The History of Athletic Bilbao

By Michael Kachitsa

While Athletic Bilbao was officially founded in 1903, its history goes a bit deeper than that. The then-new game of football was brought to the city of Bilbao by two different groups of people – the British shipyard workers and the Basque students returning from their studies in Britain (which is the reason for the English sounding Athletic instead for the Spanish sounding Atlético). Each of these two groups founded their own football club in 1898; it wasn’t until 1903 that they decided to combine their forces and settle on a merger that would lead to creation of Athletic Club.

Among the Spanish cities, Bilbao is the one with perhaps the biggest football heritage and their club was dominant in the early history of the country. Led by the English manager Mr. Shepard the team won the two first Copa del Rey tournaments, in 1903 and 1904, and make it to the final in the two following editions. It was also in this city the first purpose-built football stadium, Estadio San Mamés, was constructed in 1913.

Led by the visionary English coach Fred Pentland, Athletic won its first two La Liga titles in 1930 and 1931. As it turned out, British coaches were somewhat of a good charm for Athletic; the club continued to dominate the 30s (they hammered once Barcelona 12-1), and after a period with a Spanish manager Pentland returned. Athletic won two more La Ligas in 1934 and 1936, just before the outbreak of Spanish Civil. At this time General Franco enforced a de-Anglicization of the club’s name and the club became Atlético Bilbao for a period.

San Mamés stadium

The fans mostly remember the 40s and the 50s for one of the best forwards of that era, Telmo Zarra. Having made his debut in 1941, Zarra led the club to another La Liga in 1943, while, in the process, becoming Athletic’s top goalscorer of all time with 251 goals. Funnily enough, Athletic won its next La Liga in 1956, right after Zarra had left the club.

After those glory days came a major dry spell, and the club only returned to the top echelon of Spanish football with Javier Clemente’s appointment as manager in 1981. His aggressive-minded style proved to be a very effective tactic, and Athletic won two successive La Liga titles (1983 and 1984) under his leadership.

Athletic Bilbao logo

The team sometimes played astonishingly physical and especially the matches against Barca were fierce. Infamous is the 1984 Copa del Rey final which included what might have been the biggest scuffle on that level in the game in modern time. The fight that started on the field after the final whistle included flying kicks from some of the players. In the middle of the storm was Diego Maradona – that during the match time had been given a mean treatment from his opponents – for a while turned into a fighter

There is a dispute between the club and the Spanish Federation (RFEF) regarding the numbers of Copas del Rey trophies Athletic have won. As “Club Bizcaya”, Athletic won arguably the first Copa del Rey, which was called the Copa de la Coronación in 1902. But the Federation claims it was a predecessor and not an official Copa del Rey.

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