Andoni Goikoetxea: the Butcher of Bilbao

Andoni Goikoetxea: the Butcher of Bilbao

TREAD A PATH through every football-obsessed city on earth and seldom would you find the home of a retired professional footballer without the walls or spare rooms of their home habitually decorated with awards, medals, or shirts; mementos and keepsakes from their playing days proudly displayed for all to see. Their careers cruelly eroded by the inevitable passing of time, these treasured vestiges are gifted new life as the last tangible traces of a fleeting dream come true, providing an accompaniment to the stories each souvenir holds dear.

For Andoni Goikoetxea Olaskoaga, though, it is not an award, medal or shirt that takes pride of place in his home. Instead, it is said that displayed proudly in a protective glass box in his living room are the pair of football boots worn on the day he broke the ankle of one of the game’s greatest ever players.

While for much of his career the nickname ‘El Gigante de Alonsotegi’ (The Giant of Alonsotegi) satisfied the most pseudonym-inclined of Euskaldunak, a more poignant title awaited the fallout of his most infamous tackle. Following his attempted assassination of Diego Maradona’s career, Goikoetxea was to be forever remembered as a hero to some and a villain to others as the legend of the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ was born, at the very centre of the 1980s’ most destructive Spanish rivalry.

Pore over footage of a game from the early 1980s and you are likely to witness the makings of an event far removed from the kind we know so well today. Sure, hardly a dramatic mutation was needed to form the contemporary game; three decades on and the ball’s still round as 22 players still chase it. But one characteristic stalked the hallowed turf, praying on the weak, unaware it was soon to be hunted to near extinction. That characteristic was an unabashed physicality, a hallmark of the times that made football from yesteryear a different beast entirely.

Scarcely protected by timorous referees, whose job back then more appropriately matched that of a shrinking boxing official, players’ shin pads routinely received rigorous stress tests. The types of tackle to make a millennial wince were rife but were rarely met with more than an apathetic caution. It seemed, in the referee’s eyes, the game must go on – even if the striker with the now-lopsided gait cannot.

As the 1970s surrendered to the 1980s, Andoni Goikoetxea, or Goiko, was busy climbing his way up the Athletic Club ladder, intent on becoming the very embodiment of this idiosyncratic physicality. Part of a four-man wrecking crew, he and his fellow Basque defenders made a fine living keeping their side’s clean sheet intact by any means necessary.

To the likely bewilderment of the modern viewer, Goiko seemed at all times not only willing to scythe down his opponents but delighted by every opportunity to do so and never was he more pleased to oblige than when a Barcelona player was on the receiving end.

The very antithesis of Barcelona’s flair and creativity, he appeared, in towering Bilboan form, aroused by the thought of enacting his own brand of cathartic retribution against those he saw as being the purveyors of the game’s superfluous posturing.

Such actions wouldn’t prevent him from delivering extended apologies after the game on occasion, should anybody have come away from one of his interventions injured. Though more convincing monologues have been given by children in detergent adverts, so these often fell on deaf ears.

All the while Goiko and co. sought to shackle the Blaugrana, Barcelona seemed determined to ride the challenges, inspired by the belief that clubs like Athletic resorted to such bare-knuckle tactics only because they couldn’t match them for skill. Predictably, this would further incense the Basque team, offended by Barcelona’s superiority complex and sense of woeful persecution, which only made them tackle even harder, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Like a spiritually devoid yin and yang, the two existed almost only to further aggravate the other; their grievances a thorn in the side of the other’s grander ambitions. Which side truly represented the dark side and which side the light was an ever-changing abstraction depending on exactly whom you asked. After all, what really constitutes good football?

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While the pitch was often a suitable setting for their fractious meetings, all too often their philosophical fissures saw it become a battlefield. Fuelled by a desire to win, but poisoned by their contrasting ideologies, Barcelona and Athletic sat opposite one another at the LaLiga roundtable, eyes undeviating from the other’s, bonded throughout the most toxic period of their entwined histories.

