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Athletic Bilbao and the tragedy of FC Messi

Athletic Club Bilbao and FC Barcelona have shared many memorable moments over the years. It is one of the biggest and oldest rivalries in Spanish football.
Athletic Club Bilbao and FC Barcelona have shared many memorable moments over the years. It is one of the biggest and oldest rivalries in Spanish football.
Raj Das
ANALYST
Modified 23 Jun 2020, 19:48 IST
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Athletic Club Bilbao have a proud history and for a good reason. Along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, they are one of the three founding members of La Liga, Spain’s top division football league, and have the enviable distinction of never being relegated from first division football.

Like their other, more illustrious counterparts Real Madrid and Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao have no corporate owners. They are instead owned and run by their faithful club members. Moreover, Athletic Club Bilbao focuses only on football, and have not forayed into other sports such as basketball and handball, as Real Madrid and Barcelona have.

What makes Athletic Bilbao even more special is that for a long time, the club has had a policy of only letting in Basque players in their team. This meant that only players of Basque ethnic origin could join the club’s cantera (youth team), and only players from other Basque clubs, most notably Real Sociedad, could be bought by the Bilbao club.

The historic rivalry between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao are a formidable force in Spanish football who always look to punch above their weight against Catalan rivals Barcelona.
Athletic Bilbao are a formidable force in Spanish football who always look to punch above their weight against Catalan rivals Barcelona.

Culturally and politically, Barcelona and Bilbao are like oil and water. One ethnic group of people considers itself to be imbued with Spanish purity; the other, Catalonia, demands political cessation from Spain.

The Basque country, located on the north of Spain, is distinct for the proclamation by its people that they are, ethnically-speaking, the ‘true’ Spanish people. The proud history of Spain often intertwines with Basque folklore and legend so much so that today Athletic Club Bilbao itself has become a symbol of Basque pride and glory, just as FC Barcelona symbolises Catalan sentiment and nationalism.

The people of Bilbao pride themselves on their Basque origins, considered to be one of the ‘truest’ Spanish races
The people of Bilbao pride themselves on their Basque origins, considered to be one of the ‘truest’ Spanish races

Barcelona and Bilbao’s football is similarly laced with feisty dollops of history; a rivalry that goes back to the pre-Civil War Spain.

More recently, during the 1980s, Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea deserved much credit for bringing the club to the world’s notice, when in a league match in 1983, his horrible tackle on Diego Maradona almost ruined the Barcelona man’s career. The match earned Goikoetxea a famous soubriquet as Jimmy Burns explains in his book Maradona: Hand of God:

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Edward Owen, a British freelance journalist who watched the game, coined the memorable phrase ‘the Butcher of Bilbao’. (Burns, 2010, p. 115)


That match also solidified the belief that Bilbao were a strong and no-nonsense team; a team not to be trifled with. Since then, the rivalry between Bilbao and Barcelona only intensified, and it reached a boiling point in the 1984 Copa del Rey final where Bilbao ran out 1-0 winners in a heated game that descended into a fracas with players from both sides kicking each other.

It was a really horrible episode in Spanish football, where men from both sides displayed their mixed martial arts talents instead of footballing skills. Even the police struggled to separate the two sets of players. That was also Maradona’s final game in a Barcelona shirt. Therefore, the Blaugrana club and its fans have always held Athletic Bilbao partially responsible for the departure of one of their greatest ever players. 

Athletic Bilbao also boast big-margin victories against Barcelona, a fact that many Blaugrana fans do not like to recall or be reminded of. Bilbao beat the Catalan side 8-1 in a February 1931 La Liga match. Other such big-margin wins include a 6-1 win over Barcelona; two 6-0 wins against the Catalan club and a stunning 12-1 win. Such scorelines suggest that historically Athletic Bilbao have been a very prominent and bitter rival for Barcelona. 

The animosity between the two clubs exists even today, with Bilbao ending Barcelona’s dreams of a second sextuple. Luis Enrique’s men were denied the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, after losing to Bilbao 5-1 on aggregate. Every time these two historic rivals meet on the pitch, there is always a lot of speculation and after-match analysis, and this one was no exception. 

It does not matter which players are playing on which side; when Barcelona and Bilbao collide, even the gods seem to take notice. Matches against Bilbao may not be as crucial in significance for Barcelona as the El Clasico, but Bilbao have shown enough times in history, and even recently, that they can be one of Barcelona’s most bitter rivals.   

The tragedy of FC Messi

Lionel Messi exults after scoring against Athletic Bilbao.
Lionel Messi exults after scoring against Athletic Bilbao.

It is indeed unfortunate that even if Barcelona win against Bilbao, they are not assured of a third consecutive La Liga title unless Real Madrid drop points in their subsequent games.

At almost 33 now, and bereft of both his pace and youth, Lionel Messi cannot afford to not win major trophies. Barcelona, of course, are Messi FC now, having been relying on the Argentine legend very heavily since the departure of Neymar in 2017.

Every Barcelona headline is about the diminutive Argentinian; he alone seems to be the one. Despite fatigue and rising expectations, Messi seems to be delivering every matchday, either coming up with a goal or an assist.

Therefore, it comes as both a surprise and a shock that his performance against Sevilla was criticised by some sections of the media and fans. Even after failing to score against Sevilla, Lionel Messi has a stunning record of 37 goals in as many games against the club from the south of Spain.

How easily people forget his prolific performances and records garnered for Barcelona over the years! In the cut-throat commercial business of football, past performances do not count for much; one is only as good as one was in their last game.

Lionel Messi (right) will be looking to be at his very best against Bilbao. But even that may not be enough to win Barcelona the 2019-20 La Liga title.
Lionel Messi (right) will be looking to be at his very best against Bilbao. But even that may not be enough to win Barcelona the 2019-20 La Liga title.

It is indeed a tragedy that even with a spectacular performance against Athletic Bilbao, Lionel Messi may end up not winning the 2019-20 La Liga title.

Visions of that 4-3 El Clasico victory from 2017 come to mind when a spectacular 93rd minute Messi goal wasn’t enough to win Luis Enrique’s Barcelona the Spanish top-flight title. Such an instance could repeat itself on a smaller scale tonight.

If Lionel Messi does not perform against Bilbao tonight, he will be criticised. Even if he plays the best game of his career against Bilbao, it could still end up meaning nothing in the long run. This indeed is the tragedy of FC Messi.     

Published 23 Jun 2020, 19:43 IST
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