Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Southampton can all lay claim to providing critical influence in the early stages of Athletic, but a torch for England will always be carried in Bilbao.
Exemplified by their cantera policy of fielding only homegrown players, Athletic Bilbao are widely perceived as embodying the Basque nationalism once suppressed by dictators Miguel Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco. “We see ourselves as unique in world football and this defines our identity,” wrote club president José María Arrate in their centenary book. “We do not say that we are better or worse, 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 concept.” The majority of supporters would rather see their side relegated – something which, alongside only Real Madrid and Barcelona, they have yet to experience – than sacrifice the integrity associated with autonomy.
Yet behind this seemingly insular outlook, rather curiously, are Anglophile tendencies. In his book Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, Phil Ball recounts the visit of Newcastle United to San Mamés, their unique “cathedral” of a stadium influenced by English architecture, in November 1994. Many bemused travelling fans experienced “astonishing kindness” towards them upon arriving in Bilbao, with one garage owner refusing to charge for replacing their exhaust pipe. He then proceeded to purchase the Geordies several rounds of drinks which, for the uninitiated, displayed tremendous gratitude towards la madre del fútbol. The mother of football, as England is known. The country which founded Athletic and has produced eight of their managers.
The context dates back to the late nineteenth century. Just as football was introduced to the South American ports of Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, unwittingly laying the groundwork for Pelé, Maradona and Messi, the beautiful game arrived at the Spanish peninsula in similar fashion. British shipyard workers from the south coast, notably Southampton and Portsmouth, along with miners from the north-east, came to San Sebastián, the prosperous hub of an industrial revolution in Spain. The Basque educated classes, sent to Britain to complete their studies in civil engineering and commerce, also returned with an interest in the game. This led to sports clubs introducing tennis, cycling and, of course, football. Various professors and students of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza were behind an initial side in Madrid, Ángel Rodríguez founded Espanyol at the University of Barcelona and Jose María Abalo brought football back to Coruña.
The case in Bilbao was not much different. If one man should be credited for their formation, look no further than Juanito Astorquia, the son of a middle class merchant who, albeit not an Englishman, had been studying in Manchester. Part of “the magnificent seven” committee who met at the Zamacois gymnasium and founded Bilbao Football Club in 1898, he appears to have initiated the first game four years previously. History was made at 10am on 3 May, according to a report by local newspaper El Nervión referenced by Ball. A team of students returning from Cambridge played contract workers in Lamiaco. The “foreigners,” whose previous kickabouts were at the northern bank of the river Nervión, won by five goals. A rematch three weeks later saw the Basques suffering a similar same fate, although neither scorelines were fully divulged.
On such evidence, the club appears to be older than FC Barcelona, founded in 1889, as they themselves maintain. But it is a contentious issue among historians. After spontaneous roots, Athletic Bilbao – notice the Anglicised spelling – was officially established in 1901 following a meeting at Café García. President Luís Márquez led this maiden official meeting, featuring an agenda and minutes. Yet, while elections were ratified for executive positions, the events of that day still did not fully create the side we now know. Another team existed in the municipality. Bilbao FC, featuring six British players, held their neighbours to a 1-1 draw upon inviting them for a game. The next year, 19 January 1902 to be specific, saw them face each other again. After Athletic won the “noble exhibition” 3-2, as described by reporter J Ugalde, spectators jumped over the ropes to play their own imitative games. He presciently noted: “Maybe one day everyone will play this game. It seems to be bringing folks together. It seems to arouse extraordinary curiosity.”
It also proved the final game of those two clubs as separate entities. Merging to become Club Vizcaya, or Biscay, they travelled to France in March 1902 to beat Burdigala 2-0. A remarkable crowd of 3,000 people watched the return match at Lamiaco, some travelling by train. The outcome was a 7-0 evisceration which completed their hat-trick of official victories – though only if you count a side they were now part of! When the Independent recently asked supporter Salvador Acha about the nationality of then-vice-captain ‘Alfredo’ Mills, he admitted: “In the early days a lot of the players were English, but not many like to talk about that.” A month after the win, on 26 April, three Basque students living in the capital created Athletic Club de Madrid; a similarly working class side intended to become their youth team, before evolving into the Atlético Madrid most are familiar with.
May saw them compete in the debut Copa de la Coronación competition in Madrid. The little-known predecessor to the Copa del Rey, which gave us the first ever El Clásico, was also held in honour of King Alfonso XIII. It was in his honour, in fact, that multiple teams, including Real Madrid – albeit known as Madrid FC then – adopted the word “royal”. In the final, featuring numerous Englishmen, they beat Barcelona 2-1 and returned to people lining the city streets in celebration. It would become their first of 23 victories, as they went on to comfortably win the next two competitions. A photograph exists of Vizcaya with the trophy – which is now displayed in their Ibaigane Palace headquarters – dressed in blue and white shirts reportedly inspired by Blackburn Rovers.
They unintentionally changed colours to their current red and white, if reports are to be believed. Even then, the English influence lingered over them. Juan Elorduy, a Basque student spending Christmas 1909 in London, was meant to buy 25 Rovers shirts for the side and their Madrid offshoot. Unable to do so, he instead picked ones matching the flag of Bilbao. It is disputed whether they were from Southampton or Sunderland, and such detail does seem rather embellished. A year later saw their first foreign manager, known only as Mr Shepherd, however homesickness meant that his stay was limited to a meagre two months. Although William Barnes lifted three Copa del Rey titles during two spells, English players swiftly left as cantera, which translates a quarry, was introduced.
Yet their success continued regardless, alongside the rise of the PNV, or Basque National Party. Politics and sport has rarely been so inextricably linked, parallel to Catalan capital Barcelona. Its members, a small group of businessmen essentially controlling the economy, made up the hundreds of club members, known as socios. They spent 98,000 pesetas on building San Mamés, the first stadium in Spain, with La Catedral completed in just seven months. As noted by David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round, it was “...tangible proof of Basque sporting prowess, business acumen and precious modernity.” Yet with an English influence even down to the imported grass, the second game there was against the amateur London side Shepherd’s Bush.
After a league was established in 1929, Athletic experienced their greatest period of success under the returning Fred Pentland. El Bombín, an eccentric cigar-smoking manager nicknamed after his bowler hat, was reluctant about the direct English style so left to introduce an ethos of passing and movement. Every victory – they won five more Copa del Rey titles and the league twice during this “golden age” – was apparently celebrated by the players removing his quintessentially English hat and stamping on it. That he ordered twenty a year says much about the revolutionary approach, even if his first lesson was teaching them to correctly tie their bootlaces, with lo de Pentland picked up by none other than Barcelona. Perhaps you could go as far as crediting the origins of tiki-taka in Spain to the maverick.
Replaced by Patricio Caicedo due to the unstable political situation, they beat Real Madrid to the league, before Englishman William Garbutt secured their fourth title in seven years. Yet as civil war broke out, their dominance came to an end. A decree issued by Franco banned the use of non-Spanish names, hence the change to Atlético Bilbao. Los Leones would experience relative success in the 1980s under Basque manager Javier Clemente, who returned them to the league summit by employing pragmatic, direct methods borrowed from England. Everton legend Howard Kendall, who took over the relegation battlers a few years later and guided them to a top four place, still speaks pleasantly of his time there. Despite never challenging the monopoly since, with the nationalist ikurriña flag even based on the Union Jack, Athletic Bilbao will always hold some Anglophilia.