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FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club Bilbao / PHOTO: FCB

History

Athletic Club are, together with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, one of just
three teams who have never dropped out of the Spanish first division since it
was founded in 1928. During that time they have won the league title eight times
and on five of those occasions they won a league and Cup double, indeed only
FC Barcelona have won more Spanish Cup titles. Athletic Club Bilbao was founded in
1898 by a collection of expat English shipyard and steel workers together with
young Basques who had travelled to Britain and 31 years later they became the
first team to win a La Liga title without a single defeat during the season. In all,
they won four titles in the pre-civil war era, although they also managed one in
the 40s and 50s (when the team featured the legendary Telmo Zarra up front) it
wasn’t until the early 80s that they managed another, taking the ‘81 and ‘82 titles
under Javier Clemente.

Basque Identity

Athletic Club are closely associated with the cause of Basque nationalism,
with their policy of only playing Basque, or Basque connected players. The
team’s second kit has the Basque flag colours and the first ever public display
of an Ikurrinea after the death of Franco was at a game against Real Sociedad in
December 1975, when the two captains ceremoniously placed a giant Basque
flag in the centre of the pitch.

Form Guide

This has been a great season for Athletic, with Marcelo Bielsa introducing a
level of skill and passing, which has sometimes been lacking from the Basques
traditional blood and thunder approach. They seem to have saved their best
form for the Europa Cup, with two great games against Manchester United and
this week’s win over Schalke, which looks to have virtually assured a semi final
slot, but their league form has suffered something of a dip, with three defeats
and a home draw against Sporting Gijon in their last four games. That run has
seen them drop from being Champions League contenders to their current more
modest 11th spot in the table. Athletic are also, of course, due to play FC Barcelona
in this year’s Spanish Cup final.

The Barcelona connection

The Cup Final will just be the latest time the fates of the two historic teams
have been entwined. Right back in 1930, the Basques inflicted what is still the
Catalans heaviest ever defeat with a 12-1 thrashing, whilst in 2009, Guardiola’s
team took the Cup title as part of their historic treble-winning season beating
Bilbao 4-1 in the final. The rivalry of the 80s and Goikoetxea’s infamous fouls on
Maradona and Schuster is water under the bridge now and there was a fantastic
friendly atmosphere between the two sets of fans in Mestalla, which is sure to be
repeated at this year’s Vicente Calderón Cup final - and indeed at the Camp Nou
on Saturday.

Ones to watch

Bilbao’s sparkling young team is full of stars, with Fernando Llorente the main
man up front, ably supported by Munuain, Susaeta and De Marcos, whilst many
of Europe’s top teams are eyeing up the versatile Javi Martínez, who has shown
he can be equally effective at the back or in midfield.

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