Worst of all, their country was 30 years into a bloody conflict which had seen hundreds of deaths. On a civil war scale, Basque separatist groups had long been fighting the Spanish for their independence, assassinating Spanish government officials and bombing locations around the country whose grasps they wished to be freed from.

With the bad blood evident in their games, and the damnations of warring managers which often preceded it, the clubs’ actions within the world of football had seemingly begun to mimic those of their natives’ outside of it. What was once a fan’s release from the barbarity of the Basque conflict seemed to be fast becoming just another form of vile political expression.

The first flashpoint of the saga took place during the 1981/82 season. In a desperate attempt to procure the ball from the tricky feet of Bernd Schuster, Goiko awaited the West German’s arrival with a foot held around knee-height. Though he successfully halted the talented import’s run, his unorthodox block sent the young midfielder tumbling to the floor, his acute cruciate ligament torn.

Sidelined for nine months, Schuster missed the remainder of the season, where he watched on in agony as his side threw away their five point lead at the summit of LaLiga in the space of just five games, gifting Real Sociedad the title. The distraught 21-year-old also missed the 1982 World Cup in Spain, from which his country could only depart as losing finalists.

Meanwhile, Goiko was blacklisted by the Barcelona culés for his part in putting an early end to what should have become a standout year for Schuster. Supporters of both Schuster’s club and country were left to wonder what could have been achieved should his and Goiko’s paths never met on that fateful day.

When Barcelona and Athletic met on 24 September 1983, around two years later, Schuster was determined to get his revenge. In some scenarios, his manager or team-mates may have sought to extinguish the player’s vengeful agenda in order to focus on the match ahead. To practice what they preached, they could well have taken the high road, reminding Schuster that they were only on the wrong end of the studs because those fouling had no other way of stopping them. But no such placating came from Barcelona. Instead, he was roused further.

In the build-up to the match, Barça’s bohemian coach César Luis Menotti and Athletic’s staunch leader Javier Clemente could hardly talk about anything besides one another, both as eager to denounce the style and ridicule the beliefs of the other, in the hope of entering their bout with the upper hand already established.

The previous season Barcelona had beaten Athletic in both of their encounters, giving Menotti’s words a tangible edge, but Athletic had done enough to secure a successive league title despite those losses, and so Clemente had the final laugh.

As the game approached the hour-mark, it seemed as though Menotti’s men would once again emerge victorious. 3-0 to the good and with few reasons to suspect a Athletic comeback in the closing moments, Schuster looked to end the game with every box on his to-do list ticked: game won, solid performance, Goiko injured.

With nummer drei yet to be accomplished, the German sought to rectify it with an uncharacteristically crunching challenge. The ‘Blonde Angel’ had shed his wings for a moment in order to return the favour to the defender who had wronged him two years previous.

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The sight of Goiko’s being felled was cheered rapturously by Barça fans, fully supportive of their midfielder’s moment of madness in the honest pursuit of redemption. Unfortunately, the tackle wasn’t to Schuster as the stone was to David, as the Bilbaíno Goliath, Goiko, wasn’t incapacitated by the challenge, only enraged.

Goiko stormed around the pitch, his narrowed eyes trained on Schuster, eager to complete the trilogy of their comings together. Diego Maradona, ever the committed conciliator, attempted to calm the aggrieved defender. In his autobiography, Yo soy el Diego, the Argentine claims to have tried to calm Goiko’s rage by reasoning with him: “Take it easy, Goiko, chill out, you’re losing 3-0 and will just get booked for nothing,” he pleaded.

Whether Maradona’s words were received without due context and were thought to have been made mockingly, or Goiko simply ceased to care who he took down so long as he ended the tie as the aggressor, he recalibrated his aim. Now in his sights was the shaggy-haired South American who had attempted to reason with him moments ago.

