Athletic Club, also commonly known as Athletic Bilbao, is a professional football club, based in Bilbao, Biscay, Spain. They are known as Los Leones (The Lions) because their stadium was built near a church called San Mamés (Saint Mammes). Mammes was an early Christian thrown to the lions by the Romans. The lions refused to eat Mammes and he was later made a saint. The club has played in the Primera División of La Liga since its start in 1929. They have won the league on eight occasions. In the historical classification of La Liga, Athletic are in fourth place and one of only three clubs which have never been relegated from the Liga, the others being Real Madrid and Barcelona. The club also has a women's team, which has won four championships in the Primera División Femenina.
The club is known for its cantera policy of bringing young Basque players through the ranks, as well as recruiting top Basque players from other clubs (like Joseba Etxeberria or Javi Martínez). Athletic official policy is signing professional players native to or footballistically trained in the greater Basque Country, including Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Álava and Navarre (in Spain); and Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre (in France). This has gained Athletic both admirers and critics. The club has been praised for promoting home grown players and club loyalty. Athletic is one of only four professional clubs in Spain in Primera División (the others being Real Madrid, Barcelona and Osasuna) that is not a sports corporation; the club is owned and operated by its associates (socios).
Football was introduced to Bilbao by two distinct groups of players, both with British connections; British steel and shipyard workers and Basque students returning from schools in Britain. In the late 19th century Bilbao was a leading port of an important industrial area with iron mines and shipyards nearby. It was the driving force of the Spanish economy and as a result attracted many migrant workers. Among them were miners from the north-east of England, and shipyard workers from Southampton, Portsmouth and Sunderland. The British workers brought with them (as to so many other parts of the world) the game of football. In the early 1890s these workers came together and formed Bilbao Football Club.
Meanwhile, sons of the Basque educated classes had made the opposite journey and went to Britain to complete their studies in civil engineering and commerce. While in the United Kingdom these students developed an interest in football and on their return to Bilbao they began to arrange games with British workers. In 1898 students belonging to the Gymnasium Zamacois founded the Athletic Club, using the English spelling. In 1901 a meeting was held in the Cafe Garcia which established more formal rules and regulations. In 1902 the two Bilbao clubs formed a combined team, known as Bizcaya, in the first Copa del Rey. They returned with the trophy after defeating FC Barcelona in the final. This would lead to the eventual merger of the two clubs as Athletic Club in 1903. In the same year Basque students also formed Athletic Club Madrid. This club later evolved into Atlético Madrid. The club's foundation date is a subject of debate among football historians. The club itself declares 1898, but others claim 1901 or 1903 as the true founding year.
Athletic Club began playing in an improvised white kit, but in the 1902–03 season, the club's first official strip became half-blue, half-white shirts similar to those worn by Blackburn Rovers, which were donated by Juan Moser. Later, a young student from Bilbao named Juan Elorduy, who was spending Christmas 1909 in London, was charged by the club to buy 25 new shirts, but was unable to find enough. Waiting for the ship back to Bilbao and empty handed, Elorduy realised that the colours of the local team Southampton matched the colours of the City of Bilbao, and bought 50 shirts to take with him. Upon arriving in Bilbao, the clubs directors decided almost immediately to change the teams strip to the new colours, and since 1910, Athletic Club have played in red and white stripes. Of the 50 shirts bought by Elorduy, half were then sent to Atlético Madrid, which had originally begun as a youth branch of Athletic. Before the switch from blue and white to red and white, only one other team wore red and white, Sporting de Gijón, since 1905.
Athletic were one of the last major clubs who did not have the logo of an official sponsor emblazoned on their kit. In the UEFA cup and the Copa del Rey of 2004–05, the shirt sported the word "Euskadi" in green in exchange for hundreds of thousands of euros from the Basque Government (Red, white and green are the Basque colours). This policy was changed for the three seasons starting from 2008, with Athletic playing with the logo of the Biscay-based Petronor oil company on their shirts in exchange for over €2 million. In 2011, Athletic revealed the away kit which has been inspired by the colours of the Basque flag.
