It has been three years since Basque foes Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao last locked horns. Relegated to the second tier in 2007, La Real have just made their return to the Spanish top flight, with the two coming face to face for the first time this season at the Anoeta on Sunday evening. Setting the scene for an eagerly awaited resumption of a long-running rivalry, looks at the history of the Basque derby.


The sides first met on 10 February 1929, the opening day of the inaugural Spanish league season, with the game ending in a 1-1 draw. Since then Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have faced each other 126 times in the league, Los Leones holding sway with 53 wins to La Real’s 41, scoring 218 goals to their rivals' 171.

The defining feature of the story of the Basque derby is the largely cordial relationship between both cities. Less than 100 kilometres separate the elegant San Sebastian, a favoured retreat of the aristocracy in 19th century, and the industrial and economic hub that is Bilbao. Those contrasts have fuelled the local power struggle between the two conurbations, one that in footballing terms at least, has always been played out in an amicable atmosphere.

Relations have been somewhat more fraught between the two boards of directors. Attempts by both sides to lure the opposition’s most talented youngsters have provided a source of friction, the tension being heightened at times by the fact the two clubs traditionally pursued a policy of fielding only local-born players.

The winners of eight league titles, 23 Spanish cups and one Spanish Super Cup, Athletic’s stated policy is to select only players born in the Basque country. However, the club’s rules also allow for natives of the neighbouring region of Navarra to wear the red-and-white-striped jersey, as well as players of proven Basque heritage, such as former full-back Vicente Lizarazu, who hails from the French Basque country.

The less successful of the two teams with two leagues, two cups and one Spanish Super Cup to their name, Real Sociedad also pursued a strict recruitment policy between the 1960s and late ‘80s. Following an intense debate, club president Inaki Alkiza took a landmark decision in the club’s history by making Republic of Ireland international John Aldridge the first foreigner to play for Los txuri urdin (Basque for “white and blue”) in the modern era. The change in policy proved especially fruitful at the turn of the millennium, with the deadly strike duo of Nihat Kahveci and Darko Kovacevic and Russian midfielder Valery Karpin taking Real Sociedad to the brink of a third title in 2003.

Facts and figures
The biggest away win in the history of the fixture was Athletic’s 7-1 triumph in 1930, a game that began with La Real taking the lead and which included hat-tricks by Guillermo Gorostiza and Jose Iraragorri. As for Los Donostiarras, the 5-0 wins they chalked up in the 1976/77 and 1994/95 seasons remain their most emphatic.

Down the years, some 13 players have turned out for the two clubs, their switches of allegiance adding to the tension generated by the repeated attempts on both sides to poach their neighbour’s talented youngsters. The first player to 'defect' was Isidoro Urra in 1947/48 followed shortly afterwards by Antonio Aldonza. Thirteen years an Athletic player, Rafael Iriondo swapped red and white for blue and white in 1953, with Pedro Uralde, Luciano Iturrino and Loren the next to cross the divide.

From the 1990s onwards, a steady stream of Real discoveries have made their way to the San Mames, namely David Billabona, Bittor Alkiza, Jon Andoni Goikoetxea, Joseba Etxeberria, Mikel Lasa, Andoni Imaz, Igor Gabilondo and Iban Zubiaurre. And in a case of divided family loyalties, one derby match saw Real Sociedad midfielder Gaizka Garitano come up against his father Ondarru, an assistant to the then Athletic coach Mane.

Given the rich seam of local talent the two clubs have successfully mined over the years - from Athletic’s great goalscorer Telmo Zarra to La Real’s most famous sons, Luis Arconada and Xabi Alonso - it is little wonder they have sought to hang on to their carefully nurtured assets.

The rivalry today
“The derby’s a special game,” said Real’s Uruguayan coach Martin Lasarte, the man overseeing their bright start to the campaign after last season’s promotion. “Obviously there are points at stake but there’s also the rivalry and the passion. We have to be in the right frame of mind for this game, one we were desperate to make a reality last year. Now it’s here and we’re going to try and bring some more happiness to the fans.”

Both sides have virtually identical records going into Sunday’s match, having won six and drawn one of their 13 games so far. Los txuri urdin have the edge on Los Leones, however, lying one place above them in ninth, courtesy of a slightly superior goal difference.

Along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, Athletic have never been relegated from the Spanish top flight, and in FIFA World Cup™ winners Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente they certainly have the resources to overcome their newly-returned rivals. Yet, judging by the early-season form of La Real’s Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who has just made his 100th appearance for the club, Llorente and Co will need to be at his best.

And so, though the dust has barely settled on the latest clásico between the nation’s two superpowers, Spain’s football fans only have a few days to wait to sample another classic encounter, one with a history and tradition that is every bit as rich.