Bielsa’s Bilbao babes defy convention and will one day mature into champions
Atletico Madrid’s clinical 3-0 victory in last night’s Europa League final ended an epic journey for Athletic Bilbao’s exciting but naive young team, but should not overshadow what has been a superb season for Marcelo Bielsa’s side.
Athletic were understandably many neutrals’ favourites for the final. The ‘Bielsa Babes’ have thrilled fans worldwide throughout the competition, particularly against Premier League behemoths Manchester United.
The two United games in March showcased what makes Athletic stand out in today’s football. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team featured big money stars signed from around the world - England, Ireland, France, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, South Korea, Ecuador - while Athletic as usual fielded only players who hail from the Basque region.
This policy is central for the club, which has always seen itself as a symbol of Basque identity. It was cemented when General Franco ruled Spain from Madrid, and Athletic’s San Mames stadium was among the few places where Basque culture and language could be openly celebrated.
In those days Athletic fans could also experience winning football. During its first seven decades the club won eight La Liga titles and 24 Copa del Reys. In 1984 Javier Clemente’s tough side won the domestic treble and celebrated in traditional style by boarding ‘La Gabarra’ - an iron barge - to float down Bilbao’s river Nervion, accompanied by dozens of smaller boats carrying fans, while thousands more cheered from the river banks.
Such scenes are rare today. Clubs have become global corporations featuring players often seen as mercenaries, and La Liga’s big two Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated domestically.
Some have pointed out that in trying to chase success, Athletic have broken their own rules. The definition of Basque has stretched to include Navarre (Fernando Llorente) and even a Venezuelan international in Fernando Amorebieta. Bielsa is of course Argentine. But this is being churlish.
Young at heart
Of last night’s starting XI, nine made their La Liga debuts for Athletic. The only sizeable transfer – Ander Herrera – was born in Bilbao, joining Real Zaragoza as a boy as his father worked for the Aragonese club. This really is a generation of friends who have grown up together and who feel they represent something bigger.
Athletic’s style also attracts neutrals not concerned with politics or economics. Bielsa’s players usually attack constantly, not using lumped long balls, but accurate ‘vertical’ passes which cut through defences.
Their hard-working, energetic, physical style fits well with the club’s traditions, while the team’s youth (average age last night just 23) gives them an infectious enthusiasm.
Such attacking intentions can be dangerous though, and Diego Simeone’s well organised Atletico side were able to clinically pick the Bilbao defence apart last night. Amorebieta was at fault for both of Radamel Falcao’s first half goals, and was left trailing for Diego Ribas’ late third.
It was also telling that Falcao and Diego, both South Americans, were brought to Madrid in big money deals. Colombian Falcao cost €40m (Dh189m), and his transfer reportedly involved a controversial third-party arrangement, while Brazilian Diego is on loan from Wolfsburg.
More to come
With the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona on May 25, there’s still a chance ‘La Gabarra’ will again float down the Nervion before the season ends.
Worse than another final defeat. though, would be for Europe’s big clubs to tempt away home-grown stars Llorente, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain with large contracts. With the experience gained getting so far, this generation should both entertain and win trophies in the coming years.