“San Mames is more than a stadium and Athletic Club de Bilbao is more than just a football club. Both are potent symbols of Basque pride (Real Sociedad and Osasuna notwithstanding) among a people whose language, culture and political aspirations often cause ire and frustration in Madrid but inspire intense loyalty on the football pitch.”
Although Athletic’s statutes were not signed until 1901 and the Bilbao team that won the first Copa de España the following year was called Club Viscaya, the proud Basques claim 1898 as the founding date and the first Cup as theirs and nobody in Spanish football, not even the Liga de Fútbol Profesional, is prepared to argue with them.
As Spanish Champions in 1902, 1903, 1904, 1910 and 1911, Athletic Bilbao were without doubt the force that dominated football in Spain throughout the early years. Furthermore, that early Athletic team in Rafael Moreno Aranzadi better known as ‘Pichichi boasted the first legendary goalscorer in Spanish football and to this day Spain’s top goalscorer each season is known as the Pichichi.
By 1913, the club was so successful and popular that they opened Spain’s first stadium San Mamés, which is quite rightly known as The Cathedral of Spanish football.
The old San Mames, built by the members of Athletic Club de Bilbao after their fourth Spanish Cup victory beside a refuge for orphans and homeless people, the Casa de Misericordia, itself the site of a hermitage where the saint and child martyr Mames de Cesarea had been venerated. Because of the saint’s association with lions, Athletic Club were later nicknamed Los Leones.
The Lions continued to dominate Spanish football with five more Copas del Rey in 1914, 1915, 1916, 1921 and 1923.
It’s significant too that not only Bilbao dominated Spanish football but the Basques did in general. In the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in which Spain won the Silver medal most of the team was made up of Basques, and of the 10 teams that made up the first Liga in 1928, 4 were were Basque – Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, Arenas de Getxo and Real Unión de Irun, who in 1930 were joined by Alavés making half of the Liga Basque.
Mister Bowler Hat
Another figure worth a special mention in the story of Athletic Club and Spanish football is ex-Blackburn Rovers player Fred Pentland. He was tempted to coach Bilbao from Santander in 1922 by the succulent offer of 1,000 pesetas a month and was famous for wearing a bowler, smoking fat cigars and introducing one-touch football to Spain. In 1923 he led Athletic Bilbao to their ninth Copa del Rey title but moved on in 1925.
Many other clubs had English coaches at the time but Pentland’s bowler hat and that he insisted on being called Mr Pentland have gone down in history. To this day, the coach of any Spanish team is still referred to as ‘El Mister’ and for Athletic fans he is almost as legendary as Pichichi.
Pentland’s second stint in Bilbao brought the Liga-Copa double in 1930 and 1931 and two further Copas del Rey in 1932 and 1933, in which Athletic Club were also Liga runners-up – it was very nearly four doubles on the trot.
This period also brought the famed phrase ´Poco te queda bombín! Sólo tres minutos!’ – ‘Little time for you bowler hat! Only three minutes!’ – owing to the fact that whenever Athletic Club won the players would whip off his bowler hat and jump on it until it was destroyed. Pentland had a in standing order with a London haberdasher for 20 bowler hats a year but had to send for extra bowler hats for four consecutive seasons!
The Stand Against Fascism
Just as with FC Barcelona in Catalonia, Athletic Club is associated with the defence of the Basque cause against fascism and it was an ex-Athletic Club player, José Antonio Aguirre, who presided over the first legitimate Basque government at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – a government that was in power when Franco allowed Hitler to send his airforce to rain bombs on the Basque town of Guernika.
When football resumed in 1939, Athletic Club’s successes just like Barcelona’s were seen as a blow to the regime and what’s more Athletic Club’s successes were based on their cantera (youth team) policy – the club to this day will only field Basque players – and in 1941 Telmo Zarraonaindia, more conveniently known as Zarra, made his debut for the club. In the following 13 seasons Zarra went to score 294 goals including 38 in 1950-51 season, a tally equalled by Hugo Sánchez in 1989-90, but to this day unbeaten.
Franco banned foreign words in club names so Athletic Club so it was Club Atlético de Bilbao that won the Liga-Copa double in 1943 and further Copas, now renamed the Copa del Generalísimo, in 1944 and 1945.
Other Copas del Generalísimo followed in 1950, 1955, 1956, which was also another Liga-Copa double season, and 1958 but, just like with Barcelona, the sixties and seventies were a relatively fallow period as hegemony both football and politics had
The Return of Democracy
In the first Basque derby between Athletic Club and Real Sociedad on the December 5 1975, just two weeks after the death of Franco, Athletic’s Iribar and Real’s Kortabarria walked out onto the pitch carrying the Ikurriña, the still illegal Basque flag, and democracy brought with it another period of success for Athletic Club.
Under Javier Clemente, the club won the Liga in 1983 and bagged the double again in 1984. However, whilst remaining amongst the three Spanish clubs never to have been relegated to Segunda, the last two decades have been increasingly difficult for Athletic Club, an unquestionable ‘grande’ of Spanish football.
Traditional Values in the Modern Game
The increasing globalisation and commercialisation of football, particularly since the Bosman ruling in 1996, has brought more international stars to Spain and for Athletic Club, who have remained true to their ‘cantera’ policy, success has been difficult to come by and have been happy to finish the season mid-table when not involved in relegation battles.
However, a survey in the nineties revealed that 76% of Athletic supporters wanted the club to remain true to its roots and perhaps the words that club president José María Arrate wrote in the introduction to the club’s centenary book best sum up the sentiments that many of us would like our clubs to uphold.
‘Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it is a feeling – and as such its ways of operating often escape rational analysis. We see ourselves as unique in world football and this defines our identity. We do not say we are better or worse than others, merely different. We only wish for the sons of our soil to represent our club, and in so wishing we stand out as a sporting entity, not a business. We wish to mould our players into men, not just footballers, and each time that a player from the Cantera makes his debut we feel we have realised an objective which is in harmony with the ideologies of our founders and forefathers.’
Quoted in Phil Ball’s excellent book on Spanish football ‘Morbo’