This season’s La Liga campaign has been shaken up slightly with the inclusion of a third title contender, as Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid challenge the hegemony of El Clásico powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid for top spot.
The apparent gap between the top two and the rest has been transformed into a three-team mini-league, with a handful of other sides fighting it out to be the best of the rest and secure the all-illusive fourth Champions League qualification place.
Athletic Bilbao currently hold La Liga’s fourth position, and despite lacking the strength in depth to be capable of challenging the top teams in the division, are leading the chase to be next best.
The San Mamés outfit have a rich history and a proud identity around the Basque heritage of the club, which is very unique in not just Spanish but European football. With the globalisation of the game, foreign players infiltrating the major European top flights en masse and enhanced scouting networks, the next superstar for 99 per cent of clubs could originate from anywhere in the world.
However this is not the case for Los Leones, with Bilbao still maintaining their transfer policy of only having Basque players on their books. Although this has been relaxed slightly in modern times, there is still very much a feeling of identity between the club and those that take the field to represent it.
Despite being proudly Catalan and placing real importance on their La Masia youth system, some of Barcelona current stars and best players from their history have not had an affinity with the region. This cannot be said about Bilbao’s crop.
The northern club have a rich history of success also, having been crowned as Spanish champions on eight occasions; only the El Clásico pair and Atlético have won the top flight on more occasions. The last occasion was 30 years ago, when Javier Clemente’s side won the title in 1983-84.
Bilbao are also one of only three sides, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, that have never been relegated from the top flight since its inception in 1929.
Given that Bilbao only have Basque players on their books makes their continued presence and prospering in the Spanish top flight all the more impressive. The club have excelled in European competition also, beating the likes of Manchester United over two legs in recent years, and look able to qualify for the Champions League ahead of next season.
The 2011-12 campaign saw Bilbao come tantalisingly close to ending their trophy drought, when Marcelo Bielsa’s attacking and expansive side were agonisingly edged out of the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals by Atlético and Barca respectfully.
All football clubs feel a blow when they lose a top player, but parting company with long-serving stars who have come through the ranks must be difficult for the San Mamés outfit. In recent times Bilbao have seen arguably their two most prominent players depart for a new challenge with some of Europe’s finest.
Javi Martínez was much coveted after his versatile and impressive performances for club and country, and despite interest domestically opted to move to Bayern Munich after the German giants met his release clause in August 2012. Fernando Llorente, who had been the side’s attacking talisman for so long, left his homeland in the summer of 2013 for a new adventure with Italian champions Juventus.
Despite these notable depratures, the current crop at Ernesto Valverde’s disposal still has star-quality. However, just how long Bilbao can hold onto their top performers remains to be seen, and will be a real test to gauge the individuals’ affinity with the club and region.
Ander Herrera has been in strong form of late amid rumours that United tried to sign him in the summer; rumblings that the Old Trafford giants could return persist. Iker Muniain has not quite lived up to the superstar billing that he was laden with two years ago, but on his day the attacking midfielder is phenomenally talented. Finally, some intelligent moves in the transfer window of late have seen Beñat Etxebarria and Aritz Aduriz arrive at the Basque side from Real Betis and Valencia, with both playing their part in the club’s current strong campaign.
There is a certain romance about the ideology behind the San Mamés club, with the vehemently traditional club fighting to prosper in a sport that has been subjected to considerable modernisation and globalisation.
Although not currently able to match the financial muscle or pulling power of Spain’s top three clubs, 30 years after being crowned as champions it is refreshing to see Bilbao prospering in La Liga and heading the battle to be best of the rest.