Just as how in Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion it is stated that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction; similarly, in Goiko’s lesser known third law of defending, it is stated that for every display of scintillating technical prowess or flagrant disrespect there must be an equal and opposite display of damning brute force.

Maradona received a routine pass in his own half and controlled it with the aim of meandering around his marker into the opposition half. From deep, theA thletic number 3 careered forward into an area of the pitch previously foreign to him, with the sole aim of maiming Maradona. His studs-up ‘tackle’ made contact midway up the calf of the Argentine’s standing leg, snapping his lateral malleolus (outer ankle) and rupturing every ligament in proximity.

In Maradona’s own words: “I just felt the impact, heard the sound – like a piece of wood cracking – and realised immediately what had happened.’’ The writhing Argentine was lifted gingerly from the turf and stretchered off, the player’s hands covering his face, distraught. Meanwhile, remarkably, the referee gesticulated at Goiko berating him for his inadequately timed tackle before showing him a yellow card, almost as though to warn him against trying such an assault again. Of course, such measures wouldn’t be needed. Maradona’s season was already over.

It was in the mind of British journalist Edward Owen that the epithet the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ had been conceived upon his witnessing of these events, while in Spain. Not only did the evocation of a man customary to casual slaughter perfectly suit the habits of Goiko, but, as described by Jimmy Burns in Maradona: The Hand of God, the term ‘butcher’ had long been used by Basques as “the ultimate insult” as they had for many years “used such words to describe the repression against them” by those at the helm of their country.

Upon review, the Spanish FA deemed the referee’s caution insufficient and hit Goiko with an 18-game ban, though after two appeals this was revised and subsequently lowered. The Butcher eventually missed just seven games through suspension, and even made it back in time to secure another league title with his Athletic teammates, eclipsing Real Madrid on goal difference. Meanwhile, Maradona continued his rehabilitation with metal pins in his ankle.

Before the match that could have been Maradona’s last, Menotti had measured his blows carefully. With some tact, the Argentine had told the press: “The day Spain [Clemente’s Athletic] decides to be a bullfighter rather than a bull on the pitch it will play better football.” After the game, however, no such subtlety was afforded. Not while his team’s star player awaited x-rays to assert exactly how much damage had been caused to his leg.

Menotti banished Goiko and his antics to a breed of “anti-footballers” and demanded for him to be removed from the game altogether. Such comments were deemed fair from a manager left seething, although if the referee had fallen short of issuing a red card at the time of the tackle, calling for them to even entertain the idea of a lifetime ban was bordering on the absurd. But Menotti could do little else, so he relented.

Even more than an anti-footballer, some believed Goiko to be a football terrorist. Though the Basque’s primary separatist group – the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque Country and Freedom) – saw their violent actions across Spain as necessary for the Basque people’s independence, the Spanish saw them as acts of terrorism. The Spanish government claimed to have offered amicable talks with the separatist groups, yet, the Spanish believed, they continued their terroristic acts simply because they wished to.

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Similarly, given its timing and its consequences, he believed his efforts were necessary to defeat Barcelona. In its very existence as a fair and sporting occasion, Barcelona believed they had offered Athletic the opportunity to win fairly yet, Barça believed, Goiko continued to perform acts of footballing terrorism simply because he wished to.

As time elapsed and the two sides drifted further from geniality, every event saw the dichotomy of these two teams and their contrasting ideologies only further entrenched. While those opposing the Basques – on and off the field – saw Goiko as a terrorist; his people believed him to be a hero. This was never more adequately evidenced than in the home game that followed his injuring of Maradona.

Facing Polish side Lech Poznań in an important European Cup fixture, Goiko scored the opening goal in a 4-0 victory, helping to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg, carrying Athletic into the next round. At the game’s end, it was he who was being carried; atop the shoulders of the home fans who were proudly chanting his name. Barely a week later, he was called up to the national side.

