Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad ready to renew a special Basque derby rivalry
It will all start around 11 o'clock on Saturday morning -- derby day -- at one of the most emblematic locations in central Bilbao. Athletic fans in red-and-white-striped shirts will confront Real Sociedad fans in blue and white and try to wind them up, get the better of them, by going through a catalogue of carefully-crafted put-downs of their rivals and eulogies of their own cause. When they've had a go, la Real's fans will have a go back. And so it will go, round and round, every line more pointed than the last until eventually, when the winner is clear, they will shake hands and set off to the ground together.
Five hours ahead of the Basque derby, the 10th edition of the bertso derbia will take place in the Sala BBKA, a cultural centre in the heart of the city. It is a Basque tradition of street poetry, in which quick-thinking, invention, creativity and comedy are key; two teams of bertsolari or poets -- Oihana Bartra, Onintza Enbeita and Jon Maia vs. Amets Arzallus, Oihana Iguaran and Agin Laburu -- will compete against each other, almost like a rap battle, Euskadi-style. Listening and laughing will be a theatre full of people, many wearing club colours.
When it ends, there will be time for a giant T-bone steak or some pintxos, a dizzying variety of food nailed to small chunks of break with cocktail sticks. There will also be time for drinks along Pozas, the long, narrow street, on which every door seems to be a bar with red-and-white flags hanging above the entrances, and at the end of which stands San Mamés, the new home of Athletic, standing on virtually the same spot as the old San Mamés.
The bertso derbia, which this year will tour schools in the days before and which will be aimed especially at children on Saturday, is designed to foster the idea of healthy rivalry and respect among fans, even while they take each other on. It is another expression of how this game is not the same as all the rest, a derby like no other.
"You only have to look to see it," says Xabi Prieto, the Real Sociedad captain. "You see friends together in the stands, partners, families, people watching it together and living it together. There's never any violence, no problems. It's admirable."
That's not to say it has been entirely without issues -- it hasn't -- or that there is no rivalry -- there is -- but this is genuinely a different derby, a relationship apart.
"There's a rivalry, sure, but it's healthy," Prieto says. "I have no problem at all recognising the huge merit they have and I'm convinced that they respect what we do here too. If you talk to Athletic players, they see it."
If that is a diplomatic remark and a touch optimistic; if there have been issues between the clubs and if la Real's abandonment of a Basque-only policy was in part a consequence of Athletic's pursuit of a similar policy; if they do compete and not always equally, for support, for talent and for their share of the market; if they are real rivals and if they desperately want to win the derby, then there's still something in Prieto's line.
There's certainly something in this part of Spain -- if you call it Spain, which some don't -- and the Basque Country has a special place in and connection to football, as well as a particular identity. It produces a lot of good players, although as a proportion of first-division footballers the number has dropped a long way, well into single figures compared to more than 40 percent when the league began in 1929. It has clubs, whose identification with their communities is particularly intense. Successful clubs, special ones.
"I don't know what, but it definitely has something," Prieto says.
Maybe it's genetics, he offers; maybe it's the level of identification; maybe it's the work done with youth football. Maybe it's togetherness in the dressing room, which is perhaps easier to create when you have a more homogenous group of men from similar backgrounds and with similar, often shared experiences, literally and figuratively speaking the same language. Of the first-team squads at Athletic and Real, 21 and 15 respectively have played for their club's B team. No other Spanish club else has as many. Across the two clubs, 29 players were born in the Basque Country: 19 at Athletic, 10 at la Real.
La Real and Athletic are not Euskadi's only clubs but they are the biggest and most symbolic. Navarre-based Osasuna's name is Basque and many fans consider them as such, but they are not, strictly-speaking, administratively in the Basque Country. They're in the second division but, even without them, primera has four teams from the region. Last season, the Basque Country accounted for 1.4 percent of the Spanish territory, 4.9 percent of its population, and 44.44 percent of the top nine in La Liga. They also had a Copa del Rey finalist, with Alavés facing Barcelona.
Things don't look so good this time around: Alavés are 18th, Athletic 14th and Eibar 13th. Only Real Sociedad are in the top half and they're 10th, two points ahead of Athletic. Both have been knocked out of the Copa del Rey, collapsing to embarrassing defeats against Second Division B sides Formentera and Lleida respectively and, while they are through to the next round of the Europa League, they have not impressed. There have been injuries, sure, but there also has been disappointment and six league defeats each, meaning the chances of qualifying for Europe next season are decreasing.
Athletic have scored just 16 goals in the league, while la Real have conceded 28; only Betis and Las Palmas have let in more. There have been whistles in the stadiums; for Athletic, there have even been banners at Lezama, the training ground, calling for manager Jose Angel Ziganda to leave. When you're a club that insists on exposing players to the community and in never shutting doors, that can happen. It might help; it might not. And even if you do draw the shutters, you cannot immune yourself. The pressure is on for Ziganda and his counterpart Eusebio Sacristan.
As one local newspaper said, at the end of the derby two things await: "gold ... or torture." This, it was added, is a case of "two teams, one need." Which is one way of putting it, but there are others. Just ask the bertsolari with whom derby day in Bilbao begins.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.