In 1977 Athletic Bilbao contested a Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup final, losing both, in a striking parallel with 2012. In the August 1977 edition of World Soccer magazine, Keir Radnedge looked at how it all began for one of Europe’s oldest clubs.
Athletic Bilbao struck a resounding blow last season for self-reliant clubs by reaching the UEFA Cup and Spanish Cup Finals with a team made up entirely of local-raised players.
Bilbao can be a forbidding place to reach -at least by air. You fly in through a narrow valley and, to land, your aircraft has to turn 180 degrees tight and descend to a small airport over a harrowingly lengthy graveyard. My last visit coincided with the domestic unrest in the Vizcaya province, which was a prelude to the Spanish elections. Two days before, a couple of policemen had been killed in neighbouring San Sebastian.
The Basque nationalist flag; bearing the Vizcaya emblem, the lkurrina, flew from many windows and a colleague told me cynically: "We used to have just football. Now there is a new game. It's called democracy, and some people think the rules include throwing stones at policemen."
l mention the political situation because it is twice relevant to the place of Athletic Club de Bilbao in Spanish football. First, because it's necessary to understand the Basque spirit of independence to understand the club and its rigid reliance on local players only. Secondly, it was in the time of unrest that the significance of what the club means to the populace comes shining through. More than that, in other parts of Spain, Bilbao are many people's "second favourite" club and for big matches fans come up from Madrid, Barcelona, even Valencia.
I had gone to Bilbao for the second leg of the UEFA Cup Final against Juventus. And, as one of the directors told me: “We have had a lot of political trouble this past weekend. Maybe it could affect whether the match goes ahead. But I don't think so. Everyone will call a truce so Bilbao can win the UEFA Cup. Then, afterwards, the trouble will start up again." In effect he was saying that love and respect for Athletic Bilbao transcends mere day-to-day problems such as politics.
For an Englishman, Bilbao is a paradox. It is in Spain, yet the people are determinedly Basque, not Spanish, and then again, some comers of Bilbao are more English than England! Jose Antonio Eguidazu, who retired from the presidency a few weeks back after a tiring but successful four years, is proud to count among his forebears one Manuel Smith. For, through the Smiths, Eguidazu is thus linked to the family who helped set up the club and forge the first and continuing industrial and cultural links with Britain.
It depends on which part of Spain you live in, on where you think football first began there. There are strong reasons for believing the first organised club was the Sociedad de Football Sky, in Madrid. But without any doubt. Bilbao are the oldest club now. And still going strong - having won the league six times, the Cup on a record 22 occasions and never having been relegated since the first division's inception in 1928.
As we have seen, it was from Britain that the impulsion came, partly from the famous Mr Smith, who worked for a telegraph company in Bilbao, partly from Spanish students who went to Britain to learn and came back having also taken in the rules and laws of association football. The first record of a match in Bilbao dates back to May 3, 1894. A team of British residents and students beat the side of young Basques 5-0. But it wasn't until 1898 that the Athletic Club - it still proudly bears the English name - was formed.
There was no such thing as a committee, or offices, or minutes for meetings. All that had to wait until September 5. 1901, when, in a room above the Cafe Donostiarra the 33 members decided to make it official and register as a sports organisation with the local council.
They weren't the first. The previous year had seen the registration of the Bilbao Football Club, and they didn't fancy any serious rivals. Accordingly, a grand challenge match was arranged. It finished all-square. So did the second. Finally, third time lucky, Athletic won 3-2. It was the first in a long series of triumphs.
The second came in the summer after the foundation official in 1902. The two rivals joined forces to take part in Madrid, along with three other clubs (Barcelona, Española and Madrid FC) in a mini tournament in honour of the coronation of King Alfonso XIII. The Basques, under the name of Bizcaya (with a B), played and won three games on consecutive days and with them the trophy presented by the mayor of Madrid. Bilbao still have that trophy in their trophy room in the new office suite in one comer of the San Mamés stadium.
That initial success was nearly the last. The heat of the summer melted away the interest in soccer and in mid-autumn it seemed both Athletic and Bilbao FC might have to pack up. There was only one solution - join forces, permanently. Athletic were marginally the bigger club still, so Bilbao FC was dissolved and their remaining members swallowed up by the rival.