The club featured prominently in early Copa del Rey competitions. Following the inaugural win by Club Vizcaya, the newly formed Athletic Bilbao won it again in 1903. In 1904 they were declared winners after their opponents, Club Español de Madrid, failed to turn up. In 1907 they revived the name Club Vizcaya after entering a combined team with Union Vizcaino. After a brief lull they won the competition again in 1911 and then won it three times in a row between 1914 and 1916. The star of this team was Pichichi, a prolific goalscorer who scored the very first goal in the San Mamés stadium, on 21 August 1913 and a hat-trick in the 1915 final. Today, the La Liga top-scorer is declared the Pichichi in his honour.
The first La Liga
Athletic were not the only Basque team represented in the 1920 squad. Other clubs such as Real Unión, Arenas Club de Getxo and Real Sociedad also provided players. These four clubs were all founding members of La Liga in 1928 and by 1930 they were joined by CD Alavés. This meant that five of the ten clubs in the Primera División of Spain's national league were from the Basque Country. The saying Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación, translated as With home-grown teams and supporters, there is no need for imports made sense during these early days.
In 1921, a new coach, Fred Pentland, arrived from Racing de Santander. In 1923, he led the club to victory in the Copa del Rey. He revolutionised the way Athletic played, favouring the short-passing game. In 1927, he left Athletic and coached Athletic Madrid, Real Oviedo and Spain. In 1929, he rejoined Athletic and he subsequently led Athletic to La Liga/Copa del Rey doubles in 1930 and 1931. The club won the Copa del Rey four times in a row between 1930 and 1933 and they were also La Liga runners-up in 1932 and 1933. In 1931 Athletic also defeated FC Barcelona 12–1, the latter's worst-ever defeat.
Bilbao's success under British coaches continued with the arrival of William Garbutt from Italian Serie A side Napoli, who he had helped to a top-three finish for the first time in their history in 1932–1933 and again in 1933–1934. He had previously won the scudetto three times with Genoa, and as a result he arrived in Spain in 1935 as a well-respected coach, despite his reputation being non-existent in his native England. The His first season in Spain was a massive success by guiding the team to the title. He had inherited a talented squad which included the strikers Guillermo Gorostiza and Bata who had been top scorers for La Liga in 1930 and 1932 (Gorostiza) and 1931 (bata) respectively. The year prior to Garbutt's appointment was not a success for the club (Athletic Bilbao had previously won the Copa del Rey four times consecutively between 1930 and 1933) as they finished 4th (in 1934–1935) despite having been league winners the year before in 1934.
Garbutt set about galvanizing what was an already strong Athletic side into action, which included promoting the young Ángel Zubieta redondo to the first team, a player who at 17 years of age went onto become the then youngest player ever to play for the Spanish National side. Garbutt's first game was a 3–3 draw away at Oviedo on 10 November 1935, but he followed this up the next weekend with a 7–0 victory over Betis Balompié who were the reigning champions. Garbutt's success continued with a 1–0 victory over Real Madrid on 12 January 1936, a significant victory as the two teams played cat and mouse over the following weeks in the run up to the title. In the final game of the season the title was decided with Athletic defeating Oviedo 2–0 at home on 19 April 1936 to clinch the title and finish two points clear of Madrid. This saw success return to Athletic in a season in which brought them their 4th title, and where Bata was second top scorer with 21 goals. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, a mere three months after the end of the season saw football halted until the 1939–40 season. Athletic were not to win the title again until 1943, by which time Garbutt had been interred by Mussolini's fascists in Italy after having returned to coach Genoa in Serie A.
In 1941, the club changed its name to Atlético Bilbao, following a decree issued by Franco, banning the use of non-Spanish language names and scrapping the policy of only letting Basque-born players in the team (see origins of the "grandparent rule"). The same year also saw Telmo Zarra make his debut. Over the next 13 seasons, he went on to score 294 goals in all competitions for Atlético, plus another 20 for Spain in as many games. His 38 goals in the 1950–51 season stood as a record for 50 years before being broken by Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Another great player from this era was José Luis Panizo. In 1943, the club won a Liga/Copa del Generalisimo double and they subsequently retained the Copa del Rey in both 1944 and 1945. During the early 1950s, the club featured the legendary forward line of Zarra, Panizo, Rafa Iriondo, Venancio, and Agustín Gaínza. They helped the club win another Copa del Generalisimo in 1950. The arrival of coach Ferdinand Daučík improved the club's fortunes further. He led the team to another double in 1956 and to further Copa del Generalisimo victories in 1955 and 1958. In 1956, the club also made their debut in the European Cup, eventually been knocked out by Manchester United.
