Buber’s Basque Page, Sports Edition, Part 3: Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League

Being a somewhat older American, my appreciation for soccer (or futbol, though to be fair, soccer may have been the original term for the sport, even in England) is limited. When I lived in Donostia, I of course saw the Real Sociedad banners in all corners of the city and knew that there was an intense and “bitter” rivalry between the Blues and the Reds down the road. My dad’s family, being Bizkainos, of course are Athletic Bilbao fans. Big ones.

(To be honest, I don’t know if the rivalry was all that bitter. I got the impression that Real fans would root for Athletic Bilbao if they were playing a non-Basque team and vice versa. Your own team first, but the Basque teams next. But maybe this is the kalimotxo talking…)

In any case, I never really got into soccer. While of Basque ancestry, I’m still an American with a much greater interest in American football, basketball (at least, before the Sonics left Seattle) and even baseball.

Yep, I like baseball better than soccer. However, whenever one of the Basque teams is doing very well, I do take notice. And, Athletic Bilbao just advanced to the Champions League. This is a big deal. It’s the first time they’ve done it since 1999.

Now, those of you who don’t know about Athletic Bilbao (and are probably reading this because you had too much kalimotxo and blindly stumbled onto this blog), they are a unique phenomenon in the sports world. As opposed to almost all other teams in every professional league in the world, be it NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB in the United States, or equivalent leagues in other countries, Athletic Bilbao only takes players from or with a connection to the Basque Country. They don’t hire the best players from anywhere in the world, only Basques or players trained in the Basque Country. That a major professional sports team can have such a policy and be successful is simply amazing.

And Athletic Bilbao has indeed been successful. They are second only to Barcelona in the number of Copa del Rey cups they have won and are fourth in the number of times they have finished in first place in the La Liga. However, the glory days of Athletic Bilbao were quite some time ago. The last Copa won was in 1984, the same year they last finished first in La Liga.

I have to admit, I don’t understand the European football championship system. It seems there is La Liga in Spain (and equivalent leagues in other countries) and then there is the Copa del Rey, which is the tournament that takes the best teams from La Liga to declare a championship. But then there are the Europa and Champions Leagues.  Last year, Athletic Bilbao made it to the Europa League, which seemed a big deal to me, but friends of mine who are big into British and Swedish football told me that wasn’t all that big of a deal. The real teams were in the Champions League.

Which brings us to 2014. After defeating Rayo Vallecano 3-0 today, Athletic Bilbao now has a berth in the Champions League. The biggest tournament in Europe. It’s time to hear the Lions roar!

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