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Since the late 1920s, two clubs have been fighting for bragging rights as the best team in the Basque country. Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have played one another on over 150 occasions, with the former dominating the latter as the strongest side of the region.
Basque derby: The early years
The first ever fixture between both clubs took place on 4th April 1909 at the Atotxa Stadium. Club Ciclista de San Sebastian (now known as Real Sociedad) beat Athletic Bilbao 4-2 at home in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey. They went on to win the competition.
After the cup fixture, despite being separated by just over 60 miles, the sides didn’t face off for over a decade. During that time Athletic Bilbao were enjoying their success in the Spanish Cup. They captured the honour seven times – whilst Real Sociedad were just appreciating the early history as a football club.
The rivalry returned in 1923, before in 1929 both clubs were involved in the first ever La Liga campaigns. Real Sociedad took the lead in the game through Francisco Bienzobas, but midfielder Luis Bergareche equalised for the away side as the game ended in a 1-1 draw. In the reverse fixture, Athletic Bilbao strolled to a convincing 4-2 victory. Two of the goals came from forward Jose Mandaluniz.
Athletic Bilbao edged their domination into the 1930s, winning 6 of the 10 battles between 1930 and 1935. Also, Athletic’s 1935 side still hold the record for the biggest victory in the fixture. They humiliated Real Sociedad 7-0, with Agustin Sauto Arana bagging a hat-trick. The season ended with the side from San Sebastian being relegated to the second division as the Rojiblancos finished in fourth spot.
The Civil War (and aftermath)
The Civil War arrived the following year, and Spanish football was put to a stop from 1936 to 1940.
When football resumed, it took two seasons for Real Sociedad to return to the top flight. Meanwhile, Athletic Bilbao continued to finish in a strong position in La Liga. The 1941 season carried on the rivalry from where it left off. Athletic Bilbao thrashed their rivals 4-1 and picked up the victory in the reverse fixture through an early goal from Rafael Iriondo.
Despite losing both matches, Real Sociedad had bigger problems. With only five wins throughout the campaign they were relegated back to the second division.
After the death of the dictator General Franco, the two sides had shown some solidarity. On the 5th December 1976, both clubs marked the death of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The two captains held the Basque flag together in the middle of the pitch before kickoff to illustrate their Basque identity. Since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in November 1975, this was the first time the Ikurrina was displayed in public. The flag was escorted by a presentation from the Basque soldiers.
Many rights were removed from the people during Franco’s dictatorship, prohibiting the Basque flag among them. After Franco’s death, the flag reappeared. The fact that the flag was prohibited during his time made the people from the Basque Country more attached to it as it strengthened their love for the land; a key reason why the Basque and Catalan people often demand independence.
Even though the side were relegated and promoted a couple times, Real Sociedad started to dominate the Basque derby from 1968 to 1982. They came out as the winners in 18 of the 28 derbies.
In the early 1980s, Real Sociedad won back-to-back La Liga titles in 1981 and 1982. Athletic Bilbao replicated the achievement in the following two years. From netting 71 goals in 34 games during the 1982/83 campaign to finishing first above Real Madrid on goal difference in the 1983/84 season, these were the club’s last two league titles out of their eight in history.
As Athletic Bilbao still do today, Real Sociedad used to adopt a policy of only using players born in the Basque Country. La Real however broke the tradition as they were in need of help due to the neighbours being recognised as the bigger club, with their successful history and financial strength. In 1989, Liverpool striker John Aldridge became the club’s first ever non-Basque player.
Throughout the 1990s the Basque derby cooled down results-wise. In that decade, 11 of the 20 battles ended in a draw. Nevertheless, the 1997/98 campaign was a monumental year for both clubs. With Barcelona running away as the league leaders, second place was still up for grabs. The rivalry was taken to another level as Athletic Bilbao finished in second place, just two points above Real Sociedad.
Relegation trouble in the modern era
Going into the 21st century, Real Sociedad were close to completing a massive upset in 2003. They were involved in a title race for the first time in many years. The next few seasons were unthinkable for the club as they suffered a huge decline. It saw them get relegated into the second division in 2007. This was a tough time for La Real fans. Understandably, they were shocked at how the team went from title challengers to struggling near the relegation zone; it took Real Sociedad three years to return to the top flight.
Meanwhile, Athletic Bilbao were very close to being relegated the same year their rivals. They finished in 17th place, just one point above Celta Vigo, who were relegated. Until now, The Lions are one of the three clubs that have never been relegated from the top division (the other teams are of course Real Madrid and Barcelona).
Upon their return to La Liga, Real Sociedad finished in 15th and 12th in their first two seasons back. Then they surpassed everyone’s expectations during the 2012/13 campaign, including by completing the double over Athletic Bilbao.
With one month of the season left, it seemed either they or Valencia CF would capture the fourth and final Champions League spot. On the final day of the campaign, Real Sociedad won their fixture. Valencia lost, and they secured the crucial spot to qualify for the Champions League play-off round.
A still-relevant rivalry
Despite Athletic Bilbao finishing higher in the league than Real Sociedad in recent years, the rivalry still remains very competitive. In fact, The Lions are yet to complete a victory away at La Real since October 2011.
Not only that, but in 2013, Real Sociedad allowed the side to use the Anoeta Stadium for the first two home fixtures of the La Liga 2013/14 campaign. Athletic needed temporary accomodation while their new San Mames stadium was still under construction.
Rivalries aside, both sets of fans take part in a march together to the stadium known as “kalejira” instead of being split by the security which was organised some time ago following the agreements of the clubs. The supporters enjoy a few drinks and snacks as well as participating in a contest of chants before setting off for a walk to the stadium.
Which club has won more Basque derbies? Athletic Bilbao 72-53 Real Sociedad – 46 draws (up to 10/3/2017)
Around 87 years since their first match, the teams will meet once again in the second derby of the 2016/17 season on 12 March. It’s a fixture that will be closely watched. The Basque derby may not be the famous derby in La Liga but it has developed into a traditional one in recent years.