Saturday brings Barça’s first away trip of the 2021/22 league season, and it’s taking them to Bilbao, home of Athletic Club. Here’s the lowdown on the team they call The Lions.
The city of Bilbao is the tenth largest in Spain with a population of almost 350,000, although the ‘Greater Bilbao’ metropolitan area is home to getting on for a million people. It is the main city of the Basque Country, which has a very different language and culture. Bilbao is a highly industrialised city and its most famous landmark is the Guggenheim Museum.
Due to its close connection to Britain, Bilbao was one of the first cities in Spain to develop a football culture, and the Athletic Club was founded one year before FC Barcelona in 1898.
In the early years of the 20th century, the rivalry between Athletic and Barça was probably the most intense in the country. But as the years went by, the traditional friendship between Basques and Catalans was reflected more and more on the football field as they were united against a ‘common enemy’ in the rising Real Madrid.
Athletic remain, along with Barça and Real Madrid, one of just three clubs never to have been relegated out of the first division. And they are second in the all-time list for Spanish Cup victories (23) and fourth for La Liga titles (8), although they have not won either since their double winning campaign in 1983/84.
Arguably this is because the club continues to observe the tradition (it has never been an official policy) of only fielding players raised in the Basque football system. It is testimony to the quality of football in the region that Athletic have remained so competitive in the face of the ‘globalisation’ of football.
The club’s old San Mamés stadium was affectionately known as the Cathedral, but it has now been replaced by a completely new facility on the exact same site. The changes were all made without the team ever having to stop playing at their famous ground and was completed in 2013. The current capacity is 53,289.
Although the club is widely known as ‘Athletic Bilbao’, its own supporters always insist on being called ‘Athletic Club’. This partly dates back to the club’s earliest years, when its greatest rivals were the now defunct Bilbao FC, which it absorbed in 1903.
Atlético Madrid was founded by Basque players living in the Spanish capital, which is why the teams wear the same red and white stripes. But although the Madrid-based team has since adopted a Spanish translation, the team from Bilbao still proudly maintains the English ‘Athletic’ name.
Athletic employs a similar membership-based democratic structure to that of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, something very rare in modern-day football. Osasuna is another such club.
Athletic are known as The Lions, which comes from the fact that the local church from which the stadium takes its name (San Mamès) honours a saint who was thrown to the lions by the Romans.
The club’s red-and-white stripes date back to 1909, when one of the players brought back a set of Southampton shirts from England.
Barça have only lost one of their last seven league games away to Athletic, a 1-0 defeat in 2019. But they did lose to the Basques in the 2019 Copa del Rey quarter final, while Athletic were also triumphant in the Spanish Super Cup in 2021.
Although Barça have typically had the upper hand in this fixture, the 4-0 defeat in last season’s cup final was very much the exception rather than the norm. That was the first time in nine games that more than one goal had separated the sides.
17/04/21 (COPA DEL REY): Athletic 0-4 Barça
31/01/21 (LIGA): Barça 2-1 Athletic
17/01/21 (SPANISH SUPER CUP): Barça 2-3 Athletic
06/01/21 (LIGA): Athletic 2-3 Barça
23/06/20 (LIGA): Barça 1-0 Athletic
Athletic finished mid-table last season, but did get to celebrate their first major silverware for almost four decades when they won the Spanish Super Cup. They also played in not one but two Copa del Rey Finals, both the 2020 one against their local rivals Real Sociedad (delayed because of Covid) and the 2021 one against FC Barcelona. Unfortunately (for them) they lost them both.
Their first fixture of the 2021/22 season was a 0-0 draw at Elche.
Most capped internationals: Iñigo Martínez (Spain, 15), Unai Simón (Spain, 13), Iker Muniain (Spain, 2), Raúl García (Spain, 2), Unai Núñez (Spain, 1), Iñaki Williams (Spain, 1)
Top scorer 2020/21 (all competitions): Raul García (10), Alex Berenguer (9), Iñaki Williams (8)
New signings 2021/22: Other than loans deals in and out fo the squad, Athletic are essentially beginning the season with the same squad that ended the last.
Marcelino García Toral played for Sporting Gijón, Racing Santander, Levante and Elche, and has also managed a wide variety of different teams, including Recreativo, Racing Santander, Zaragoza, Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia before accepting the job in Bilbao in January of 2021.
In a total of 18 league meetings with Barça at these different clubs, he has never experienced victory, although his sides did defeat the blaugrana in the 2019 Copa del Rey Final (Valencia) and the 2021 Spanish Super Cup Final (Athletic).

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