Basque Groundhopping 1: Bilbao Athletic Vs UD Logroñés

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Club Name: Bilbao Athletic

Level: Segunda División B

Stadium: Lezama Training Complex

Maximum Capacity: 1500

Ticket Price: 10€

How to arrive: Frequent trains run from Casco Viejo San Nicolas provided by Euskotren, with cost under 4€, cheaper with a barik card.

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I decided to begin the season by heading to Lezama to see Bilbao Athletic play their first game of the season against UD Logroñés from the city of Logroño. Mostly, I chose this game because Lezama is close to where I live and I knew there wouldn’t be too many issues in getting there as I had been before to see Athletic Club train. Moreover, as a resident of Bilbao and a converted fan of Athletic Club de Bilbao the idea of seeing Bilbao Athletic for the first game of my project stood out in my mind.

Bilbao Athletic are the reserve team of Athletic Club de Bilbao and play an important role in developing players for the first team.It is vital in maintaining the club’s Basque-players only policy. It goes without saying, that due to said policy if Bilbao Athletic can’t produce high quality players then the first team suffers. In recent years, many first-team players such as Aymeric Laporte, Iñaki Williams and Yeray Àlvarez have learnt their trade battling it out for the second string side in the lower leagues. In addition to this, only two years ago Bilbao Athletic were playing in the Segunda División -at that time they were the only affiliate of a La Liga club in the league- and their recently-appointed manager Gaizka Garitano was the man who masterminded SD Eibar’s meteoric rise to La Liga so suffice to say I was expecting to see some future starlets and some decent football from Bilbao Athletic at the very least.

With respect to UD Logroñes other than a quick glance at their webiste and wikipedia page I knew next to nothing about the club or their players. I all know is that Logroño, the city where they are based, has to be one of the largest cities in Spain without a club in La Liga. Therefore I supposed that the side would be strong or at least capable enough to provide Bilbao Athletic with a tough challenge.

Down to the logistics. I used my barik card (the Bizkaia version of an oyster card) to take a thirty minute train journey (Euskotren) from the Casco Viejo station directly to Lezama, the journey cost me no more than 3€ and was quite pleasant and scenic to boot. Once I arrived I found the training complex quite easy to get to, it was a simple five minute walk that consisted of going down a hill turning left at a roundabout continuing a bit further down the road before turning right and crossing the road.

The revamped complex is quite impressive. It’s tucked away in between the Basque hills and mountains it certainly made for a very picturesque match. In recent years, a lot of upgrades have been made to the place including the construction of a new car park and general vast improvements to the facilities. For example, Bilbao Athletic play in a small stadium which contains two stands on either side of its pitch, one of which has been fitted with the iconic arch from the old San Mamés. Upon walking into the complex, I found the ticket office and paid a reasonable 10€ for my ticket which granted me a seat in whichever place I desired that was not already taken. There was a spirited yet friendly atmosphere amongst the stands with plenty of Basque songs being played over the tannoy to keep the crowd in good spirits. Much to my surprise, UD Logroñes had brought a large travelling contingent so there was a moderately high attendance of 970 spectators in the 1500 capacity stadium.

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The game itself was a physical and testy affair with some moments of brilliance. The opening 20 minutes were quite tight as neither team were able to completely dominate the match. However, in the 25th minute, the game was turned on it’s head thanks to a remarkable goal from UD Logroñés. Their centre-back Zubiri sent a long, precise pass forward that managed to find the feet of the pacey and menacing left winger Ñoño, he passed the ball to left-back Paredes who slid it into the box into for number 9 Carles Salvador who then managed to skilfully turn away from his marker before pumping the ball into the top right of the net with a powerful finish. The next 15 minutes were quite uneventful and the game once again became scrappy until the 42nd minute thanks to a well-worked goal from Bilbao Athletic Centre-Forward Guruzeta, who collected a long-ball on the half-way line before passing to his teammate and left-back Andoni Lopez who was moving forward down his flank, the left back returned the favour as he played in the marauding Guruzeta who now at the edge of the box hit a wonderful first-time shot with his left pin into the bottom right, leaving the keeper with no chance. This ensured the game went into half-time as a draw.

During the break, Garitano stregthened his midfield by making a change in formation which meant that the largely ineffective forward Iñigo Vicente made way for attacking midfielder Tarsi. The substitution made little difference; the same mistakes that had effected the first half seeped back into the game as both teams made an array of errors that resulted in neither one finding their flow. However, in the 57th minute UD Logroñes broke the deadlock with some great play when Left-back Paredes sent in a perfect cross which was met by an even better left-footed low volley from number 10 Muneta who fired straight into the bottom right to leave the home side reeling. After this, the game opened up substantially as Athletic became more offensive desperate to not start their season with a loss at home, but a lack of precision and cutting edge meant they squandered the chances they had, including a well-placed free-kick opportunity in the 81st minute which was wasted when the taker opted for a fancy free-kick routine which involved chipping the ball over the wall to a teammate instead of taking a shot. Needless to say, Bilbao lost posession of the ball and Logroñes held on for the next ten minutes to take all 3 points and were applauded off the pitch by their fans.

