Every team is tough in La Liga, but there are some opponents that have proved to be more difficult than others for Real Madrid to dispatch of. When the league restarted in June, Madridistas identified those tricky matches quickly: Valencia, Real Sociedad, Getafe at home; and Athletic Club away to San Mames.
Real Madrid versus Athletic Club was the most played fixture in Spanish football history up until 2011 when it was surpassed by ‘El Clasico.’ But ‘El Viejo Clasico’ (Real Madrid vs. Athletic) is still the most played Copa del Rey match-up of all time.
The Madrid and Bilbao-based clubs were the giants of Spanish football at their conception. Their first ever meeting was in the first edition of the Spanish Cup in 1903 where *‘Los Leones’ were crowned champions.
The rivalry started because the teams met regularly. Both teams dominated their regional competitions, which were used to determine qualification for the Copa del Rey. Between 1903 and 1958 the Spanish giants met in nine cup finals. Athletic won six of these and were the dominant force in Spain until the 1950s when they were surpassed by their rivals from Madrid.
They have also met in every La Liga season, ever. Athletic Club and Real Madrid have never been relegated and were founding members of La Liga.
El Viejo Clasico was heated from the start. In 1929, the two sides met in the Copa semi-final. Madrid won the first leg 3-1. To try and force a comeback, a local manufacturer distributed toys that made frog-like noises to all the fans. The noise was a swamp-like nightmare for Real Madrid, but ultimately the nightmare was Bilbao’s as they lost 1-4.
The rivalry reached its tipping point with the onset of the Spanish Civil War. It transitioned from a game between two powerhouses to a fight for the Basque Country’s identity.
Generalismo Fransico Franco repressed the language, culture and customs of the Basque Country. He also eliminated their statute of autonomy and banned the Basque Country’s Flag.
During Franco’s regime, Real Madrid was very successful. Franco saw this as an opportunity to use the best club in Spain as a propaganda tool in Spain and around the world.
For the people of the Basque Country, Athletic Club became a form of protest against Franco and a celebration of Basque culture, whereas they saw Madrid as synonymous with the Franco’s oppression.
Athletic Club’s long history and regional pride led them to be a very political club. Many of their presidents were members of the PNV, a Basque nationalist party. In a 2007 study, two-thirds of the fans were also part of the PNV or EA, another nationalist party. It is no wonder the Bilbao club represents a struggle for autonomy for so many.
The rivalry turned violent in Bilbao in 1990 when a referee awarded Madrid a questionable penalty. The game was stopped for 12 minutes after objects were thrown at Madrid goalkeeper Paco Buyo.
San Mames is always a cauldron that is ready to boil over when Madrid come to town. The match always has more significance when it is played in Bilbao. Athletic fans see it as a way to voice their displeasure with the centralized government and call for independence. It is the cultural norm of Athletic to hate Real Madrid. They hate Madrid because of the oppression of Franco and because Madrid is a global brand while Bilbao is a team of the Basque people.
Athletic Club prides themselves on being the opposite of Real Madrid. Madrid is Spanish and Bilbao is Basque. Madrid purchase galacticos and Bilbao abides by a self-imposed Basque-only policy. Madrid is a globalized football club and Bilbao is unique and distinctly Basque.
A trip to San Mames always proves extremely difficult because of the hostile atmosphere provided by the fans. Although there will be no fans in the San Mames on Sunday, it will still be an enormous challenge for Madrid because Athletic Club will relish the opportunity to hinder Real Madrid’s title challenge.
*Los Leones— nickname for Athletic Club. San Mames is a cathedral in Bilbao which the stadium is named after. Mames was an early christian thrown to the lions by the Romans.