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A home from home, behind the friendliest enemy lines..

In this dispatch, as part of the ‘Us and Them’ book project, Athletic Bilbao fan Debi Ritchie agreed to attend their Derby game against Real Sociedad and sit with the Real supporters…

Saturday 2 February 2019

Real Sociedad 2 Athletic Bilbao 1

This is the neighborly derby, where rival fans line the streets side-by-side socialising and travel to the match together sporting their distinct colours with pride.

The city of Bilbao has resounding similarities to Glasgow. One is the people. They make Bilbao and most certainly the whole Basque region. Friendly and warm-hearted, they are proud of their heritage.

Debi goes behind ‘enemy’ lines in San sebastian

Though fiercely separate clubs, Athletic and La Real are united in political stance. The ikurriña is the official flag of the Basque country and is represented on both teams’ strips and makes up the captains’ armbands. General Franco banned the ikurriña but one year after his death, before the Basque derby in December 1976 both captains carried the ikurriña onto the pitch. This moment played a part in its legalisation.

There is something special going on in football in this part of the world and it is not anything new. Both clubs pride themselves on having the best youth academies, developing home grown players and with Athletic still only signing players from the region, the commitment, loyalty and identity is strong. Maybe that is the secret to a successful club, although not every season is a good one for Athletic. Staying true to what they believe in, however – the Basque-only signing policy and developing young players – represents success in itself. Because what sustainable future would you have without youth?

Since 2015, Athletic have created a One Club Man Award (or Woman if one was to be awarded) a rarity in today’s football. Matt Le Tissier was the first to receive this award and the latest winner is the late Billy McNeil, who sadly passed away just days after being recognised. This award characterises what Athletic Club believes makes up their identity: Loyalty, respect, commitment, responsibility and sportsmanship.

It is derby day in San Sebastian. A lively service bus passes us. It is full of La Real fans chanting. Surrounding the stadium are vendors giving away free Chupa-Chups to children and inflatable models donning a red and white shirt, and one in blue and white. All of this adds to the family atmosphere. We collect our tickets and make our way in.

The red and white of Athletic is scattered amongst the blue and white of La Real in the Anoeta, a stadium in mid-renovation. To my right, best friends sit together, one draped in red, one in blue, the colours of opposition. The two are more than happy to pose for a photo pre-match. La Real youth product Mikel Oyarzaba opens the scoring for the home side. The celebrations from behind the goal are magical. Their second and winning goal comes on the 45th minute from Willian Jose, a beautiful strike that even we Athletic fans could admire.

Athletic pull a goal back, a penalty from Raul Garcia, with only eight minutes remaining. We gave a discreet clap and hidden fist clench. In contrast, a man draped in red and white jumped to his feet waving an Athletic flag frantically and chanting. No-one batted an eyelid. His rival friend gave a small shrug. The La Real fans surrounding him were not bothered. These two clubs respect each other and violence between the two appears to be non-existent. Full-time and it was La Real who were to have bragging rights this evening, though they acted as big-hearted fans rather than big-headed.

Outside, post-match friends and family ponder the match together in a gracious way, sharing tapas and sipping kalimotxos late in to the night.

Tomorrow will be another fine day in the Basque Region, where football rivals drink together.

To read more new journeys’ in football rivalry why not buy a copy of ‘Us and Them’ and help support the work of Nil by Mouth at the same time. The book cost £7 and UK and International delivery available.


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