Europa League Final preview: Athletic Bilbao

Athletic have captured the hearts of neutral fans across the world with their entertaining style of play

Paul Irving

Wednesday night will showcase the first European final Athletic Club will be involved with since they lost the Fairs Cup final in 1977. While in recent times the club, known as Athletic Bilbao in the English speaking world – a name rejected by their fans – have been up and down in La Liga although they have never been relegated. They are a team who everyone knows; but why?

Athletic are a rather peculiar club. They are team that has a policy playing Basque only players. At this point, the only “foreigner” is Venezuelan internationalist Fernando Amorebeita though he qualifies to play for Athletic due to having Basque-born parents.

This season though they have risen to the forefront once again. With a credible campaign in La Liga and a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona as well to look forward to, it really has been a season to remember. And it’s not just their own fans that have witnessed their success – many others have grown to admire the Basque club due to their scintillating style of football. Some may say though, that this should come as no surprise when one casts their eyes towards the man in the dugout. This season and success is no doubt down to their brainchild of the operation, manager Marcelo Bielsa. The master of the operation is known to be a football fanatic, analysing his thousands of football video tapes and drawing up for each game, not just a Plan A and a Plan B, but a plan for every possible scenario. But it’s the first time one of his teams have had such a meteoric rise. Bielsa managed Chile at the last World Cup in South Africa and won similar accolades due to the attitude and style of football that was played.

Bielsa’s appointment has witnessed a revival in Athletic’s fortunes

He’s a one-off really on the world stage. He doesn’t communicate via the normal means with the press with one to one interviews, rather using the press conference as his platform of choice – conferences that have on occasion lasted as long as four hours, due to Bielsa’s insistence that all questions are answered, no matter their prominence within the media world. He’s also known to communicate very little with his players, instead having his coaches take much the work. Also noticeable is his unusual touchline behaviour of squatting down to watch the game from grass level, with wanders along the technical area, head down and deep in thought.

But what of the players? The most prominent is of course Spanish internationalist Fernando Llorente who spearheads the Bilbao attack. Another is fellow internationalist Javi Martinez, a midfielder who has been converted to centre-back by Bielsa, due to his preference to having a good ball player at the back. Expect as well, to a see a late introduction for striker Gaizka Toquero. A favourite with the fans he has little technical ability but his work-rate and relentless chasing down of opposition centre back in possession of the ball, has endeared him to the Athletic fans.

Many harp back to the time Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 with a squad made up of players all born within a thirty mile radius of Parkhead, but at that time having such a localised squad was not something out of the ordinary. What Athletic have done is today in modern times and it is staggering that they have had such levels of success using players only from within a region with a population of about 2.5million. Of course, there are those who say that wage incentives to the players make it easier to attract and keep of their players, but it still something to admire with success from so many local players. Athletic are a club to be admired and certainly one who could be on the brink of their greatest ever achievement.

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