A 40 year wait & a week of celebrations in Bilbao

Athletic flag

It’d be an exaggeration to call it 40 years of hurt. Since clinching the league and cup double in 1984, Athletic have defied the odds by continuing to compete valiantly against the best teams in Spain and occasionally beyond, all whilst stubbornly holding onto their famous ‘Basque only’ policy which sets them apart from just about every other club on the planet.

High points have included a dazzling run to the Europa League Final in 2012 under Marcelo Bielsa, two Supercopa wins and ten top six finishes in the league. Perhaps just as impressive as any of those feats, has been Athletic’s ability to preserve their proud record of having played in every single Primera Division season during an era when even the smallest clubs in LaLiga have been able to look far and wide for fresh talent.

However at no point in the past 40 years, perhaps even ever, has Bilbao experienced a week quite like the one that has just passed which saw two generations of Athletic fans live through the thrill of seeing their club win one of Spanish football’s big two trophies for the first time.

For those old enough to remember the 1984 double, these were the kinds of days that many would have doubted they’d live to see again.

Cup final weekend in Bilbao

Athletic win the Copa del Rey

Athletic had been to five Copa del Rey Finals in the past 15 years, so to some extent this was not a new experience for Bilbao’s football mad and almost exclusively Athletic-supporting public.

Yet, everything about this time felt different.

For starters, Athletic were favourites against an unfancied Mallorca side, something that certainly wasn’t the case in any of their four recent Finals against Barcelona, nor even the historic all-Basque Final against Real Sociedad.

That game was delayed a year due to the pandemic and Athletic would end up losing two Copa del Rey Finals behind closed doors in the space of a fortnight April 2021, but not even that miserable experience could dampen a city’s passion for this competition.

Even following 40 barren years, Athletic remained the second most successful club in the competition’s history heading into 2024 Final, winning it 23 times according to official records, or 24 according to the club which also counts the 1902 Copa de la Coronación.

Reports suggest around 70,000 Athletic fans made the trip to Seville for the 2024 Copa del Rey. You wouldn’t have known it on the streets of Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao fans

Even three hours before the game, the area around San Mames was a sea of red and white with cup final fever gripping the city as the party started early on Pozas, a vibrant street lined with bars that leads directly to Athletic’s spectacular, modern home.

In addition to the 70,000 or so in Seville, more than 50,000 would cram into San Mames to watch the game on big screens, yet the challenge of finding a space, let alone a seat to watch the Final remained difficult in the cafes and bars of Bilbao as kick-off approached.

Athletic Club have at times been referred to as something of a ‘Basque national team’, a comparison that would no doubt be strongly rebuked over on Donostia, but at times like this it’s easy to understand why.

Even those with little more than a passing interest in football were out in the streets, with Athletic shirts or scarves. The game had clearly united young and old, male and female, in a way that is normally only witnessed when national teams play and there is some kind of common cause that everyone can get behind, far removed from the tribal nature of club football. 

While it’s true that one club cities are often different animals, few can possibly come close to Bilbao and the special, collective nature of the Basque Country on nights like this.

For all the excitement and pre-game optimism, for a long period, it looked as though the party in Bilbao was in danger of falling incredibly flat.

Mallorca led at the break through Dani Rodriguez’s goal and even after Athletic had levelled through Oihan Sancet, Javier Aguirre’s side proved an incredibly tough nut to crack.

Despite the best efforts of Athletic winger Nico Williams, the game’s standout performer, the favourites could not find a second goal, cue the so-called ‘lottery’ of penalties as the clock ticked towards one in the morning in Seville and for the huge crowds watching on in Bizkaia.

It’s hard to imagine what those minutes must have been like for Athletic supporters, not to mention the players that made the long, lonely walk forwards to take penalties with 40 years of history hanging on their shoulders.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Ernesto Valverde opted for experienced duo Raul Garcia and Iker Muniain to take the first two spot kicks. Both successfully converted to set the tone for a shootout which Athletic ultimately won 4-2 to spark a week of wild celebrations back in Bilbao.

La Gabarra

Even by the time La Gabarra, Athletic’s famous celebratory barge, had set sail on Thursday, there had already been some incredible scenes from the city of players partying in the streets with supporters.

Police reportedly even had to open legal proceedings against four Athletic players for their role in inciting a street party on Tuesday night with Iker Muniain the apparent ringleader in an impromptu gathering.

Everything was building up to Thursday though as the Athletic players jumped on board la gabarra for a trip down the city’s Nervion River, as huge crowds gathered on the river banks and bridges of Bilbao.

“Unique in the world” is the message Athletic have been keen to promote with their long-awaited Copa del Rey triumph understandably throwing greater international spotlight on the club, but it’s far more than just a marketing slogan.

From their transfer policy and the way they develop players and operate at all levels of the club, right down to the way they celebrate, they just do things differently in Bilbao and they’ve more than earned their long-awaited moment in the sun.

Almost the perfect week

Athletic’s season could yet get better. They’re guaranteed a place in next season’s Europa League after winning the Copa del Rey, but they’re in a real fight with Atletico Madrid for fourth place in LaLiga and the chance to upgrade their European adventure to the Champions League.

Given the exuberant celebrations of the week that had passed, it was only natural to doubt whether Athletic’s players could shake off sore heads and perform to their usual high level at fortress San Mames on Sunday against Villarreal.

A guard of honour welcomed the Athletic players onto the pitch with Valverde only making two changes to the cup final eleven, one enforced by Iñigo Ruiz de Galarreta’s suspension, the other seeing Unai Simon return in goal in place of cup keeper Julen Agirrezabala, one of the stars of Seville.

Despite a shaky start with Villarreal missing an early penalty, Athletic looked on course for three important points when Oihan Sancet scored for the second weekend running.

Up against ten men, it seemed certain that the final whistle would spark one last big party inside the stadium at the end of a long week of celebrations.

To an extent it still did, albeit one ever so slightly soured by a late Villarreal equaliser, courtesy of a controversial late penalty awarded for a handball by Yuri Berchiche after a VAR review.

That could prove the difference between fourth and fifth place with Athletic now four points behind an Atleti side they held an advantage on only a fortnight ago.

Despite their anger at the decision, the home players weren’t going to be denied one more moment with their fans as they locked arms to sing in unison with those left in what was a sold out San Mames and cap an extraordinary week in the history of a football club like no other.

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About Mark Sochon 2070 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has been writing about Spanish football since 2014 and regularly attends and covers matches across Spain. His work has also been published by various newspapers and websites including These Football Times, World Soccer and Guardian Sport. Available for freelance work: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk