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

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In the intervening years, relations have thawed slightly. “Most of the fans get on well and you can see them mixing in the street,” says Athletic fan Unai, “but many of us hate each other. I have been spat on in Donostia, but I am surprised that there is not a friendship between the two ultra groups because both support ETA and want complete independence. 

“As for the regular fans, Sociedad think that we are arrogant, they hate us and they are jealous because we are the bigger team, with a stronger identity and we sign their best players.

"The players would rather play for Athletic because we are the flagship Basque club. We also issue longer contracts and pay higher wages. As for Donostia, we just think that they are middle-class French people!” Given that San Sebastian is one of the richest cities in Spain, that accusation may not be entirely unreasonable.

Community between fans, not clashes

Prior to kick off, most fans appear to be mixing well in the ground, however. Match programs are given away free and there’s no segregation, although a couple of hundred visiting fans have occupied blocks of seats directly behind both goals.

Before kickoff, two huge murals of Guerrero are unfurled from the upper tiers. The 32-year-old striker retired in the summer after a 24-year association with Athletic, 14 as a first-team player, and he’s expected to take up a coaching role at the club.

It’s like somebody saying the Irish team is racist because it only plays Irishmen! The policy of playing solely Basques in the team is a tradition. It has absolutely nothing to do with racism

The atmosphere, like the temperature in August, is warm rather than febrile. There are no choreographed displays or flares, and only chants rather than anthems.

There’s a genuine sense of community in the stands. Some Spanish grounds are half empty for most games – Espanyol was just 39% full on average last season and even Deportivo only averaged 20,794. In Bilbao, it’s usually 95% full and familiar faces seem glad to see each other after the summer break. The stewards wear traditional red Basque berets while banners ask for justice for ETA members held in prisons hundreds of miles from the Basque country.

San Mames’ stands are high and close to the pitch, with many fans reluctant to leave the tight, intimidating environs for a new, more sedate stadium. Real Sociedad’s 32,000-capacity Anoeta may have opened in 1993, but a running track makes it unpopular with fans, especially as their old Atocha home was every bit as tight, atmospheric and intimidating for visiting teams. 

Asier del Horno against Valery Karpin in the Basque derby

Javi Martinez, a 17-year-old central midfielder making his debut, is applauded heartily when his name is announced.  It’s as if they know he’ll be with them for the next 15 years and want him to feel at home.

The game starts and there are so many high and long balls that the game seems more British than Iberian. Athletic take the lead in the first half from a controversial penalty. The linesman flags late under duress from an Athletic player and several thousand home fans who are stood within touching distance of the official, all of who spot a handball in the box. The referee awards the spot kick. Video replays in the stands show that there wasn’t a handball. Rival fans dispute the decision and it all gets heated, stopping just short of outright aggression. 
Even so, it’s 1-0.

“Athletic! Athletic! Athletic!” chant the fans. With Basque spoken readily, they must be the only tri-lingual football fans in the world, apart from the Dutch.

1998, San Mames

Real Sociedad is the better team in the second half, but it doesn’t equalize until five minutes from time. The team deserves it on the balance of play and pockets of fans erupt around the stadium, including behind both goals. Some Athletic fans don’t appreciate their celebrations and begin pelting a pocket of visiting fans with plastic bottles.

Trouble is only averted, not by intervention from the Basque police force the Ertzaintza, but by a tough-looking 50-something club official in a denim shirt, who faces the crowd and points at the culprits in a manner which suggests: "Do that again and you have a problem." The bottle-throwing soon stops.

It’s the last action of the game and leaves the spoils shared, which seems appropriate. Both sets of fans are expecting a mid-table finish this season, their ambitions diminishing each decade.

Athletic especially is a relic from a bygone age, when footballers represented their community and played for their local team. Despite top-level football now being a global business, Athletic refuse to budge from tradition and trawl a wider net in search of talent, and their loyal fans wouldn’t have it any other way. For them, it’s identity and pride over points and profits.

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