Liga Preview: Athletic Bilbao – Barça, Saturday 4pmEST, GolTV (check local times here)
Don’t look now, but there are lions approaching. Hush, we don’t want to startle them. You see, they’re mainly nocturnal animals and we don’t need to distract them from their hunt just yet, before we’ve got the drop on them. No, I’m not kidding, they’re big, strong, have sharp teeth, and aren’t afraid of anyone or anything. Not even Captain Tarzan–I know it sounds crazy! But it’s true.
And don’t forget that we’re going into their lair. Back a wounded animal into a corner and it’ll come at you a hundred times more fiercely than otherwise. Those are some true words, buddy, I’m telling you. I’ve seen them devouring a wildebeast from 20 yards. No, really, I have. Crunching of bone, tearing of flesh, all that: real. I don’t like the idea of being put into a cage with one of those guys when they’re hungry. Come to think of it, I don’t like that idea even if they’re fully fed. Did you know a fully grown male can weigh more than 550lbs (250kg)? That’s two NFL offensive linemen. Two. Or one Refrigerator Perry, I guess.
So in we rumble to The Cathedral, San Mamés, Bilbao, Basque Country. The land of separatists and fierce cultural autonomy. This is a beautiful land, one I have visited and very much enjoyed, including the adventure when my brother left our EuroPass tickets on the train in Pamplona and we had to go to Vitoria-Gasteiz to get them. This land is steeped in tradition and folklore and because it’s so rich in history I’m drawn to it.
Bilbao proper was founded in 1300, but Old Bilbao (Bilbao Zarra) was founded some time before that. No one is sure where the name Bilbao derived from–not even what language–and I prefer to think of the city as having started organically, with some Basques getting together and suddenly there was a town. Like most places in Europe, the city has had a tumultuous lifetime, with fires and earthquakes reducing large portions of the place to ash or rubble, including their main church, Catedral de Santiago, but it has recovered handily.
The city’s fortunes took a turn for the better in 1511 when it was granted the exclusive rights to the export of merino wool by the Spanish Crown. What sounds like not much of a hullabaloo was actually an economic coup for Bilbao–if you know anything about wool and the power of wool trading in the 1500s (and who doesn’t?) you’ll know that merino wool is fantastically soft and wonderful enough to make Snuggle Bear hyperventilate. Because of that, Bilbao became a major trading port, located on the northern coast as it is, and was able to survive economically during the periods of hardship for the rest of Spain that were set in motion during the Industrial Revolution thanks mainly to those trade partnerships.
And the Basques are no joke when it comes to wars, either, having never been conquered during the Carlist Wars, despite being besieged numerous times. They’ve immortalized this fact in the city’s motto: “The most noble and most loyal and undefeated” which may or may not take into account the concept that the Carlist Wars had a fourth act in which this guy you may have heard of, Francisco Franco, kind of, um, took the city in June, 1936. Details, schmetails.
This is not, however, some quaint backwater that survives on its past laurels. Instead, and perhaps surprisingly, it is home to the architectural wonder/abomination (depending on who you ask) that is the Guggenheim Museum as well as several two hundred star restaurants (or whatever) that Mario Bitali was more than happy to visit in his documentary, Spain: on the road again, which was generally excellent, by the way.
All of that is just prelude, of course, to the history and present-day magnificence of that other team, the one that just won’t go down to the second division, Athletic Bilbao. Founded in 1898, it is a year older than our beloved club and it is second behind Barça in most Copa del Rey’s won.* They won the first 3 installments of the CDR and appeared in the final the next 2 years as well. They’ve won the league 8 times, putting them fourth all time, just below Atletico de Madrid (9) and just above Valencia (6).
Their stadium, the aforementioned Cathedral, was built in 1913, making it the oldest stadium in the league (Sporting Gijon’s El Molinón was a field and not a proper stadium prior to that, apparently), but it’s not just the age that’s so great about San Mamés, but also the absurdity with which they pack the stadium and the surrounding areas. As I understand it, there’s a sea of red and white outside the stadium, tailgating as Basques do: in bars with tapas and other meat products, putting many American sports complexes utterly to shame with their passion and wanton drinking. The atmosphere in the stadium is, apparently, both euphoric and tense, as the crowd riles itself up against the non-Basque intruders. Remember that the club draws its players mainly, though not exclusively (as Osasuna fans will point out, no doubt), from the Basque population and the fact that they’ve never been out of the first division becomes all the more impressive.
