On Sunday, Athletic Club Bilbao won the Spanish Super Cup. It accomplished this by defeating the two powerhouses of Spanish football — Real Madrid in the semifinal and Barcelona in the final.
In the final, Athletic Bilbao trailed 2-1 but leveled the match in the 89th minute. It went on to score a 3-2 victory in extra time.
Athletic Bilbao is a special team. Most European clubs are full of foreigners. In Sunday’s match between Liverpool and Manchester United, only eight of the starting 22 were British. Bilbao not only excludes non-Spanish players, it excludes anyone not born or raised in Basque country.
Imagine an American sports team that limited its players to one region. It would be maligned as chauvinist, possibly sued for discrimination, and probably criticized by its own fans. But in Spain, where separatism is a major issue, the Spanish government and the EU wisely leave well enough alone.
How does Athletic Bilbao fare? Quite well. It is one of the most successful teams in the history of Spanish football, having won the championship eight times. In recent years, the team hasn’t come close to breaking the Real Madrid-Barcelona stranglehold on the championship, but neither has any other Spanish club apart from Atletico Madrid.
Nowadays, Athletic usually finishes in the top half of the table and this year’s victory in the Super Cup was the club’s second in the past seven years. In addition, it made the round of 16 of the Europa League in 2018. Plenty of big European clubs can’t match that record of accomplishments. Everton is one of them.
Observers say Athletic Bilbao makes up in cohesion and spirit what it lacks in diversity. But that’s not to say that Athletic lacks racial diversity. The star man in the final against Barcelona, and one of the club’s top players, is Inaki Williams, a Black. He was born in Bilbao and raised in Pamplona to Ghanaian parents who crossed the desert on foot on their way to Spain.
I think it’s awesome that an old school club that true to its roots and principles enjoys success in the mercenary world of contemporary European soccer.