What helped the club succeed in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were the strict limits imposed on foreign players. In most cases clubs could only have three foreign players in its squad, meaning that at least eight local players had to play in every game. While Real Madrid and FC Barcelona circumvented these rules by playing dual citizens such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, José Santamaria and Ladislao Kubala, Athletic adhered strictly to their cantera policy, showing little or no flexibility. The 1960s, however were dominated by Real Madrid and Atlético Bilbao only had a single Copa del Rey win in 1969. Like international teams, the club has used the grandparent rule, allowing the recruitment of some players of Basque descent. This enabled Barcelona-born Armando Merodio to play for the club. During 1960s, however, other players such as Jesús María Pereda, Miguel Jones, and José Eulogio Gárate were overlooked. Although none of them were Basques by birth, all three grew up in the Basque Country and could be classified as naturalised Basques; Gárate even had Basque parents.
On a positive note, the 1960s saw the emergence of an Athletic legend José Ángel Iribar. The 1970s were not much better with only another single Copa del Rey win in 1973. In December 1976, before a game against Real Sociedad, Iribar and the Real captain Inaxio Kortabarria, carried out the Ikurriña, the Basque flag and placed it ceremonially on the centre-circle. This was the first public display of the flag since the death of Francisco Franco. In 1977, the club reached the UEFA Cup final, only losing on away goals to Juventus. By now, the club had reverted to using the name Athletic Bilbao.
In 1981, the club appointed Javier Clemente as manager. He soon set about putting together one of the most successful Athletic Bilbao teams in the clubs history. Young players from the cantera such as Santiago Urquiaga, Miguel De Andres, Ismael Urtubi, Estanislao Argote and Andoni Zubizarreta joined veterans Dani and Goikoetxea. In his first season in charge, Clemente led the team to fourth place in La Liga. In 1983, the club won La Liga and in 1984 they won a La Liga/Copa del Rey double. In 1985 and 1986, Athletic finished third and fourth, respectively. Clemente's Athletic acquired notoriety for its aggressive style of play, personified by hard man Goikoetxea. He favoured two defensive midfielders playing in front of twin centre backs and a sweeper and as a result, critics regarded his teams as dour but effective. Athletic has failed to win a major trophy since the success of the Clemente era. A succession of coaches including José Ángel Iribar, Howard Kendall, Jupp Heynckes, and Javier Irureta and even a returning Clemente failed to reproduce his success.
The most successful Athletic coach since Clemente has been Luis Fernández, appointed in 1996. In 1998, he led the club to second in La Liga and UEFA Champions League qualification. Fernández benefited from the club adopting a more flexible approach to the cantera. Now anybody could play for Athletic, just as long as they acquired their skills in the Basque Country. Thus, Patxi Ferreira from Salamanca and Biurrun, a Brazilian-born player who immigrated to the region at a young age, played for the club in the late 1980s. Despite this new approach, their definition of a Basque is still open to interpretation, with both Roberto López Ufarte and Benjamín being overlooked despite having Basque parents.
Fernández signed Bixente Lizarazu, the first French-born Basque to join the club, Ismael Urzaiz and José Mari. Athletic also began to recruit players from the canteras of other Basque clubs, leading to allegations of poaching. In 1995, Athletic signed Joseba Etxeberria from regional rivals Real Sociedad, causing considerable bad feeling between the two clubs. Although Lizarazu left after one season, Ismael Urzaiz, José Mari García Lafuente, and Joseba Etxeberria were prominent members of the 1997–98 squad, along with Rafael Alkorta, Julen Guerrero, and Patxi Ferreira.
