe. Bilbao went closest to its first European trophy in 2012 in the Europa final in Bucharest to Capital rivals Atletico.

Even in the modern era the club continues to shock the footballing world by overachieving. Homegrown prospects like Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera, Aymeric Laporte are key contributors to some of the biggest European powerhouses while Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain are among the hottest prospects. In a football world that is increasingly ruled by globalisation and commercial deals, Athletic Bilbao represent heritage and tradition. 8 La Liga titles or 23 Copa Del Reys are not this club’s hallmark of greatness. The drive to stay loyal to its values to the point of cynicism and yet enjoy years of relevance with local resources are what make this Basque club special. To give the world a Cathedral of unity than toxic nationalism is the club’s hallmark.

Feature Image via Barca Blaugranes

Image 1 via onefootball

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