Andleven villagers were enough to bring down a giant, so it goes. On the day the 1958 World Cup final was played in Solna, another game took place 2,200 miles south, which wasn’t where they wanted it but that made it better in the end.
Athletic Club de Bilbao – Atlético then, by dictatorial decree – had requested the final of the Copa del Generalísimo be held in a neutral city, but the Generalísimo wasn’t going anywhere which meant that nor were they. At best, they were told, Spain’s showpiece game could be moved to the Metropolitano so they said let’s stick to the Santiago Bernabéu. That way, more of their fans would get in to see them win it.
Which was pretty bold, a bilbainada – a song and a mindset, a declaration of invincibility all the better if it’s against the odds. They followed through on it. In front of 125,000, it finished 2-0 against that Real Madrid in their own home, a month after Paco Gento’s goal had given them the third of five consecutive European Cups. Once aldeanos – 11 villagers, an entire lineup of locals – had done over the world’s side, Athletic’s president Enrique Guzmán declared, the name of a team and the identity of a club expressed in a line that lasted.
On Sunday night, footage from the 1958 final was broadcast on the screens at San Mamés before the Basque derby against Real Sociedad, in honor of Mauricio Ugartemendia Lauzirika. Born in Gernika, an Athletic midfielder for 11 years, making 295 appearances and getting 72 goals, scorer of the second in that final that would define them, the man who ran Bar Poxpolin after he retired, “Mauri” had passed away two days earlier , aged 87.
The club’s anthem was played on the piano accompanied by silence from the stands, the teams lined up wearing black bands. And then, when it finished, Athletic’s players paid him tribute by beating Real Sociedad 4-0 despite missing a penalty. Athletic hadn’t scored four against la Real in 45 years – and the last time they had won a derby by four goals, Mauri was still playing.
Legend has it that when the captain Piru Gaínza collected the cup in 1958 he turned to Franco and said: “See you next year.” Actually, he didn’t, but the Once Aldeanos – Carmelo, Orúe, Garay, Canito, Mauri, Etura, Artetxe, Uribe, Arieta, Aguirre, Gaínza – were some team: league winners in 1956, cup winners in 1955 and 56, they defeated Honved and beat the Busby Babes 5-3 in 1957 (although, down to 10 men, they lost the second leg at Old Trafford), before winning that final against Di Stéfano’s European champions. The following season, Mauri scored a hat-trick against Celta during a run in which Athletic won 9-0, 9-0, 8-1 and 7-0 in a row. The year after, they scored six against Oviedo, five against Atlético, four against Barcelona. And beat Real Sociedad 4-0 at San Mamés.
Times have changed, though, and it didn’t happen again. It didn’t look much like it was going to happen this time, either. “Strip away all the paraphernalia that surrounds a derby and what you’re left with is an unsmokeable chestnut, ”Claimed El Correo Vasco. Rubbish, in other words.
That was only a half-truth: the paraphernalia is part of the point, maybe even the whole point. Football without feeling is worthless and there may be no game anywhere with the depth of identity that this derby has, the culture, the pull of history and the connection to its community on both sides. There’s no meeting more local and there certainly isn’t anywhere you would see blue and white shirts spread around red and white stands even on a night when no away tickets have officially been sold. The games are often fun, with something enjoyable in the different styles within a context where much is shared. This wasn’t bad either, yet there was something in that comment, certainly in the first half.
There wasn’t much football and, although Raúl García managed to get a yellow card after four minutes, there weren’t even that many fouls: nine each in the 90 minutes. There was not much blood, not much thunder, and in the first 45 minutes there weren’t any goals. Not least because Álex Remiro, the former Athletic goalkeeper who was whistled and chanted at throughout, whose mistake cost la Real the last derby, saved an Iker Muniain penalty, earning temporary revenge and two kilos of beef from a local radio station. But, the Athletic coach Marcelino García Toral insisted, the fact that Athletic didn’t disappear from the game after that, that they “never got demoralized”, was “supremely important”. And then suddenly, midway through the second half, it exploded.
The Athletic striker Iñaki Williams talked afterwards about how he loved and had missed that feeling that “every corner is a goal [and] teams fear us “. The sporting director, Rafael Alkorta, conjured up the combination of expectation and excellent delivery, big men with granite foreheads waiting for the ball, referring to corners as “half a goal”, and if that wasn’t quite right either it wasn’t I know far off. They’re better than penalties, anyway. Athletic have scored two of seven spot kicks, Muniain becoming the third player to miss; on Sunday night, by contrast, from corners they scored two from six. And then, liberated, launched into their opponents.
Dani Vivian headed in the first corner on 68 minutes. Less than four minutes later Oihan Sancet volleyed in the second. He had only been on the pitch 10 minutes but he changed the game completely, scoring the second, leading the move for a superb third, finished by Williams, and assisting Muniain’s fourth.
It all happened so fast that la Real didn’t have time to work out what was going on, and nor did anyone else. They had played in Europe on Thursday night, arriving back on Friday, and although the midfielder Martín Zubimendi insisted “that’s no excuse: we can’t let ourselves go after letting in one goal”, their physical condition probably played a part.
Athletic’s certainly did: no team produce as many high-intensity runs, flying around the field. Williams was unstoppable, right side and left, every surge in step with the stands, like they were the ones pressing the accelerator. “It’s easier when you go hand in hand with the fans,” he said. Suddenly, they were coming from everywhere. In 19 minutes, Athletic scored four, the noise rolling round. By the final minute, the olés were too.
“A perfect night,” the Correo Vasco called it. “A merciless destruction,” AS said. “What a tearing apart,” Marca declared. The Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil said: “I’m the one to blame and that’s it, full stop.” Marcelino beamed: “I’m proud of my players for letting me experience the joy of another magical night at San Mamés.”
Another was the word. There’s something childlike, almost sweetly disbelieving about Marcelino’s smile, there again on Sunday night, and it has been seen a lot lately: in the past month alone, Athletic have beaten Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona and have now scored four against Real Sociedad, their first derby win in five taking them to within a point of their rivals and just two from a European place.
Level at 1-1, they also have the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final to come, having knocked out Barcelona and Madrid. The last time Athletic scored four against Real Sociedad, in 1977 in a 4-2 win, it was two months and one day before they played a cup final against Betis. Sunday night was two months and three days before another cup final. They meet Valencia in one semi-final; Betis lead Rayo in the other.
If Athletic get through, that would be three consecutive finals, plus two Super Cup finals, one of which they won against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona having beaten Madrid to get there. Marcelino meanwhile is 90 minutes away from reaching his fourth in a row, having won it with Valencia before joining Athletic (where his first di lui was inherited from Gaizka Garitano).
Omens have a habit of ending up empty, they will never get back that fortnight when they lost cup finals against Real Sociedad and Barcelona, and there’s a hint of desperation, a need to take this one last step, but to have got this far is an achievement, like something from another time. And, as Marcelino insisted, “it’s not chance”. This may not be Once Aldeanos exactly, but it doesn’t get much closer these days: every player in the Athletic squad was born less than 100 miles from San Mamés, where they turned Sunday night’s derby into a homage to Mauricio Ugartemendia Lauzirika and all those men who came before them.