After Jupp Heynckes second cycle (2001–2003) and Ernesto Valverde (2003–2005), the club was embroiled in a relegation battle during the 2005–06 and 2006–07 seasons. In 2006, top-flight survival was ensured on the 37th match day when Deportivo de La Coruña were beaten at the Estadio Riazor 2–1. Javier Clemente began his third spell as club coach in 2005, at a time when the club were last in the table. He is widely acknowledged to have brought defensive stability to the team, and so is also credited with having saved the club from relegation. Despite this, he was not left in charge for the 2006–07 season. The 2006–07 season has been the worst in the club's history; top-flight survival was ensured on the last match day when Levante UD were beaten at the San Mamés 2–0.
In the 2008–09 season, Athletic again achieved unspectacular results and finished in mid-table, though they ensured safety from relegation earlier than in the previous campaigns. In the Copa del Rey, however, the team managed to pull through some tough ties, including local rivals CA Osasuna and the strong Sevilla FC side, to reach their first final in the competition in 24 years. The final in Valencia against FC Barcelona was a great occasion for the fans, and though they lost 4–1, the result was no disgrace, as the expensively assembled Barcelona side of that season also proved unbeatable in La Liga and the Champions League. Athletic's reward for their efforts was a place in the "new" UEFA Europa League tournament for the following campaign.
The 2009–10 season saw Athletic make steady progress in the league and in Europe. Decent home form, including a victory over Real Madrid, led to the team sitting comfortably in the top half of the Liga and qualifying from their Europa League group, although poorer performances away from Bilbao meant that a really successful run never materialised. In 2010, the home games often resulted in draws rather than victories, and this also proved to be the case in the Europa League, where a draw at the San Mamés against Anderlecht was followed by a heavy defeat in Belgium. Ultimately, a promising season delivered little, with Athletic finishing eighth, just out of the European places. But in comparison to most recent seasons. it was an improvement. Young stars Javi Martínez, Markel Susaeta, and Óscar de Marcos performed well, if inconsistently, providing for main striker Fernando Llorente, and 16-year-old forward Iker Muniain made a successful breakthrough into the senior squad. At the other end of the career scale, 500-game man Joseba Etxeberria retired after 15 seasons at the club, and Francisco Yeste, who had also played over 300 games in the red-and-white shirt, left rather abruptly at the end of the campaign.
Going into the 2010–11 season, Athletic were looking to build on the previous season and claim a European placing. The season started positively, with Fernando Llorente scoring several times in early games. The team's form, particularly away from home, was not consistent enough for them to mount a challenge for fourth (Champions League) but similar lapses by other teams meant there was still a chance of qualifying for the Europa League. This was eventually achieved with one match remaining, with Athletic moving clear of early-season successes RCD Espanyol after a series of narrow victories, including 2–1 wins over Basque rivals Osasuna and Real Sociedad in successive weeks. A defensive injury and suspension crisis midway through the season led to Borja Ekiza, previously only a member of the B squad, being drafted in at centre-half, and his performances were solid enough for him to retain his place for the remaining games. Teenager Iker Muniain also started almost every match, mostly on the left wing, where he could use his trickery to supply Llorente and his support striker Gaizka Toquero. Eighteen-year-old Jon Aurtenetxe also impressed manager Joaquín Caparrós enough to claim the starting place at left-back for the start of the campaign before a bad injury finished his season early. The signing of Spanish under-21 midfielder Ander Herrera was agreed well before the end of the season, although the young star elected to stay with formative club Real Zaragoza as a gesture of respect as they battled against relegation. By the end of the campaign, Athletic had secured a return to European competition by finishing in sixth place.
Prior to the start of the 2011–12 season, Athletic Club's socios (full members) held their latest presidential election, which saw incumbent Fernando García Macua defeated by former long-serving player Josu Urrutia. One of Urrutia's election pledges had been to bring in former Argentina and Chile head coach Marcelo Bielsa to lead the club, and he fulfilled this promise. Joaquín Caparrós left the club with his contract having expired, and having improved Athletic's stature during his stewardship. Bielsa joined having established a reputation for using unconventional formations and tactics, and set about changing Athletic to suit them. Several players began the campaign playing in unfamiliar positions, including World Cup-winning midfielder Javi Martínez, who was deployed as a ball-playing central defender and Óscar de Marcos, who despite being known as a midfielder was used in several matches at left-back. Initial results were not consistently good and new signing Ander Herrera was injured. The players began to adjust to the changes as the season progressed, however, and following an away victory at local rivals Real Sociedad, Athletic produced a strong run of autumn form which included wins over Paris Saint-Germain, CA Osasuna, and Sevilla FC as well as credible draws with Valencia CF and FC Barcelona. The team also finished top of their Europa League group and defeated Lokomotiv Moscow in the last 32.
