On March 20th, 1910, about 60 metres from the house where I now sit at my keyboard, Athletic Bilbao, sporting for the first time their iconic red and white stripes, defeated Vasconia (about to become Real Sociedad) 1-0 in what was essentially the final of the breakaway tournament UECF (Spanish Union of Football Clubs), now officially recognised in the history books. Remigio Iza scored the goal in the 56th minute and the ref (Lavat) had come from across the nearby French border to San Sebastián to officiate the tournament’s games. Madrid FC were the other side, and the next day they lost to Vasconia 2-0 in what was essentially a 2nd/3rd-place play-off.
Had some sooth-saying fairy suddenly appeared back then and whispered into the Basque captains’ ears that it would take another 111 years for the occasion to be repeated, they would have either laughed at such an improbability, or dismissed the fairy as a liar. Well of course, the fairy would have needed to have been privy to the fact that the pandemic would delay this long-awaited occasion by yet another year, but hey, on Saturday it’s actually going to happen, come hell or high water – only this time down in Sevilla, in La Cartuja stadium – not quite the same as the Ondarreta stadium in 1910 which was basically a bit of reclaimed boggy marsh next to the sea, roped off on four sides.
Nevertheless, Saturday’s game will have fewer spectators than in 1910, and is timed to kick off at 21.30 to ensure that there will be no sweaty heaving conglomerates in the two cities’ bars, in a region where the watering-holes close by edict at 20.00 and the night curfew begins at 22.00. For the citizens of either Bilbao or San Sebastian, any fountain-jumping or marine-wallowing will have to wait until dawn on Sunday. I just nipped down to the beach for an optimistic rehearsal, and with the water at an icy 12 degrees I managed to stay in for a ball-shrinking five minutes before emerging refreshed but with the flesh a kind of pale blue – not quite Real Sociedad’s darker blue but it could be a sign, who knows?
Spain being an urban balcony culture, the victory will be celebrated with folks spattering each other over shortish distances with champagne showers, as long as the fluid is not deemed to spread the Covid virus. When Athletic and Real Sociedad won their places in the final last season on the cusp of the first lockdown (ten days later) there were copious memes of King Felipe looking up to the sky in desperation with a speech bubble saying ‘Lo que faltaba’ (just what I needed), the meaning of which – in case it’s not obvious, is that the last thing the King needed, after another annus horribilis in the ‘firm’, was an April final in Seville with 60,000 heaving Basques, all tanked up and primed for the mother-of-all booing sessions of the Spanish national anthem. The pandemic saved his royal bacon, and has kindly repeated the gesture this year. Felipe can smile behind his mask on Saturday and convince himself for another year that there is no sundown on the union. There was talk of holding the game in the Basque Country, once it became obvious that the pandemic was not yielding, with Alaves´ Mendizorrotza ground the obvious choice, situated, as it is, in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz, but the Spanish Federation held firm and maybe they’re right. In commercial terms, the game now means nothing to the city of Seville, but there’s some sort of tradition attached to playing a cup final at a regionally neutral venue – a necessary venture into semi-foreign territory to taste the sensation of an event, to turn it into a big day.
Bizarrely, the league derby between the two clubs was originally scheduled for this very Saturday, and so the clubs will cross swords again the following Wednesday in San Sebastián. Ten days later, Athletic will return to Seville to gorge on yet another final (against Barcelona), having also reached this year’s through a rampant act of cup gluttony. And talking of gluttony, Athletic’s line in the good-natured banter between the two communities tends to focus on the huge quantitative disparity between the trophies won by the two sides since that 1910 meeting, the main joke consisting of ‘Just think – if Athletic win both finals they’ll have won more cups in two weeks than Real Sociedad in their entire history’ – which is harsh but true. Real won it in 1987 under Toshack in Zaragoza against Atlético Madrid whilst Athletic have won the trophy 23 times, second only to Barcelona whom they of course defeated in this season’s Supercopa, the win unleashing an orgy of pent-up celebration after years of relative trophy-lessness. Athletic last won the cup in 1984, again against Maradona’s Barcelona, in a game that ended infamously in mass fisticuffs. Nevertheless, for all Bilbao’s crowing, their post-Franco trophy haul is neither better nor worse than Real Sociedad’s, both sides winning consecutive leagues in the 1980s in a four-year Basque-fest of dominance.
