The Spanish soccer power brings a storied history with it to Boise, one that dates back to English sailors at the end of the 19th century as commercial production of automobiles ramped up, the Klondike Gold Rush drew prospectors to Alaska and James Naismith invented basketball.
Here’s a breakdown of the key facts about the club:
Athletic Bilbao’s founding date sparks a debate among soccer historians.
British steel and shipyard workers introduced the sport to Bilbao, a port town in Northern Spain, in the 1890s, as did Basque students returning from England, home of the sport. The club’s first formation came in 1898, adopting the English spelling. But some historians claim its formal founding didn’t come until 1901.
Athletic stands as one of the pillars of Spanish soccer. It was one of the 1928 founding members of La Liga, the top level of Spanish soccer. Athletic, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only teams in league history to never be relegated to the second division.
Bilbao ranks second behind Barcelona with 23 Copa del Rey titles, awarded to the winner of the country’s domestic tournament. And it ranks fourth with eight league titles in history.
The club’s most successful years came in the early 1900s and in the 1980s, when it won a league and Copa del Rey title in 1983-84, Athletic’s last major trophies. It fought off relegation in the mid 2000s, but bounced back and qualified for the Champions League last season and finished second in the UEFA Europa League, Europe’s second-tier club tournament, in 2011-12.
The vertical red and white stripes define the home jersey of Athletic. But the colors came from a move of desperation.
Athletic first wore a blue-and-white kit similar to the English club Blackburn Rovers. But when Juan Elorduy traveled to England in 1909 to buy 25 jerseys, he couldn’t find enough blue and white ones. So instead of leaving empty handed, he purchased 50 jerseys from English club Southampton, which mirrored the red and white official colors of the city of Bilbao.
Twenty-five jerseys went to Bilbao and the other 25 to Atlético Madrid, another Spanish soccer mainstay which began as a youth team for Bilbao. Atlético Madrid still wears red and white stripes.
The team was one of the final holdouts to place a sponsor on its jersey before signing with Basque oil company Petronor in 2008. The Nike-produced jerseys will switch to a bank sponsor, Kutxabank, in 2015-16. The team will also move away from its Basque flag-inspired away jerseys for a black kit this season.
SECOND TRIP TO AMERICA
Athletic promoted its trip to Boise as its first to the United States. But an astute fan quickly corrected the club, reminding it of an April 4, 1967, game in Chicago, where Athletic topped Red Star Belgrade of the former Yugoslavia 3-1.
The trip was part of a promotion for the North American Soccer League, which started the following year, and the exhibition drew 9,786 fans, Dennis J. Seese wrote in his book, “ The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association.”
European soccer clubs don’t emphasize mascots to the extent of American sports teams. But Bilbao is known by the nickname of “The Lions,” which comes from a church near Bilbao’s home stadium dedicated to Saint Mammes, a Christian child thrown to the lions by Romans who tamed the animals.
The club’s stadium is known as San Mamés Stadium, and its players go by “The Lions of San Mamés,” or simply, “The Lions.”
Bilbao opened a new San Mamés Stadium in 2013 over the site over its former stadium, which debuted in 1913. The original stadium, called “La Catedral” (the cathedral), seated 7,000 when it opened and grew to 46,000 when it hosted World Cup matches in 1982.
The new stadium holds 53,289. And after earning the highest rating possible from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), it will host group stage games and one round-of-16 game for the Euro 2020, the national team championships for European countries.
Bilbao is one of four teams in La Liga, Spain’s top league, owned solely by fans as part of a “socios,” which translates to “partners.” The others include Barcelona, Real Madrid and Osasuna.
The team claims 44,385 partners of its club. Membership, which costs about $1,700, guarantees season tickets and voting rights for the club’s president.
Before opening a new, larger stadium in 2013 that could support more members, it was next to impossible to become a member, said Juanma Mallo, who covers the team for El Correo, the daily newspaper in Bilbao.