The arrangement was completed in time for the first official national championship, organised as a knock-out tournament by representatives of clubs from Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona. Bilbao played just twice-beating Española in the semi-final then going to Madrid to defeat Madrid FC 3-2 in the final to win the Copa del Rey (King's Cup).
Just as now, so it was then. Everyone wants to know a winner. In Madrid, Bilbao made such an impression that a disaffected group of Madrid FC members asked Athletic for permission to set up an affiliated Bilbao club in the capital. Thus began the history of Athletic-now Atlético Madrid. Even today they wear virtually the same colours - red and white striped shirts, though Bilbao's shorts are black, Atlético Madrid's blue. It would not be long, however, before the junior club broke away.
These were only amateur days, of course, and a number of Bilbao's players didn't take kindly to a suggestion that they ought to introduce regular get-togethers during the week for something the English called "training". After all, they hardly needed it. In 1904 Bilbao retained the Cup without playing a game!
Having been seeded to the challenge final, arguments among their challengers meant that first one club then another dropped out. In the end it was left between Madrid FC and Española to meet to decide who should play Bilbao. There was an almighty and hilarious tangle over dates, Madrid withdrew in a huff, and Española refused to turn up. Bilbao again - by a walkover.
That couldn't last, of course. In 1905 came a warning of the wind of change. A team from San Sebastian came along the coast and gave the champions a scare, then, in the Cup both this year and the next they went down in the final to Madrid. The Basque grip had been broken.
In an attempt to regain their stranglehold, Athletic resurrected the Bizcaya name for the 1907 title bid, but, despite a brief merger with Union Vizcaino, they went down to Vigo in the semi -finals. Salamanca, Madrid and Huelva had been beaten on the way in an ever-growing competition, but Vigo were too strong. So were their fans.
Bilbao were losing 1-0 in Vigo, amid a most threatening atmosphere from the home crowd. The situation was so ugly, in fact, that when Bilbao were awarded a penalty late in the game Arzuaga deliberately shot wide - an original and practical variation on the theme of safety-first.
Already moves towards the club as we know it today were underway. The first step forward was in 1910 when Athletic, on their way to regaining the Cup with a 1 -0 win over Basconia, first took up the red -and-white colours. Up until then they had copied Blackburn Rovers' blue and white halves.
And then they hired their first manager - a man named Shepherd. He lasted only six weeks, but his stewardship was enough to establish the tradition that Bilbao always look to Britain when they're thinking of finding a new man. So far they've had seven English managers, the last being Ronnie Allen.
In search of a new home Bilbao moved from the little scruffy Lamiaco pitch to the Neguri Jolaseta, some way out of town, and just in time to organise the 1911 championship. But it came at a difficult time for the Spanish clubs were in the middle of a three-year fight for power. Several objected to competing in the same tournament as Bilbao because - as ironic as it seems now - they disliked Bilbao including so many foreigners! Under pressure, Athletic's committee agreed to do without their star player, White, for the early games of the championship. In the final they beat Española Barcelona 3-1, but the trouble was only just beginning.
Earlier the Federacion de Clubs had declared a match between Barcelona and Gimnastica of Madrid null and void because the Catalans fielded four foreigners. Now Bilbao had recalled White for the final, and the Federacion later told Bilbao that because of this, the title would be stripped from them. Bilbao protested, the federation relented, let them keep the title, but refused to let Bilbao take up their right as champions to organise the Cup Finals the following season. Bilbao protested again and were kicked out. Not, of course, for long. They already had too much tradition, too much power, too much of a reputation and in 1913 not only were they back, but reaching the final, where they lost 1-0 in a replay to Racing Club de lrun.
Already the hunt was on for a new home. The members wanted somewhere more central and, on January 20, 1913, president Alejandro de Ia Sota laid the foundation of what is now the 41, 000 all-seater Estadio San Mamés; aptly named 'La Catedral' because of the steel bow flying across the roof of the main stand.