All the above is actually a preamble to stating that the final in Seville is an event of socio-cultural significance, whether Spain at large gives a fig or not. There has been a tendency in the foreign press, particularly in the UK in recent years, to idealise the whole Athletic vibe – impressive though it is. But the idea that Athletic are somehow the sole representatives of Basque culture, the ‘flagship’ of the region’s football, is largely a myth of its own making, relentlessly fuelled by the club’s daily self-proclamation as to that alleged fact. The truth is rather more subtle, rather more interesting, but the foreign press prefers the myth. The myth also feeds the idea that the Basque Country is a mono-cultural collective when in truth the regions of Bizkaia (Athletic) and Gipuzkoa (Real Sociedad) are very different in temperament. There is a basic solidarity between the two regions, and derby matches are largely friendly affairs, but Bilbao’s insufferable self-belief can be politely described as Quixotic whist San Sebastian’s more cautious conservatism is easier to swallow. It makes for a fascinating contrast, as do the current styles of the two teams.
In terms of quality, Real Sociedad have the edge if they have their big guns up and running. A healthy midfield of David Silva, Mikel Merino and Martin Zubimendi – the latter perhaps the new Xabi Alonso – is capable of taking any side apart, whereas Athletic base their approach on the more traditional virtues of dagger-in-teeth aggression and spirit. That said, Sociedad have nobody like Iker Muniain, unlucky not to have been picked for the current Spain squad, and the centre-back partnership of the turncoat Iñigo Martinez plus Yeray is one of the best in La Liga. Yeray is the next Laporte. He won’t be staying much longer in Bilbao, and Unai Simon, their excellent keeper, probably won’t be either.
The game has become a regional obsession, with both communities attempting to outdo the other with outward displays of flag-waving proclamations and good-humoured banter. Schools have become red or blue centres, balcony flags speckle the urban landscape and when folks stop you in the street for a quick chat about whatever, the game either begins or ends the conversation. It has become all-consuming, slightly tiresome and yet it’s impossible to stay dry in the footy-soaked moment. The father of one of Real Sociedad’s defenders (I’ll keep it discreet) has moved into the flat directly above me, and the son comes over from time to time to hang out. A few days ago, having ventured to the bins, I was returning to the steps outside the building when said defender suddenly appeared from the main door, meeting his girlfriend who was walking her dog. The dog, on seeing the defender, jumped up in happy greeting and connected directly with his wedding gear, whereupon the victim effected the classic head-down grimace, hands clutching the offended parts. Amused and unable to resist, I quipped (from behind my mask) ‘Oye cuidado! Necesitamos a este el fin de semana’ (Hey – be careful! We need this guy at the weekend’). And I meant it. I don’t know if he was amused. You can’t really tell when people have masks on.
I’ll leave it there. It would be churlish to turn this article into some sort of anti-Athletic rant because in truth, if the game were to be played in normal circumstances, 60,000 Basques would have descended upon Seville and mixed peacefully but boisterously in the streets for days in a perfect display of what sport could and should be about.
In the stadium itself, the supporters would have sat together and taken the mutual piss in a friendly fashion that has developed naturally over the years. It’s brilliant, and a lesson to us all. Athletic consider themselves the most important sporting institution on Earth, but that is the endearing and defining quality of Bilbao’s baffling lack of self-awareness, whilst Real Sociedad are rather more modest and aloof in their pretensions, mirroring the more upmarket breeding of Gipuzkoan conservatism – sometimes to the detriment of the competitive edge that Athletic possess, almost genetically. But Sociedad play great football and produce as many, if not more, locally-bred Basque footballers from their ranks. That these two clubs, coming from such a small territory, have written such a significant chapter of Spanish football history says a lot about the Basques – who despite their wealth have never had an easy time of it. It’s an amazing place and I feel blessed to have raised my children here, one of whom was good enough to play alongside and against some of the players who will be on the pitch in La Cartuja on Saturday.
These two clubs have been waiting 111 years to enact this unique cultural celebration. Saturday is an important wee day in the history of the Basque Country that not even a damned virus can ruin, and if Athletic could just find it in themselves to generously gift a trophy to their little brother, they would be more than happy if big bro were to stuff Barcelona a fortnight later.
Phil Ball, San Sebastián