While Goiko was fast becoming a living contradiction to the theory of karma, his popularity at home made it hard to imagine why Goiko would seek to find contrition for his more primitive displays at all when they were being celebrated by the Basques as vehemently as they were being condemned by the Catalans.

Barça and Athletic would meet a further three times before the curtain fell on the 1983/84 season. The two immediate ties were relatively funereal in atmosphere compared to the raucousness of the games that preceded them, as even the burgeoning rivalry between the sides failed to disguise the fact that their competing in the two-legged Supercopa boasted nothing like the importance their league or cup games held.

However, the second of those matches did grant Maradona a first shot at redemption, as he arrived at the San Mamés with a point to prove. With his sleeves rolled up and his chest puffed out, the Argentine auteur dragged his teammates by the scruff of the neck and directed the game his way.

Through a poor excuse of a footballing contest – the two sides committing a record 50 fouls between them; almost obfuscating the supposed ‘beautiful’ game beyond all recognition in the process – Maradona grabbed both goals in his side’s 2-1 win, announcing his return to fitness in style and showboating on the very doorstep of the player who had nearly ended his career.

But the two teams were still to meet in the Copa del Rey final in the season’s grand finale, and this frenzied encounter was to ensure the clubs’ rivalry would culminate in the most deplorable fashion ever witnessed by their country.

Even without regard for their recent past and the animosity forged in fire by their fierce confrontations, the cup final between Barcelona and Athletic could scarcely have meant more. For Barcelona, holding onto their Spanish cup would represent an essential silver-lining to a truly forgettable season. For Athletic, victory would see them snatch the trophy straight from Catalan hands and claim a historic Spanish league and cup double.

When Maradona saw red against Espanyol in Barcelona’s antepenultimate game of the season, Bilbaínos eagerly awaited the conventional two game ban, which would see their opponent’s foremost footballing architect banned from the cup final. But when only a one-game suspension was issued, Athletic manager Clemente sang his complaints like a canary. With silverware as well as pride at stake, the customary back and forth of verbal abuse signalled the countdown to match day.

With a premonition of a truly physical game on the horizon, or perhaps having simply witnessed their last four fixtures against one another, Menotti publicly defended his men while warning the opposition, telling the press: “Barcelona is prepared to respond to a determined violence with the same violence.”

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Maradona, meanwhile, was a little less uncouth, aiming a slightly more specific spew of vitriol Clemente’s way, saying: “[He] hasn’t the balls to look me in the eye and call me stupid.”

Naturally, Clemente responded in kind, calling Maradona “both stupid and castrated” adding that “it’s a shame a player like him who earns so much money has no human qualities whatsoever.” And with that, the touch-paper was lit. What a shame it was that a match of football had to interrupt the playful joustings of such seasoned wordsmiths.

On 5 May 1984, in a Bernabéu filled with almost 100,000 fans, the stage was set for the two sides’ final meeting of the season. With more than double the number of Barça fans in attendance, select groups of angered Bilbaínos seized the early initiative, taking the opportunity to sabotage the minute’s silence, held in honour of a group of Barcelona fans killed in a road accident, by sending the words “Qué se jodan!” (meaning “fuck them!”) echoing around the arena. As if there were any doubts, this meant war.

On the pitch, both sides matched the intensity of their fans but any attempts at incisive football were blunted by their opponent’s insistence upon cynical fouls and sly kicks, and the quality of the game suffered immensely.

When the left foot of Athletic forward Endika smashed home the cup final’s first goal around 13 minutes in, what neutrals remained hoped the complexion of the game would change. But the early lead suited Clemente, whose regimented Athletic unit operated best with a goal to defend, and Menotti’s men were powerless to claw back the difference. Endika’s remained the only goal.

Though the referee’s final whistle drew an end to a disappointing final, it signalled the beginning of a far more disgraceful episode. Athletic relief and jubilation soon mutated into brags and provocation, the most notable of which came in the form of a sour smile and a “fuck off” hand gesture from unused substitute Miguel Ángel Solá, in the direction of Maradona.