All in all, I felt this was the perfect game to see myself into the project. The match, although understandably sloppy at times given it was the first game of the season, was of a respectable standard and it was fun to watch. Furthermore, the fans were great and the atmosphere was beyond what I had believed it would be. The season is long but it was a great start (although not for Bilbao Athletic) and the experience has left me with more ‘ganas’ for the rest the campaign.

New Project: Basque Groundhopping

The Basque Country in Spain (Euskadi) has a population of just over 2 million people yet since football arrived to these shores in the late 19th century thanks to British miners and sailors the folk of this region have taken the sport to their hearts.

In its current state La Liga contains four Basque teams (20% of the league): Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alavés. Each club has its own unique history and vibrant fanbase, each of which I will be exploring.

But what about the clubs below these four? In the leagues below the Segunda División, Spanish football becomes regionalised, the size of Spain and the financial limitations of the clubs deem this a necessity. This, however, does not necessarily mean that there is a lack of quality, some of the greatest footballers the Basque Country has produced have cut their teeth in these leagues. Over the next season I will be ‘attempting’ to see one home game of every Basque team from La Liga down to the regional Segunda División B and Tercera División.

In addition to watching some great football matches I am also hoping this journey will provide me some memorable moments as I travel to all parts both big and small of this incomparable land; with its great cuisine, mountains landscapes, respected people and singular culture.

I’ll endeavour to produce a regular journal of my adventures, which will include some information about the clubs themselves, their fans, the places to which they belong and, of course, a report of the match I have seen.

If you have an interest in Basque football, lower-league Spanish football or Spain and the Basque Country in general then I hope my journey will be of interest to you.

Michael Robinson: The English Voice of Spanish Football

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For more than a quarter of a century, a former striker from Lancashire has been enthralling Spanish TV audiences with his wit, knowledge and comical Spanish accent.

Full article included in Issue 17 of The Football Pink.

John Aldridge: Real Sociedad’s Unlikely Scouse Idol

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In 1989, for the first time in 40 years, Real Sociedad decided that they needed foreign blood to compete. Step forward Liverpool hero John Aldridge.

Full article featured in These Football Times.

From War to World Cup Glory: The Incredible Rise of Croatia as a Footballing Nation

By Dan Parry

Key ingredients needed for creating a cult world cup side: an eccentric manager with innovative tactics and interesting methods, tick (Miroslav Blazevic). A midfield general and symbol of national pride, tick (Zvomonir Boban). Hard as nails Centre-Back, tick (Slaven Bilic). Forty a day smoker and creative genius, tick (Robert Prosinecki). A world class striker with supreme finishing skills and Pierce Brosnan-esque floppy hair, tick (Davor Suker). A whole lot of heart and a young nation pushing them on, tick, tick, tick!

Nothing much was expected of Croatia going into the 1998 World Cup, the nation was in its debut World Cup and only its second major international tournament as an independent state.

Croatia had only become a fully independent nation state in 1991, the football federation of Croatia only became officially recognised by FIFA in 1993, and their only experience of an international tournament before the World Cup came just two years previous in Euro 96 in which they were knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals.

It was believed that they would advance from the group stages of the World Cup but anything further than that would be a bonus. However, this charismatic Croatia side proved the entire world wrong as they fought their way through to the semi-finals, killing some giants along the way and making a couple more sweat for good measure.

For the crop of 1998, the story begins 11 years before in 1987. The gifted Croatians who formed the backbone of 1998’s heroic squad also played pivotal roles in the Yugoslavia side. In fact, players such as Suker, Jarni, Prosinecki and Boban were integral members of the famous Yugoslavian under-20 team that won the 1987 under-20 World Cup. The heralded side gained great acclaim and impressed throughout the tournament before eventually defeating West Germany on penalties in the final.

Over the next few years tensions in the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Yugoslav state began to boil. After the death of former president Josip Broz Tito in 1980 the former socialist federation state began to unravel, and nationalistic independence movements became more prominent. Ultimately, tensions in the Balkan state boiled over; Yugoslavia began to splinter, and bloody conflicts and violent wars proceeded.

At times, these tensions even manifested themselves on the football pitch. There was an infamous Yugoslav league game in Croatian capital Zagreb between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990 (historically the best teams from Croatia and Serbia) which descended into violence as ultras from both sides invaded the pitch leading to fierce clashes with the police. It was during this match that future national team captain Zvominir Boban became a symbol of Croatian independence when he kicked a policeman whilst trying to protect a Dinamo Zagreb fan.

