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Athletic Club, also known as Athletic Bilbao, is an association football club from Bilbao in Biscay, Basque Country. The club has played in the Primera División of La Liga since its start in 1928. They have won La Liga on eight occasions. In the historical classification of La Liga Athletic Bilbao are in 4th place and one of only three clubs which have never been relegated from La Liga (the others being Real Madrid and Barcelona). The club also has a women's team, which has won four championships in the Spanish Superliga.
They are known as the 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 San Mamés Stadium is hence nicknamed "the football cathedral".
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 the greater Basque Country, including Biscay, Guipúzcoa, Álava and Navarre (in Spain); and Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre (in France). Still, in recent times, this policy has been somewhat relaxed and players with direct Basque ancestry or with no Basque ancestry but formed in Basque clubs have played for the team. 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 (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 Sunderland, Southampton and Portsmouth. 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.
Atletic Bilbao began playing in an improvised white kit, but in the 1902-03 season the clubs 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 Football Club 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 Bilbao. Before the switch from blue & white to red & white, only one other team wore red & 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 2004–2005, 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 euros.
In 2011 Athletic revealed the Away kit which has been inspired by the Colors 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 August 21, 1913 and a hat-trick in the 1915 final. Today the La Liga top-scorer is declared the Pichichi in his honour.
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 Alaves. 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 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.
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 Zarra make his debut. Over the next thirteen seasons he went on to score 294 goals in all competitions for Atletico, 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 Panizo. In the 1943 the club won a La 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 circumnavigated 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. However during 1960s 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 1975, before a game against Real Sociedad, Iribar and the Real captain Ignacio 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 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 Urkiaga, 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 4th 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 3rd and 4th 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 Bilbao 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. Fernandez 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.
Fernandez 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, Urzaiz, José Mari Garcia Lafuente and Etxeberria, were prominent members of the 1997/98 squad along with Rafael Alkorta, Julen Guerrero and Patxi Ferreira.
In recent seasons Athletic Bilbao have languished in mid-table and the club was embroiled in a relegation battle during the 2005–2006 and 2006–2007 seasons. In 2006 top-flight survival was ensured on the 37th match day when Deportivo de la Coruña were beaten at 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 2006–2007 season. The 2006–2007 season has been the worst in the club's history, top-flight survival was ensured on the last match day when Levante were beaten at San Mamés 2–0. In December 2008 Spanish media claimed that this match had been fixed and that some of Levante UD players accepted a bribe from the Basque club. Despite the lack of on-field success, a majority of the club's supporters think the club's identity is more important than winning trophies. According to an El Mundo survey in the 1990s, 76% of Athletic fans would rather see the club relegated than give up the cantera policy. The most successful Athletic team of recent times has been the women’s football team who have won the Superliga Femenina four times between 2003 and 2007.
Athletic also fielded a black player (Jonás Ramalho) for the first time in their history in 2009. It should be noted that this situation was not a result of any previous official all-white rule at the club but more a consequence of the Basque/Cantera policy – immigration to the Bilbao area from outwith Europe was fairly uncommon until the 1990s, so there were few local footballers from ethnic minorities who could have played for Athletic in that time. Today in addition to Ramalho the club has several other promising players of various other ethnic origins in their (consistently successful) youth teams, which says more of the applaudable aspect of the club's policy as supporting local young players, as opposed to the more questionable angle of their employment only 'Basque' players at the exclusion of all others.
In the La Liga 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 2008–09 however the team managed to pull through some tough ties including local rivals Osasuna and the strong Sevilla side to reach their first final in the competition in 24 years. The final in Valencia against 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 UEFA Champions League. Athletic's reward for their efforts was a place in the 'new' UEFA Europa League tournament for the following campaign.
The 2009–2010 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 San Mames against Anderlecht was followed by a heavy defeat in Belgium. Ultimately a promising season delivered little, with Athletic finishing 8th, just out of the European places. But in comparison to most recent seasons it was an improvement. Young stars Javi Martinez, 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 2010-11 Athletic were looking to build on the previous season and claim a European placing. The season started positively, with 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 4th (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 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 Muniain also started almost every match, mostly on the left wing where he could use his trickery to supply Llorente and his hard-working but technically limited support striker Gaizka Toquero, and fellow 18-year-old Jon Aurtenetxe also impressed coach Caparros 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.
Note: Flags indicate national team as has been defined under FIFA eligibility rules. Players may hold more than one non-FIFA nationality.
Note: Flags indicate national team as has been defined under FIFA eligibility rules. Players may hold more than one non-FIFA nationality.
Copa del Rey
Supercopa de España
Copa Eva Duarte
UEFA Cup – Europa League
Small World Club Cup
Northern Championship / Biscay Championship
The Lezama facility is the complex where all of the categories of Athletic train. Opened in the 1971–72 season. At present, facilities include, inter alia, five natural grass fields, a gymnasium, a pediment, a medical center and a residence for young players.