In 1913 the first visitors from abroad made their appearance at San Mamés. Bienne came from Switzerland, drawing 2-2 and winning 4-2 in a snowstorm. Then came Ferencvaros, winning 5-2. A second game had to be abandoned when the crowd, upset by the rough play of the Hungarians, swarmed over the pitch in protest. That's one problem which has stayed with Spanish football!
Now into the championship, Bilbao won the extended regional qualifier, and were honoured with a Mr Rowland, an English referee, for their semi-final. Into the final, in Irun, against España of Barcelona and a 2-1 win was quite good enough to provide Bilbao with their sixth success.
It was to prove the first leg of a hat-trick. Bilbao took the Cup again in 1915 and 1916 under a new Englishman named Barnes. In 1915 they beat Española 5-0, but the third leg was not so easily achieved -rather because of political problems than football ones.
Bilbao and San Sebastian needed a play-off to decide who went through from the regional rounds, and couldn't agree on a venue. Eventually, after the various local federations had tried to sort out the wrangle and decided on somewhere in Vizcaya, San Sebastian refused to turn up…Bilbao went on to beat Madrid FC 4-0 in the final in Barcelona. And in the Madrid line-up the name of the centre forward, Santiago Bernabeu, who is today their president. The referee was Paco Bru, a former Barcelona goalkeeper who later coached Real Madrid and the Spanish national team.
It was so easy for Bilbao, Acedo and Zubizarreta scored twice early in the first half, and Zubizarreta, a blond giant of a centre forward, completed a hat-trick in the second. Madrid let frustration creep into their play, and their 'reward' at the end was a hail of missiles from the antagonistic Catalan fans.
Barnes now left Bilbao to return home to England, an England in the midst of a war, but football continued in Spain, with Benfica, then Swiss team Etoile la Chaux du Fonds playing touring visits. Bilbao needed these friendly matches to fill in their programme - particularly after being knocked out early in the qualifiers for the Cup in 1917. To make amends officials arranged a big match for Christmas Day, Bilbao against the offshoot, Athletic Madrid. It was billed as a friendly. In fact it was nothing of the sort. The game ended 20 minutes early in a riot.
In 1920 Bilbao were beating Barcelona 2-0 to regain the Cup, but everything else in Spanish football that year was overshadowed by the first outings of a national team, in the Olympic tournament in Antwerp. The Spanish effort gave rise to the legend of the Furia Española - a spirit which has sadly been lacking in most selections ever since. Bilbao were represented by centre half Jose Maria Belauste, now 31, wing half Sabino Bilbao Libano, winger Domingo Acedo Villanueva, a 22-year-old who would win 11 caps and most famous of all - Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, better known as Pichichi.
His name lives on today in the award to the first division's top scorer - the Trofeo Pichichi. He was the first really big star of Spanish soccer, a goal -scoring inside forward who joined Bilbao from a school team. and whose prospects seemed limitless even in those amateur days. Sadly he would die young, in 1922. His last major triumph was the 4-1 Cup Final win the year before, against Athletic Madrid.
More prestige friendlies were arranged against Sparta Prague, West Ham (who won all four), Birmingham, Nurnberg, Argentina's Boca Juniors. It was all in aid of the great celebration - Bilbao's Jubilee, the 25th anniversary.
Following on the death of Pichichi, was the street accident which robbed them of a fine new Spanish international centre half, Jesus Larraza. And in desperation Bilbao went through several more managers. An Englishman, Kirby, was followed by the famous Hungarian, Lippo Hertza. He took Bilbao on a central European tour, but defeats in Vienna, Bucharest and Zurich were not balanced by victory in Budapest and a draw (3-3) against Grasshoppers in Switzerland.
Yet times were changing. Barcelona were shortly to become the first club to introduce professionalism and, in 1928-29, the first Campeonato Nacional de Liga was launched. Ten clubs met, home and away, and Bilbao finished third. They, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, remain to this day the only clubs never relegated. Yet Bilbao's league title record is not that impressive. In nearly 50 years they have hit the jackpot only six times. Their fame -and their nickname of the Lions rests on their Cup-fighting qualities - another inherent English soccer quality maintained in a club which had now decided formally to stick to local players and recall Pentland as manager.
