With their proud tradition and long list of honours, Athletic Club de Bilbao forms an integral part of Spanish football history. The Basques are the third most successful club in Spain and the only side along with Real Madrid and Barcelona never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight.
Many of their former players, legends of the game such as Rafael Pichichi Moreno, Ricardo Zamora, Telmo Zarra and Jose Angel Iribar, live on in the memory of the fans, and some 110 years after their foundation Athletic Bilbao have maintained a tradition of fielding only players native to the Basque country or local talents who have come through their youth academy.
Birth of an institution
There was a strong British influence in Bilbao at the end of the nineteenth century. British ships came and went in numbers, and it was not long before sports clubs began to sprout up across the city, giving locals the chance to enjoy tennis, cycling and, of course, football.
It was at one of these clubs, Gimnasio Zamacois, where 33 members decided to form a football team called Athletic Club, and on 5 April 1901 the club was officially founded at the Cafe Garcia. The new outfit's fiercest rivals were Bilbao FC, and together the two would start to forge the legend of Bilbao football.
The adversaries would join forces the following year to contest La Copa de la Coronacion, a national tournament held to commemorate the coronation of King Alfonso XIII. Competing under the name Club Bizcaya, the combined team won the event, which would later become known as the Copa del Rey, and a year later Bilbao FC merged officially with Athletic Club.
Making of a legend
This successful start set the tone for Los Leones, and in the years that followed they garnered a number of regional and national titles. Further enhancing the club's stature were the goalscoring feats of Pichichi Moreno, whose distinctive nickname would be immortalised in Spanish football history with the award of the Pichichi Trophy to the top scorer in the league each season.
The boom in football's popularity led to the creation of the National League Championship in 1928. Under the stewardship of English manager Fred Pentland, Athletic Club won four league titles and four cups before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Never seen without a cigar and his distinctive bowler hat, Pentland was one of the most important figures at the club in the pre-war era.
During the austere 1940s Athletic nurtured their youth players in a bid to remain competitive. The policy paid off as the Basques embarked on one of the most glorious periods in their history, with the fabled forward line of Rafa Iriondo, Venancio Perez, Jose Luis Panizo, Zarra and Agustin Gainza helping them to three championships, two cups and numerous runners-up spots.
The creation of the European Cup in the 1950s allowed Athletic to pit their wits against the continent's biggest sides such as Manchester United, who knocked them out in the quarter-finals in 1957. One of Los Leones greatest ever achievements came the following year when they beat the all-conquering Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Inspired by the iconic Jose Angel Iribar in goal and Jose Francisco Txetxu Rojo up front, Athletic enjoyed further domestic cup success in 1969 and 1973, and reached the 1977 UEFA Cup final, losing out to Juventus. The club also reaffirmed their commitment to their long-standing youth policy with the creation of the Lezama Academy, one of the most respected in Spain.
The arrival of Javier Clemente as coach marked a transformation in Athletic's fortunes. Boasting the likes of Andoni Zubizarreta, Andoni Goikoetxea and Manu Sarabia in their ranks, they ended a 27-year championship drought by winning the title in 1983 before adding a league and cup double in 1984.
The red-and-whites have suffered their ups and downs since those glory days. Rafael Alkorta, Bixente Lizarazu and Julen Guerrero formed part of the side that thrilled the San Mames faithful by finishing second in the league in 1998 - the club's centenary season - and earning a place in the UEFA Champions League. Athletic have remained faithful to their home-grown policy, and reached some impressive heights, such as the Copa del Rey finals of 2009 and 2012 and Europa League final of 2012.
San Mames was one of Spain's oldest stadiums. Known as La Catedral (The Cathedral), it had an original capacity of 7,000 and staged its first game on 21 August 1913, when Athletic Club de Bilbao played out a 1-1 draw with Racing Irun. Seve Zuazo had the honour of kicking off the game and Pichichi wrote his name in the club record books by scoring the first goal at their new home.
However, after 100 years of history, La Catedral was closed and demolished in 2014. Since September of that year, Athletic have played home games in a modern five-star UEFA-ratied stadium, El Nuevo San Mames.