The term Los Leones for the team probably comes from San Mamés, a church near the stadium named after a Christian saint who was supposedly thrown to the lions by the Romans, but the lions refused to eat him. And then he became a saint. Since the name was adopted, however, I think the ferocity of their mascot has infected the team, which is cool.
There’s no specific hatred that I know of between Athletic and Barça, perhaps based on the autonomy claimed by both regions, perhaps because of the cantera system both employ, or perhaps because both teams just hate Madrid a ton. There are several Basque Barça penyas and the scenes from last year’s CDR final were fairly joyous when it came to the fans hanging out together and drinking some crapass Spanish beer before the match. Sorry, but commercial Spanish beer blows. Seriously. Estrella? Ew. Bud Light is better than that swill. Okay, maybe not, but still, ew.
[I’m so distressed right here–I wrote a long and I thought very good preview that, when I pushed “publish” deleted itself because my wireless router chose that moment to spazz out. My level of anger just went from “la-dee-da-happy-day” to “I will fucking murder you“. Seriously. It was an hour’s worth of writing that I didn’t bother saving because I pushed publish. How uncool is that. I had detailed everything–everything–and had links and pictures and….aaaaaargh. So what you get now is a sped up version, a version with no frills. Sorry.]
Athletic sit 8th in the table, tied on points (16) with Sporting Gijon. So they’re not bad. But on to us:
Our squad list: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Puyol, Piqué, Chygrynskiy, Márquez, Maxwell, Xavi, Keita, Busi, Iniesta, JDS, Messi, Henry, Bojan, Pedro!, Jeffren.
Our absences are: The Yaya (H1N1 swine flu–I think it has him, not him having it), Abidal (injury and H1N1–I assume it’s the only time he couldn’t outrun it), and Ibra (injury). Both The Yaya and Ibra are expected back for the Inter match. Keita and Puyol also have slight knocks (I had a whole paragraph about Puyol not caring and slaughtering fools on the field with or without healthy knees–but it’s gone! Aaaargh).
My predicted lineup: Valdes, Alves, Márquez, Piqué, Maxwell, Busi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro!, Messi, Jeffren.
Sorry Banjo Crickets, no love for you because we’ll need some wider wing play and that comes from Jeffren and his gelled hair. I could see Keita getting the nod in midfield if he’s fully recovered and Iniesta being shipped up front onto the left again, but I’d rater see him in midfield to prepare him a bit more for the Inter match.
Official prediction: 1-1. Yeah, we drop points and fall to 2nd in the table as Madrid drop Racing at the Bernabeu. So it goes. Our goal comes from Pedro!, naturally.
Match time: 10pm local, 4pm EST/New York (check your local time here)
Referee: Teixeira Vitienes, who hasn’t reffed a Barça match this year, but was the ref for Sevilla’s dismantling of Athletic in August at San Mamés (0-4). I know nothing about this ref, to be honest. He was the ref for our 6-0 thrashing of Valladolid at the Camp Nou on November 8, 2008 (when Eto’o scored 4 in the first half), for what that’s worth.
Liveblog: Would you like to run the liveblog? I can’t because I’ll be at my first ever live NBA game (watching the Nets and Knicks struggle to both lose, of course) and probably won’t make it back before kickoff and poor unlucky Kevin will be on a plane headed to Barcelona, Spain (you may have heard of that place).
PS If some of this doesn’t make any sense, I apologize–it literally cut the size of this preview in half. I discussed tactics and made Puyol as Tarzan references and made some witty puns…I better stop thinking about it or I’m going to break something or pop a blood vessel in my brain. Sigh.
*The exact number is disputed, listed as either 23 or 24 because the inaugural cup, in 1902, was won by Club Vizcaya (alt spelling, Bizcaya), a team that, in 1903, became know as Athletic Bilbao. I tend to side with the 24, as does the club itself, for obvious reasons, but in case you care, the LFP and RFEF do not list it as an official win or Athletic–I wonder what they would have done if Club Vizcaya’s second incarnation in 1907 had won the final instead of losing to Madrid CF. And that brings up the rather dicey question of who gets that legacy: the now-defunct Club Vizcaya (second iteration) or the still-existent Athletic Bilbao. It’s all so confusing.