His first season back was a major triumph. Bilbao ran away with the league and cup double. In the league they finished with 30 points, seven clear of Barcelona, were never defeated, and in the cup knocked out Santander. Real Sociedad, Irun and Barcelona, going through to face Madrid in the final in the Barcelona stadium at Montjuïc.
Bilbao's newest star was wing half or inside forward Chirri II (real name Ignacio Aguirrezabala lbarbia). But there were also centre half Jose Muguerza and outside left Guillermo Gorostiza. Gorostiza, born locally on February 15, 1909, came to Bilbao from Ferrol and later went to Valencia, before retiring in 1951, at 42! He was the Spanish Stanley Matthews, winning the league with Bilbao in 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1936 and then with Valencia after the Spanish civil war in 1942 and 1944. He played 19 times for Spain between 1930 and 1941 when, stupidly, having experimented with him at left back(!), Bilbao gave him away.
Yet despite these new stars it was one of the older ones, Ramon de Lafuante, who won the 1930 Cup Final, against Madrid. Lafuente had been a passenger for most of the second half and extra time after a collision in which he suffered concussion. The score was 2-2 late in extra time with neither side looking like scoring a goal, when, with minutes remaining, Chirri pushed the ball back out of the penalty area and shouted to Lafuente: "Hit it!" He did. Bilbao had won the Cup.
This was a golden age. In 1931 they retained both titles, though they only took the league on goal average, since Santander and Real Sociedad also finished on 22 points. Their record included a 6-0 away win over Real Madrid and a 12-1 home thrashing of Barcelona. And in the Cup Final they beat Betis of Sevilla 3-1, with goals from Chirri, Roberto Echevarria, and Bata. This was Betis's first final: a few weeks ago, Betis and Bilbao met again in the final. This time Betis won on penalties after extra time.
Such was Bilbao's dominance in the early 1930s that for the 0-0 draw between Spain and Italy in San Mamés, Spain included seven Bilbao men: Blasco, Echevarria, Lafuente. lraragorri , Bata, Chirri II and Gorostiza.
With this nucleus they came so close, too, to retaining both titles for a third year. But, having beaten Barcelona 1-0 in the Cup Final, they saw Madrid edge three points clear at the top of the table.
The next season, 1932-33, was a repeat. Bilbao finished two points adrift of Madrid in the league, but again won the Cup; the last triumph for Pentland, who was leaving again - this time for good.
Again the final was in Montjuïc. Again Madrid were the rivals - this time reinforced by Spain's greatest goalkeeper, Ricardo Zamora. Madrid went in at half-time 1-0 up, but injuries to Valle and Hilario were too much of a handicap in the second half. Goals from Lafuente and Gorostiza brought Bilbao the cup and launched them into a 1933-34 season in which, under a Basque coach for the first time - Luis Caicedo - they regained their place at the top of the league - two points clear of Madrid.
Afterwards, there was a need for a lot of reorganisation. Already Bilbao had hesitantly ordered a local youth tournament in the hope of laying foundations for the future and when organised soccer began again in 1939-40, had already found two players with whom the club would become synonymous. One was named Telmo Zarraonandia Montoya. He was a centre forward, born on January 30, 1921 in Asua, near Bilbao. All his top class soccer was played with the Lions and he would be chosen for 20 internationals - including the World Cup tie in Rio against England, which he would win with a header.
Far, far better known as plain Zarra, his skill in the air was such that they called him "the best head in Europe after Churchill." And over so many years he was to be spirited towards so many goals by a man just one year younger.
Agustin "Piru' Gainza, was born in Basauri (Vizcaya) on May 28, 1922. Bilbao would be his only professional club until retirement in 1958 and beyond. His career lasted longer than Zara’s, which explains his 33 international caps, and he is still there today.
He's had a couple of spells as first team coach, but I met him again this spring at Bilbao's country training centre of Lezama, where he is senior member of the youth coaching staff.
This article originally appeared in the August 1977 edition of World Soccer Magazine, 51 years young and still the best football publication available. You can subscribe to World Soccer for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.