Basque to the bone? Why Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad is more than a game

When Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad face off, there's an entire culture at stake. In late 2006, FourFourTwo's Andy Mitten witnessed the Basque derby...

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We have two cathedrals in the city. The first where people go to pray; the second is the stadium of Athletic Club

- Blibao tourism guide

“We have two cathedrals in the city,” says the man from Bilbao’s tourist office. “The first where people go to pray, Santiago Cathedral. The second is the cathedral of San Mames, the stadium of Athletic Club. That’s here,” he adds, helpfully circling the stadium on a small fold-out map.

“Tonight they play Real Sociedad in the Basque derby in the first game of the season. It’s very important.” As San Mames they also pray, though generally in larger numbers. Tonight, FourFourTwo will be amongst them.

It’s two hours before the game and Poza, Bilbao’s main bar street, is so packed with fans wearing the colours of Athletic and Sociedad that cars have given up attempting to nudge through the crowds. Replica shirts are not popular among fans of Primera League clubs, but in Poza everyone seems to be wearing the red and white stripes of Athletic, the blue and white of Sociedad or the colours of the Ikurrina – the Basque flag which looks like a green, white and red union flag.

There’s a higher percentage of females than at other Spanish grounds and everyone is mixing without any sign of animosity. At the end of the street is the city’s other cathedral, San Mames, a true city centre football ground, dominated by a large illuminated club badge. The plan is for the faithful to consume their beer, then edge towards their place of worship. 

People think we’re all terrorists and there are bombs going off, but it’s nothing like that. It’s far safer than most big cities

- Athletic fan Inigo

Bilbao, Spain’s fifth-biggest metropolis with almost a million people, is a wealthy, handsome city of neat grids and opulent buildings. “People think we’re all terrorists and there are bombs going off,” says Athletic fan Inigo, “but it’s nothing like that. It’s far safer than most big cities.” 

Like many an English city, Bilbao suffered badly from the effects of de-industrialisation, yet it’s witnessed a renaissance in the last decade. Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad Guggenheim museum is arguably Europe’s most impressive new building, the Sir Norman Foster-designed metro system effectively a series of works of art, while sleek white Calatrava bridges span the Nervion River, which bought Bilbao much of its wealth. It was as a shipbuilding centre, using locally mined iron ore, that Bilbao became the first Iberian city to embrace the industrial revolution. 

Gehry's Guggenheim: A landmark for Bilbao, architecture and regeneration

Bilbao's British beginnings

British émigrés, principally miners from the north-east or ship builders from the south coast, arrived in the late 19th century and were the first to play football in the city, their influence retained in Athletic’s anglicised name to this day, and, so the theory goes, in the red-and-white-striped shirts they borrowed from Sunderland. Meanwhile, sons of the Basque merchant classes studied in Britain, arranging games with British workers on their return. Athletic Club Bilbao would be formed from these groups.

Bilbao’s recent gentrification illustrates a renewed confidence in a place that used to make international headlines more for ETA bombs. Blessed by a location on an estuary and flanked by lush green hills, the only evidence a tourist might find of the political situation is the pro-independence graffiti and armed police outside any Spanish government buildings. 

Thousands join a Basque independence rally

Politics and sport have long been entwined in the Basque country, where locals have considered their culture to be distinct from their neighbours. Arguably Europe’s oldest race, they boast of ancient laws and a complex language which General Franco tried to destroy. Just as the Camp Nou was one of the few places where Catalans felt they could openly converse in their own tongue, the Basques did likewise in Athletic’s San Mames or Real Sociedad’s old Atocha stadium.

Arguably Europe’s oldest race, the Basques boast of ancient laws and a complex language which General Franco tried to destroy

Athletic won four of the first eight Spanish championships, until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war in 1936. With Franco in control, and many fans suspecting Francoist elements within the club, they won just two more in the next four decades. 

In 1941, they changed their name to Atlético Bilbao, following a decree issued by the Generalissimo which banned the use of non-Spanish language names. Nowadays, Atlético are from Madrid, but Bilbao are resolutely Athletic.

Athletic Bilbao are historically Spain’s third most successful team with eight championships and stand alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid as one of only three clubs never to have been relegated from the top flight. Although many businesses in Bilbao boast of their links with the club, Athletic refuse to tarnish its shirt with a commercial sponsor. But what makes Athletic unique is that they only use Basque players.

Athletic (not 'Bilbao') fans get behind the team

Until 1989, Real Sociedad – or The Royal Society Football Club of San Sebastián, to give them their full title – also had a policy of using locally-born players nurtured through the youth system. Indeed, la Real’s policy was even more exclusive since they took players only from the immediate province of Guipúzcoa while Athletic were prepared to twist their own rules by recruiting from nearby French Basque country, the partly Basque neighbouring regions of Navarra, and La Rioja, famous for its wine rather than for being Basque.

Sociedad’s strategy had endured for decades and frequently prospered, bringing them the league twice in succession and a European Cup semi-final in the early-1980s, but the policy was about to change – largely because of their near-neighbours.
 Athletic are a bigger club and were using their higher status and financial muscle to snare the best Basque players ahead of their rivals. Unable to compete, Sociedad broke with tradition and went in search of outside help.

While Basque nationalism dictated that any outsider brought in could not be a Spaniard, it said nothing about employing a moustachioed Scouser. In 1989, Liverpool’s John Aldridge arrived to ‘foreigner go home’ graffiti, but 40 goals in 75 games later, there wasn’t a problem. Goals, it seems, are a global currency, and Dalian Atkinson and Kevin Richardson soon followed him, with varying degrees of success.

John Aldridge was Real Sociedad's first non-Basque player

Athletic’s Basque-only policy began in 1912, with the development of the cantera (quarry) policy, the result of a revival in Basque nationalism and the emergence of the Basque Country as the pre-eminent force in early Spanish football. The club’s success – usually under an English manager – flushed the Basques with pride and supporting Athletic became a legitimate way of expressing Basque nationalism.

Athletic thus became closely identified with the EAJ-PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), founded in 1895. Several prominent members of the EAJ-PNV were Athletic members and Jose Antonio Aguirre, a prominent player in the 1920s, became the first elected Basque president in 1936. All subsequent club presidents have been members of the EAJ-PNV. By 1958, ETA was created by members of the Basque Nationalist Party who had grown dissatisfied by the party’s supposedly moderate policies. They were in the minority however, with most Basques content to see the region viewed as a separate country, but with links to Spain.

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