Representing a city and country – Athletic Club de Bilbao

image“The city lives for the club and the club is the symbol of the city”. There was no doubt in the voice of the person who told me this ahead of my first ever trip to the city of Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao – not Atletico, that was the name enforced upon the club during the Franco regime´s years – is a club that commands passion. Walk around the city and you´ll see garages painted red and white, banners hanging from apartment blocks, red and white shirts everywhere and team photographs adorning the walls of shops and even government buildings. There are even Athletic Bilbao cookies and potato crisps to be found. Barcelona has its “mes que un club” slogan but this is certainly not exclusive. Athletic represents the Basque region as much as it stands for a city that was once an industrial hub in Spain.

But this is not a club that has been very successful in recent years. Indeed, their last trophy of note – they did win the Spanish Super Cup this year – was in 1983-84 when they won La Liga and the Copa del Rey. They did reach the Europa League final in 2011-12, but lost to Atletico Madrid 3-0. The city repainted the tug boat that used to get rolled-out every time the club won a trophy, but it never set sail!

Athletic´s colours are very striking red and white stripes, not unlike Sunderland, or even their 2012 Europa League conquerors. According to legend, the club adopted these colours in 1910 after club officials went to Southampton and came home with their kit, forcing them to ditch their traditional blue and white.

When they beat Barcelona over two legs (convincingly) to lift the Super Cup, the city went wild. Optimism reigned, but a couple of weeks later, they were sitting at the bottom of La Liga after losing to Barca (0-1 at home) and Eibar (2-0 away).

In the meantime, they signed Raul Garcia from Atletico Madrid. A Basque by birth, from the bull-running town of Pamplona, Garcia´s arrival at San Mames was greeted with near-hysteria.

The issue of Basque-only players has received praise and criticism at times. In some ways, it is like the “Yorkshire only” approach that Yorkshire County Cricket Club adopted for many years. It may explain why Athletic have gone more than 30 years without a major trophy.

That hasn´t stopped Athletic Bilbao enjoying fantastic support and a passionate crowd. “It is the nearest you will find to a traditional English crowd,” said my contact. And they really appreciate one-club players, so much so that they have initiated an award for this dying breed. Southampton´s Matthew Le Tissier was welcomed at San Mames to pick-up an accolade. “It means a lot to the supporters of Athletic.”

One-club players, a one-club city. Welcome to Bilbao!

Game of the People will report on Athletic Bilbao v Getafe.

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