At the end of the 19th century, the sons of the British industrial revolution headed to the iron-rich Basque Country in their thousands. The northern city of Bilbao was rapidly emerging as the industrial powerhouse of the Spanish peninsula and its blossoming iron-mining industry had caught the attention of the British Empire.
A symbiotic relationship ensued as ships would set sail from Portsmouth and Southampton carrying miners, engineers and coal from places such as the north-east of England. In turn, those same ships would return to the UK with the iron and steel needed to maintain Britain’s place as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. In addition to this, the ships would also take back students from Bilbao’s middle-class families so that they could study engineering at the UK’s top universities. However, the Brits didn’t come armed solely with coal; they also came with something else, something that would become far more important for the Basque Country and Spain in general. They came with footballs.
The journey from Portsmouth to Bilbao by sea is gruelling, the Bay of Biscay has a terrible swell that can bring even the most ardent and experienced sailor to his knees begging for solid land. One can only imagine the sailors’ excitement as the ships approached the Basque coastline and Santurtzi Serantes Mountain came into view.
The land-lusting miners, who had only seen sea for the previous week, were desperate to disembark and find a patch of grass to play their favourite sport. The ships would enter the estuary of the Nervión river, sail past Serantes and head further down the Nervión into the heart of the city, where the ship would dock in Abando across the river from the University of Deusto.
In between the docks, the iron factories and shipbuilding yards lay a field. Over the years this field has had many uses: it was the site of a British cemetery until 1908, a runway for aeroplanes, and a football pitch. The wobbly-legged, land deprived sailors would utilise the field as a football pitch, often under the watchful gaze of young Bilbainos, some of whom knew nothing of this sport.
Amongst the heavily-accented English spoken by the players, they were just about able to distinguish its name, ‘Fut-Bol’. Eventually, the field became synonymous with the Brits who used it and it became known locally as La Campa de Los Ingleses (The Englishmen’s Field), and it was from this field that the sport of Football took off in Bilbao.
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By 1892 the sheer quantity of Englishmen playing football on this pitch next to the dockyard meant that they had to move somewhere that could adequately accommodate the growing population of Brits and their sport. In 1892, President Henry Jones Bird of the Club Athletic de Astilleros Del Nervión (Nervión Shipyard’s Athletic Club) wrote to the local authorities in Lamiako asking for permission to use the racetrack there as a football pitch during the winter months from November to April. Permission was duly granted and the racetrack became the new home of organised football in Bizkaia. Interest in the sport continued to develop as Bilbainos flocked to Lamiako to watch teams of British migrant workers challenge each other every weekend.
Two years later, the sport’s popularity, coupled with young Bilbaino students returning from England, meant that even the locals began to take part in the weekly game. It was also in 1894 that one of football’s first ever international matches took place as a group of Bilbainos challenged the Englishmen to a Bilbao versus England match.
The match was played at the racecourse in Lamiako and the foreigners ran out 5-0 winners. The local newspapers, still quite unsure of how the rules of the sport worked, reported that the Englishmen had won by ‘five points’. After the match, the Brits brought the beaten team roasted chickens as a consolation for the heavy defeat, and a prize out of respect for the audacity of the challenge.
The result did not discourage the local population, who continued their new-found love affair with the British sport. It was particularly popular among Basque students who had returned from the UK. In 1898, some of the said students who belonged to a gym named Zamacois decided to found an unofficial club dedicated to playing and practising football, and in 1901 the members of the club held a meeting at Café Garcia in the centre of Bilbao and made the club an official entity. It was called Athletic Club.
Two years later, a rival club was formed in the seaside neighbourhood of Algorta called Bilbao FC. Occasionally, the two clubs would join together to create a sort of Bilbao super team named Club Vizcaya de Bilbao, which played in the Copa del Rey during the tournament’s formative years, even winning the inaugural edition – the Copa de la Coronación – in 1902 after defeating FC Barcelona in the final. In 1903, Bilbao FC collapsed and merged with Athletic, and the side that emerged from the unification was called Athletic Club de Bilbao.
In the years proceeding its foundation it was still common to see Englishmen playing for Athletic Club as it wasn’t until 1912 that the club began to implement its Basque-only policy. In 1913, the club found its spiritual home when Estadio de San Mamés was built in Bilbao, only a stone’s throw away from La Campa de Los Ingleses where football had taken its first foothold in the city.
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Although the club began a policy of exclusively playing local-born players, it has always remained respectful to its British roots. The club has been described by some as anglophilic; the first managers of Athletic were English and they have had many English managers since their inception, the most noteworthy being Fred Pentland, who presided over a successful period for the club during his two stints as manager in the 1920s and 30s, and Howard Kendall, who had a less revered reign in the late-80s.
It is theorised that the club’s decision to play in a red and white striped kit was a nod to its connection with sailors from Southampton and miners from Sunderland, although it has also been stated that this could be something of a romanticised legend, and more than likely they wore the kit simply because it was the cheapest option at the time; nevertheless, the connection remains.
However, without a doubt, the club’s firmest link to its British roots lies in its name, Athletic Club, as opposed to the Spanish, Club Atlético. Even though they were forced to change to the latter under the oppressive regime of General Franco, the fans continued to refer to the club by its original Anglican name and they reverted back to Athletic at the first possible opportunity after the death of Franco meant the laws regarding such things were relaxed.
In the space of two decades, football went from being an unknown quantity to by far the most popular sport in Bilbao, and the seeds of this sport were sewn on a small field next to a busy, smoggy riverside dockyard. Today, the field, as well as the docks, no longer exist. The collapse of the mining industry in the late 1980s meant that the old docks and factories became obsolete. Urban regeneration was carried out throughout much of the city in the 1990s and the old quays were targeted in particular. The docks and the factories made way for museums, parks, bars, theatres and a lengthy promenade.
However, in 2011 a commemorative plaque was put in place in the spot of the original Campa de los Ingleses, which contains a poem about the sailors who first played football on this feted field. It tells the story of how the ball they were playing with would often end up in the river, and the sailors would have to throw stones into the rivers in order to create waves that would carry the ball to the to the water’s edge so that it could be picked up and returned to the playing field.
This is how football came to Bilbao, and Spain; in waves. It started in those dockyards, it moved to those racecourses and fields on the outskirts of the cities, and then it came back to the cities to large purpose-built stadiums filled with thousands of adoring fans. Wave, after wave, after wave
By Dan Parry @thelinesmanblog