Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and a Spanish Derby Worth Watching

Written by: Greg Lea
Updated October 14, 2022
5 min read
Spanish Derby Worth Watching

Real Sociedad looks like being the surprise package of the La Liga season. Imanol Alguacil’s side may have lost their last three games, but they have still accumulated 26 points after 16 games and sit third in the table. The title will surely be beyond them – they have drifted to +15000 with DraftKings Sportsbook – but La Real look capable of securing a place in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League.

Athletic Bilbao, their rivals from the Basque Country, have not had as much to cheer so far in 2020/21. They have won just five of their first 15 fixtures and sit 10th in the standings as 2020 comes to a close.

At this time of the year La Liga has usually wound down for its winter break, but the games continue to come thick and fast in this most unusual of campaigns. On New Year’s Eve, Athletic Bilbao will take on Real Sociedad at San Mames, before both teams return to action at the weekend.

Ahead of Thursday’s 147th meeting between the pair in Spanish league soccer, we have taken a look at the history of one of the richest rivalries in the country.

A Distinct Cultural Identity Extends Into the Sphere of Soccer

Spain is a highly regionalized country that is often described as a “nation of nations”. Those from the Basque Country in the north have a particularly strong local identity. While there is less support for independence than in Catalonia, Basque nationalism has long been a significant force within the region.

On many issues, then, Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao are united – and that is what makes this rivalry so fascinating. There is little in the way of deep-seated animosity between the two clubs and their fans, and this is not a derby that provokes the sort of regrettable violence seen in other fixtures of its kind. In fact, supporters of both sides often sit alongside each other during games between la Real and Athletic.

Just as the region has its own unique symbols and traditions, its interpretation of soccer is often different to that in the rest of Spain. There have of course been exceptions, but teams representing Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad are often defined by their aggression, intensity, and will to win. Fans from the Basque Country often relish the physicality of the sport more than their compatriots from elsewhere.

The Basque Country, which is officially an autonomous community, has produced numerous players for the Spanish national team. Xabi Alonso hails from the province of Gipuzkoa, while Andoni Zubizarreta was born in Alava. Didier Deschamps and Bixente Lizarazu are from the French part of the region. There is a ferocious passion for soccer in these parts, and it is notable that while the Basque Country makes up less than 1.5 per cent of Spain’s territory, it provides 20 per cent of La Liga’s 20 teams.

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Over a Century of History Shared Between the Region’s Biggest Clubs

Athletic Bilbao came into being in 1898, while Real Sociedad was founded in 1909 – the same year the two clubs met for the first time. In 1913 Athletic were the opponents when la Real inaugurated their Anoeta stadium, with the teams playing out a thrilling 3-3 draw. Pichichi, the legendary Athletic forward after whom La Liga’s top scorer award is named, notched the first-ever goal at Real Sociedad’s ground.

In 1929 both teams were founding members of La Liga. In the 91 years since then, Athletic have never been relegated out of the top division, meaning they are the only club other than Real Madrid and Barcelona to have been ever-present in Spain’s foremost soccer competition.

One of the most memorable moments in the history of this fixture came in 1976 when captains Inaxio Kortabarria and Jose Angel Iribar held aloft the Basque flag in the first derby following the death of General Franco. Such public displays of regional identity had been prohibited during the dictator’s long rule. This was an example of the unity between the two clubs, whose soccer rivalry does not really extend beyond the pitch.

The following decade was the golden era of Basque soccer. Real Sociedad won back-to-back league titles in 1981 and 1982 before Athletic followed suit in 1983 and 1984. Neither team has won the championship since, leaving Athletic stuck on eight crowns and Real Sociedad on two.

Athletic Bilbao’s Unique Recruitment Policy Is Still Going Strong

The most remarkable thing about Athletic Bilbao is their Basque-only recruitment policy. To this day, the club only signs players who were raised in the greater Basque country (including the French areas) or came through an academy in the region. This has been their approach since 1912 and is a unique case in the European game. Unsurprisingly, it means Athletic invest a great deal of time and money in their academy.

Real Sociedad once had the same policy, but by the late 1980s, they found it increasingly difficult to compete while only employing Basque players, with Athletic often getting the pick of the best talent in the region. The signing of John Aldridge, the England-born Republic of Ireland international, was initially unpopular with sections of the fan base, but they were soon won over when the former Liverpool man started scoring a goal every other game.

Even though they no longer sign players exclusively from the Basque Country, Real Sociedad continue to focus heavily on youth development. Sixteen members of the current squad came through the academy, while Alguacil is a former la Real player who has also coached the club’s youth teams. Supporters may not be allowed into stadiums in Spain just yet, but Thursday’s clash between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao will be another expression of Basque identity.

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Greg Lea

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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts.
Nationality: American
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Politics
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