Athletic then drew Manchester United and won 3–2 in the first leg at Old Trafford, going on to knock the 3-time European champions out of the tournament with an impressive 2–1 victory at home. Fernando Llorente and Oscar de Marcos each scored in both legs. In the quarter final they went to FC Schalke 04 of Germany and won the first leg 4–2, despite being 2–1 down after a Raul brace on 72 minutes. Athletic would go on to draw the second leg against Schalke 2–2, going through to the Europa League semi-finals to face Sporting Lisbon with a favourable aggregate score of 6–4. Athletic lost the first leg in Portugal by 2–1 after initially taking the lead, but managed to beat Sporting 3–1 at home after goals by Markel Susaeta, Ibai Gómez and the winner from Fernando Llorente in the 89th minute in front of a fervent home crowd edged them through to the final, 4–3 on aggregate.
In their first European final since 1977 and first ever in a single match, Athletic could not maintain their momentum and deliver their first trophy in 28 years, as they lost 3–0 to Atletico Madrid (who were inspired by the forward play of Radamel Falcao), on 9 May in the 2012 UEFA Europa League Final at the Arena Națională in Bucharest, Romania. Although crushed by this disappointment, there was still another chance for Athletic Club to claim glory to match the positive play and results of the unpredictable first season under Marcelo Bielsa. Having reached the 2012 Copa del Rey Final by defeating giant-killers CD Mirandés, Athletic faced the same opponent as in 2009 – powerful FC Barcelona, who again proved too strong in another 3–0 result. However, finishing as Copa de Rey runners-up meant that Athletic qualified for the 2012–13 UEFA Europa League, even though they ended the season in 10th place.
Prior to the start of the 2012–13 season, Athletic went through a period of some turmoil. Having impressed many observers around the world with their Europa League run, many top players (according to various media rumours) were being scouted by clubs in England, Italy and Germany who, in some cases, could offer higher wages and almost definite Champions League football. In particular, striker Fernando Llorente, whose contract was nearing its end, failed to agree a new deal due to his wage demands (allegedly far higher than the norm at the club, but less than some other top strikers in other leagues), and when his position became unstable, it emerged that fellow Spain international Javi Martínez possibly wanted to leave as well. With the club's financial position relatively healthy and with few, if any, replacements available under their Basque signing policy, Athletic took a rigid stance on the matter, whereby no offers would be accepted by them and any players wishing to leave would have to meet their inflated contract buyout clause. Martinez did so, joining Bayern Munich before the transfer deadline after the player and the German club agreed to a deal to finance the €40m release clause, despite Athletic's refusal to cooperate. Llorente, however, failed to secure such a deal and remained an Athletic player at the close of the transfer window, despite the bad blood which had developed between him and the club management over the situation. Martínez and Llorente – arguably the most important players in the previous 5 seasons – had been forced to train apart from the other players and faced abuse from fans as they sought a move away, which did little to improve team harmony.
The situation was complicated further when Marcelo Bielsa had a major disagreement with the contractors working on improvements to the Lezama club training ground as he felt they were inadequate, overpriced and behind schedule, thereby undermining his pre-season preparations with the squad. The dispute deteriorated into a physical altercation with the site foreman, followed by Bielsa issuing a statement criticising the work – which the club hierarchy officially distanced themselves from. At one stage, the Argentine coach appeared to have left his position, and although the matter was eventually resolved it was not the positive atmosphere the club desired as the start of the season approached. Experienced striker Aritz Aduriz returned from Valencia CF for a third spell at Athletic, but former youth team forward Ismael López was the only other new signing. Along with the enforced sale of Javi Martinez, aging squad players Koikili, Igor Gabilondo and Aitor Ocio had departed at the end of the season, and they were followed by winger David Lopez and defender Ustaritz on the last day of the transfer window.