At once, the grey cloud above the Argentine descended as a red mist over his eyes and he aimed a hard knee into the face of Solá, who was kneeling on the field in celebration, knocking him clean out, before gifting a sharp elbow to the face of another in red and white.

Suddenly the players occupied not a stadium but a colosseum, every player a gladiator defending the honour of their teammates and their homeland. Maradona, quickly encircled by enraged Euskaldunak, saw a rescue team in the form of two fellow Blaugrana who bail him out with flying kicks to their enemies’ backs, before his being well and truly outnumbered took its toll on him. Though before Maradona could escape, old foe Goiko’s left an indelible stud mark on the player’s thigh – another memento of the day.

Along with substitutes and staff, riot police and paramedics, TV crews and photographers, fans left their seats and charged the protective fencing in order to enter the fray, to stand beside their heroes in what was sure to be their bloodiest battle. So surreal the events, should the cameras have not captured them as they happened, simple anecdotal evidence could likely be believed to have been part of a great conspiracy just as easily as it could be believed to have actually happened.

Looking back upon the events in La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football, Jimmy Burns wrote: “Relations between Barcelona and Bilbao had fallen to an all-time low, the mutual acrimony banishing to a distant past the political and social synergies of Catalans and Basques to Franco and mutual respect for the other’s national identities.”

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In short, the events of the past three years had taken both sides far beyond the point of shared empathy, though few predicted just quite how spectacularly these tensions would explode.

Though political agendas often made their way into the terraces of some clubs, for almost three decades Spanish and Basque football had coexisted relatively unchanged by the bloody political conflict within which their countries had found itself embedded.

But on that day, in full view of their horrified King, the footballers appeared no different to the real fighters. Their kits no more than army attire; their boots no less than weapons. For the millions sat watching their TVs, expecting to escape for just a moment the shameful reality beyond the sport’s borders, the two teams enacted a fitting microcosm of their country’s combustible socio-political landscape, for all to see.

Thankfully for all involved, the riot of the 1984 Copa del Rey final represented a violent denouement to the Barcelona-Athletic rivalry, as it barely lived to see the back of the 1980s. The on-field brawl had proved so degrading that Barcelona manager Menotti stepped down from his position and moved back to Argentina, putting an end to his and Clemente’s unabating beef.

Before the door had even closed, Maradona, helped willingly by Barcelona president Josep Lluís Núñez, joined him through it, eager to set sail for calmer seas in Naples. Naturally, without two of the rivalry’s most prominent perpetrators, the animosity dissipated.

The Basque separatist groups were not quite so quick to call a halt to their violent fight for independence, as the war raged on long into the new millennium, with many more lives claimed on both sides. However, in 2011, the ETA confirmed its “definitive cessation of its armed activity” effectively bringing to an end to the Basque conflict, which had plagued those involved for over 50 years.

In a study of their more contemporary amiability, the clubs met in a rematch of their famous final to contest the Copa del Rey in both 2012 and 2015. With not a single kung-fu kick or riot shield in sight, neither tie saw anything like the scenes witnessed by the King of Spain on that day, providing adequate proof of their shared willingness to abide.

In the Spanish political and footballing climate of today, Andoni Goikoetxea would likely stick out like a sore thumb – or sore ankle – as we have witnessed both evolve beyond the philosophies through which his name was emboldened. Yet given the lasting impact of those very philosophies, the infamy of the Butcher of Bilbao continues untouched.

Each time they are met by his inevitable presence in every list or compilation of ‘football’s top hardmen’ some simply chuckle nervously at his name, disconcerted by his symbolising of an era of football so seemingly alien to what we know today.

While to others, to those for whom the importance of football and the necessity of Basque independence interlaced, Goiko became a hero; a symbol for all that was right about the Basque cause and the embodiment of their nation’s relenting spirit, which lives on.

By Will Sharp  

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