When the Basques dominated Spanish football

Spanish football is dominated today by Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, with Simeone's Atlético making a sporadic appearance, but this has been the case since the birth of the professional football league back in 1929.

Since then, we have seen 91 complete editions of the First Division (La Liga), of which around 80% have been won by Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, highlighting that there have only been nine different champions in all that time, so finding a period where any of those three clubs did not win the championship is rare.

Real Sociedad fans
Real Sociedad fans
At the beginning of the 80s, the two most important clubs in the Basque Country; Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were in charge of breaking with that hegemony, winning the leagues between 1981 and 1984, leading the region to its best football moment in history to date, with the additional merit of doing so without foreign players.

History and tradition of Athletic Club and Real Sociedad

Football arrived in Spain at the end of the 19th century, mainly in the regions of Andalusia and Galicia, by English immigrants who came to work in Spain and who ended up settling in the Iberian country. The practice of this sport was only for the British, although little by little it was capturing the attention of the locals and it spread throughout Spain, including the Basque region where the Spanish played matches against the English, something that allowed for closer ties between both cultures.

In 1898, a group of British students and workers settled in Bilbao founded the Athletic Club, which from the beginning had English players and managers. In 1904, the San Sebastian Recreation Club was born, a sports club that included a football section and that after some separation and name change would be known as Real Sociedad. The British influence was such within Basque football, especially in Athletic Club, that the design of the old San Mames was very similar to that of a typical stadium in England.

Between 1909 and 1911, both teams faced each other in the Copa del Rey, creating a conflict due to the presence of some foreign players during the matches and, because the lack of clarity in the competition regulations, this issue grew, until in 1912, the Spanish Football Federation ruled that clubs could only participate in the competition with Spanish players. In 1929, both clubs were part of the first professional football league in Spain, participating in the inaugural edition of said competition, finishing the classification in positions 3 and 4 (Athletic Club de Bilbao and Real Sociedad, respectively).

In the 50s, when Spanish football opened up to foreign players, both clubs were steadfast to the idea of playing with only Spaniards, with Athletic taking this even further by only accepting players from the region or trained in their youth teams. In 1961, Real Sociedad signed Agne Simonsson, a Swedish striker from Real Madrid and broke that tradition although Simonsson would only stay at the club for one year and then the San Sebastian club would not sign another foreigner until 1989, when they brought the Irish John Aldridge.

From then on, Real Sociedad continued to sign foreigners like any other Spanish team, while Athletic Club has remained faithful to that tradition of only Basque players to date.

The 80's

In the 1979-80 season, Real Sociedad was just one point behind champions Real Madrid, who were winning their third league title in a row. In the following season, Alberto Ormaetxea, a former club player who had already been working at the club as José Antonio Irulegui's assistant, had managed to consolidate a team that was characterized by its dedication and fight on the pitch. In the middle of the season, Real Sociedad was fighting to reach a position in a European competition that, at that time, was achieved by achieving, at least, fifth position in the league, however, that aspiration was small compared to what they would achieve.

Athletic Club de Bilbao
Athletic Club de Bilbao
After a great run of victories in which they beat, among others, Real Madrid and Athletic Club de Bilbao, the San Sebastian club, which had been very difficult to beat in their stadium, reached the last day with the possibility of to be champion and they achieved it with that Zamora's goal in the last minutes of the match against Sporting Gijon that tied the game, which allowed Real Sociedad to tie on points with Real Madrid but being favored by the results of the matches between both clubs. Thus, Real Sociedad managed to become league champion for the first time in its history.

In the 1981-82 season, the club maintained that local strength that characterized it, where it won 15 of 17 games at its stadium and drew the remaining two, which led them to repeat the title, this time with a victory over their classic rival and with a difference of two points with respect to second place, in this case, FC Barcelona. Between both seasons, Real reached an undefeated record of 38 games which, to a large extent, allowed them to achieve those two consecutive league titles and the only ones in the club's history.

A year later, Athletic Club de Bilbao managed to win their seventh league title, 27 years after their last success in the competition, with at that time, had a young Javier Clemente on the bench and a group of young homegrown players with enormous potential. Names like Zubizarreta, Goikoetxea, Sarabia or Dani remained in the history of the Bilbao club by beating the powerful big clubs in Spain and by avoiding the third consecutive title from their rival, Real Sociedad.

Interesting enough, in the 1983-84 season, as in Real Sociedad's second consecutive league, a Basque derby on the last day decided the championship, in this case in favor of Athletic Club, who equaled Real Madrid on points but which, again, by direct encounter, achieved its eighth and last league to date, also closing the cycle of greatest national success in Basque football.
Kelvin Tingling knows most things about football and also likes to write about it. Kelvin lives in Buenos Aires and his favorite team is Boca Juniors.