With this backdrop of uncertainty, along with injuries to several first-team players, it was perhaps not surprising that Athletic began their season with some poor results. The possession football was not leading to enough goals scored without the presence of Llorente, albeit Aduriz proving a capable deputy, and the Bielsa tactic of using players regarded as midfielders in defence to boost the overall technique level of the team was seen to backfire somewhat as opponents created chances with alarming ease. In their first 8 competitive games (4 in La Liga and 4 in the Europa League preliminaries), Athletic scored 21 goals but conceded 18. Promising midfielder Iñigo Ruiz de Galarreta also had his season ended early with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Although Athletic managed to reach the Europa League group stage, they were eventually eliminated after only picking up a single point in the first four games, with even that point being an underwhelming home draw against Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona of Israel who were making their first appearance at that stage. In the Copa del Rey, Athletic again suffered embarrassment at home as they were defeated in their opening tie by SD Eibar who that season (as in many others down the years) were competing in the same domestic league competition (Segunda B) as Athletic's own subsidiary team Bilbao Athletic. Despite the tie being played over two legs, Athletic could only draw twice with Eibar and went out on away goals, meaning that the last cup game in the historic San Mamés stadium was an ignominious elimination at the hands of a far smaller Basque team. Ironically a former Bilbao Athletic player, Mikel Arruabarrena, scored the goal which eliminated his boyhood club. The previous week, the final European game at the stadium against Sparta Prague had petered out into a 0-0 draw.
Although now left with only the league to concentrate on, Athletic's form remained erratic. Although they continued to dominate possession and create chances a lack of cutting edge, a tendency to be caught on the break by teams who were now familiar with the system Bielsa was using and fatigue caused by the system itself resulted in more easy goals conceded and more points dropped. At San Mamés, a good win over Atletico Madrid was preceded by defeats to Zaragoza and Rayo and followed by further losses to Espanyol (0-4) and Real Sociedad, and only subsequent wins over Osasuna, Valencia and Granada during March eased fears of relegation to some extent. With established defender Fernando Amorebieta first injured, then out of form and hinting at a move away from the club, Bielsa promoted young French defender Aymeric Laporte into the side as a potential replacement. His inexperience led to some mistakes (and two red cards) although his speed and skill on the ball suggested a bright future, and Laporte signed a long-term contract with the club.
Athletic managed to go 5 games unbeaten during April and early May (including drawing with Barcelona), and due to inconsistent results from rivals as well as other circumstances (see 2012–13 La Liga table notes) there was a possibility that they could still qualify for Europe again despite all the difficulties of the season. However the final league game at 'old' San Mamés ended in a 0-1 defeat to UD Levante, and that match arguably summed up the season: potentially significant and offering hope of success with the backdrop of traditional pride in an iconic arena which would soon be gone, but eventually concluding with a disappointing and dispiriting outcome which smacked of underachievement, given the excitement of the previous season and the consensus both within the club and among the wider footballing community that this was a squad of players and a coach who could have performed better.
The bright note in the campaign belonged to Bilbao Athletic, whose young players performed well throughout the season and challenged for promotion to the Liga Adelante, raising hopes that some of that squad may be able to offer more than emergency backup to the first team for the following season. The one certainty would be that Athletic would be playing in a new stadium, San Mamés Barria, albeit in a partially completed state.
Fernando Llorente, who played only a peripheral role throughout his final season and showed only glimpses of his dominant play of the previous years, eventually completed a 'Bosman' move to Juventus after the Athletic board continuously dismissed the option of any immediate transfer involving a fee during the winter transfer window, preferring to have the demoralised star warm the bench at Athletic. Amorebieta, who also played no significant role in the latter portion of the campaign, arranged a similar switch to Fulham.
The Valverde Era
With the departures of manager Bielsa, forward Llorente, and defender Amorebieta, Athletic looked to replace them in the transfer market. They would begin by replacing Bielsa with former player Ernesto Valverde who had had a previous spell as manager at the club. They quickly moved to sign Beñat Etxebarria from Real Betis to reinforce the midfield while also picking up two defenders in Xabi Etxeita and Mikel Balenziaga. Finally, to give the club another, more viable attacking option in tandem with Aduriz, they signed striker Kike Sola from Osasuna. With these reinforcements as well as youth breakouts such as Laporte and Ramalho, Athletic look to have a bounceback-season