Athletic Club de Bilbao

Founded: 1898

Old names: Bilbao Football Club, Club Bizcaya, Club Vizcaya, Atlético Bilbao

BilbaoHEAD COACH: Marcelino

PRESIDENT: Aitor Elizegi

CAPTAIN: Iker Muniain

NICKNAME: Los Leones (The Lions), Athletic Bilbao, Bilbao, Athletic

STADIUM: San Mamés

RIVALS: Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, Alaves, Eibar, Osasuna, Atletico Madrid

Athletic Club, commonly known as Athletic Bilbao is a club based in the city of Bilbao in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain.

They are known as Los Leones because their stadium was built near a church called Saint Mammes. Mammes was a Christian who was thrown to the lions by the Romans and he managed to pacify the lions and was later made a saint.

Bilbao have won La Liga 8 times, the 4th most among clubs behind Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

The club has won the 2nd most Copa del Rey titles, however, with an astounding 23. They are just behind Barcelona who have 30. It is the most successful Basque football club in terms of both, league and cup titles won.

The club is one of the three founding members of the top flight of Spanish football – the Primera Division (La Liga).

Athletic is the only club apart from Real Madrid and Barcelona to have never been relegated from the first division.

Bilbao is one of just 4 teams alongside Real Madrid, Barcelona and Osasuna to be owned by the club members itself and not by an external party or corporate.

Athletic Bilbao’s biggest rivals are Real Sociedad in what is called the Basque Derby. The other rivalries are with the other 3 clubs in the Basque Country – Alaves, Eibar and Osasuna.

Bilbao also has a healthy rivalry with the Madrid-based teams – Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Bilbao was the parent club of Atleti back in the days.

The club is known for its “cantera” policy of developing football at the grassroots in the Basque Country and bringing them up the ranks to play with Spain’s elite.

Athletic’s official policy is to sign players who are native to or trained in football in the greater Basque Country, which includes Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Álava and Navarre in Spain. It also includes Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre in France.

Since 1912, Athletic has played exclusively with players who are deemed to be Basque. It is the only club in Europe that only has local players or have Basque roots.

The club’s policy has led to the development of players in Spain and has led to the growth of talent in the country.

The rule is only for players, however, and not coaching staff. Bilbao is not a multisport club. It focuses solely on football.

History of Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao

San Mames – The Home of Athletic Bilbao (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Football was introduced to Bilbao by two groups with British connections: British workers and Basque students returning from schools in the UK.

Migrant workers from the northeast of England including Southampton, Portsmouth and Sunderland, brought football to Bilbao and formed the Bilbao Football Club.

Juan de Astorquia along with Luis Astorquia and a few other students who studied in the UK, founded the Athletic Club in the Basque Country.

In 1902, Athletic Club and Bilbao FC joined hands to be called Club Bizcaya and elected Juan de Astorquia as the president.

The club enrolled for the Copa del Rey and won the competition as well. This led to the merger of the two clubs in 1903 to be called Athletic Club.

In the same year, under the presidency of Juan de Astorquia, some Basque students also formed Athletic Club Madrid, which later evolved into today’s – Atlético Madrid.

Bilbao declared 1898 as its foundation date.

Early Copa del Rey success

Bilbao won the inaugural Copa del Rey as Club Bizcaya and then won it again but this time, as Athletic Bilbao in 1903 under captain and President – Juan de Astorquia.

In 1904, Bilbao were handed the title by virtue of a walkover as their opponents failed to turn up. In 1907, the club renamed itself to Club Vizcaya after entering a combined team with Union Vizcaino.

Bilbao went on to win the Copa del Rey after a lull period in 1910 with Luis de Astorquia as the new captain and goalkeeper of the side. They then went on to complete a hattrick of trophies between 1914 to 1916.

Rafael Moreno Aranzadi who was popularly known as Pichichi, scored the first goal at Saint Mames in 1913 and a hattrick in the 1915 final.

The La Liga golden boot has been named after him.

The first La Liga season

Athletic Bilbao were the founding members of La Liga in 1928 alongside other Basque clubs – Real Sociedad, Arenas Club de Getxo and Real Union. In 1930, Deportivo Alaves joined the league making it 5 of the 10 teams being from the Basque Country in Spain.

Fred Pentland – an icon

In 1921, British coach Fred Pentland took over Bilbao as the head coach. In 1923, he led the club to success in the Copa del Rey and revolutionalised the style of play.

Pentland left Bilbao in 1927 but returned in 1929 as the club did back-to-back doubles in Spain! Athletic Bilbao won both La Liga and Copa del Rey in 1930 and then repeated the feat in 1931.

Bilbao also ended up winning the cup 4 times in a row from 1930 to 1933 and finished as La Liga runners up in 1932 and 1933.

In 1931, Bilbao crushed Barcelona 12-1, which is the biggest defeat the Catalans have ever suffered in their history.

William Garbutt and Bilbao’s first La Liga title

William Garbutt led Athletic Bilbao to their first league title in his first year itself as he inherited a talented squad that featured players Guillermo Gorostiza Paredes and Agustín Sauto “Bata” Arana.

Garbutt promoted Angel Zubieta to the first team at the age of just 17 as he went on to become the youngest ever footballer to play for the Spanish national team at the time.

Bilbao did not win the league for the next 7 years after success in 1936.

Atletico Bilbao and Zarra – the club’s greatest ever goal scorer

In 1941, Athletic had to change its name to Atletico Bilbao because of a decree that was issued by Francisco Franco.

Telmo Zarra, Spain.

Telmo Zarra, Spain

It was in this year when the great Telmo Zarra made his debut for the side. He remains the club’s greatest ever goal scorer with an incredible 335 goals to his name and it is unlikely anyone will match his numbers for the club.

His 38 goals in the 1950-51 season stood as a record for 60 years that Cristiano Ronaldo beat when he got 40 in the 2010-11 season with Real Madrid in La Liga.

Bilbao won the domestic double in 1943 as they won the league and cup titles. They made it a hattrick of Copa del Rey trophies as they retained the title in 1944 and 1945.

Atletico Bilbao was a very strong team in the 1950s with the legendary forward line of Zarra, Panizo, Rafa Iriondo, Venancio and Augustin Gainza.

Coach Ferdinand Daučík led the team to the double in 1956 and also won the Copa in 1955 and 1958. In 1956, the club also made its debut in the European Cup.

The 1960s were dominated by Real Madrid, and Atlético only had 1 Copa del Rey win in 1969. The decade, however, did see the emergence of club legend, José Ángel Iribar.

Atlethic Bilbao only managed 1 Copa del Rey win in the 1970s as well, which came in 1973. In 1977, Bilbao reached the UEFA Cup final but lost to Juventus because of the away goal rule.

Javier Clement’s successful years

Javier Clement took over as manager of Bilbao in 1981. He created one of the club’s most successful teams ever. In 1983, Bilbao won La Liga, and in 1984 won the league and cup double.

1985 and 1986 were pretty good years for the Basques as they finished 3rd and 4th in La Liga, respectively.

The club has failed to achieve any success since the Clement days and that is the disappointing sign for one of Spain’s most historical clubs.

Barren run since 1983-84

Athletic Bilbao are on the verge of 40 years without success in the league and cup. They did win the Spanish Supercup in 2015 and 2020 but have failed to win the major Spanish silverware.

The club has never won the European Cup either and will be hoping to win some silverware soon.


Inaki Williams of Athletic Club celebrates with Iker Munaian
(Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Club Records

MOST APPEARANCES: José Ángel Iribar (614)
TOP GOALSCORER: Telmo Zarra (333)