On a wider and more devastating scale wars raged for many years and many horrendous atrocities were committed across the entire region as Yugoslavia disintegrated into smaller nation states. Croatia, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, declared itself an independent state in June 1991. In 1992 it was officially recognised by the Eurpean Union and the United Nations but the conflict with Serbia continued until 1995.

Although Croatia had declared itself independent in 1991, an unofficial Croatian national football team had begun to play exhibition games in 1990. The first of which came against the U.S.A. and resulted in a 2-1 victory. By 1993, the Croatian Football Federation gained full membership to both FIFA and UEFA but unfortunately the timing meant that Croatia would be unable to compete in the qualifying tournament for the 1994 World Cup. However, they did manage to qualify for the 1996 European Championships being held in England and got their first taste of international tournament football as an independent country.

In the lead-up to the tournament manager Miroslav ‘Ciro’ Blazevic took over full control of the squad in 1995 (he had been dividing his duties between the national team and Dinamo Zagreb since 1993).

Ciro was already Croatia’s most successful managers (they call him the coach of coaches) thanks to his exploits with Dinamo Zagreb and was certainly well-known to the players, many having come through the Dinamo youth system under his tutelage. Although most revered him, his methods, at times, lead to some friction and not everyone saw him in such a favourable light.

For example, whilst Slaven Bilic refers to him as father and sings his praises, his relationship with Prosinecki was somewhat more tumultuous. Blazevic famously claimed that he would eat boots if Prosinecki were to become a great player. Blazevic has claimed he said this not because he believed it but rather to give a lazy Prosinecki a proverbial kick up the backside. However, some others claim that he failed to properly recognize and manage the talent of Prosinecki during their time together at Dinamo.

Throughout his time as Croatia chief Blazevic stuck quite vehemently to his beloved 3-5-2 formation that he pioneered in the 80’s. Typically his line-ups would be quite consistent also, only chopping and changing when injury made it necessary.

Drazen Ladic was a regular in goal. Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic (both plying their trade in the premiership by time the world cup came around) took two of the three defensive births whilst the other one would be shared between Zvominir Zoldo or Dario Simic. The solidity of a defensive three gave Robert Jarni and Mario Stanic full license to attack from their respective left-wing-back and right-wing-back positions.

They lined up with an extremely creative midfield who all possessed an exceptional eye for a pass which helped to unlock the poaching abilities of Suker. A typical midfield three would contain Captain and AC Milan player Boban, Asanovic, and then either Mario Silvic or Prosinecki depending upon the opposition. The starting front two were normally Suker and Allen Boksic (he missed the 98 world cup due to injury), or Goran Vlaovic.

The tournament debutants were drawn into a tough Group D, which also contained fellow newcomers Turkey, Portugal, and defending champions Denmark (Yugoslavia’s replacement in 1992). Croatia were managed by Blazevic and the squad included many of the same players who would go onto to compete at France in 1998.

First up came Turkey who were defeated 1-0 at the Nottingham Forest’s City Ground thanks to a late goal from young striker Goran Vlaovic. This was followed by an outstanding victory over reigning champions Denmark, a 3-0 scoreline came courtesy of a brace from Suker and a strike from Boban.

With qualification already guaranteed Blazevic decided to rest his key players and gamble on his squad’s fringe players, but a talented Portugal side, inspired by a certain Luis Figo, proved to be a step to far as they were thrashed 3-0. Defeat meant Croatia finished the group as runners-up below Portugal.

In the quarter-final stages they would go on to face eventual tournament winners Germany. In this game, the Croatians were undone by a red card and a German side with superior tournament experience but still managed to give the 1990 World Cup winners a run for their money.

Jurgen Klinsmann opened the account with a penalty in the 20th minute that came courtesy of a handball from Nikola Jerkan. After half-time Suker evened the scores with a typically stylish finish, putting the keeper on his backside whilst coolly rolling the ball from his left foot onto his right before finishing into an empty goal.

However, barely six mintues later Croatia were delivered an almighty blow to the solar plexis when important defender Igor Stimac was sent off for a foul on Mehmet Scholl. 3 minutes after that, a poorly defended cross allowed Mathias Sammer to put Germany ahead 2-1. Subsequently, Croatia were unable to recover as Germany took charge of the tie and the Croatians were sent out of the tournament.

Although it was undoubtedly disappointing to go out of the tournament in such manner, the tournament provided the side with vital experience. The competition played a monumental role in the rise of the small nation as an important European footballing power, and was a major learning curve for all involved. Without a doubt, the experience gained from the tournament played an important role in their 1998 success.

By time the 1998 World Cup came about Croatia were no longer an unknown quantity, and many pundits predicted a respectable showing from the small nation’s side with them expected to at least qualify from their group and advance to the group stages. In the group stages, they were drawn with fellow tournament minnows Jamaica (the only side to qualify that came from a country with a smaller population than Croatia) and Japan, as well as giants Argentina.

Proceedings began with a conclusive 3-1 victory over Jamaica. Stanic, Prosinecki and Suker all scored to put the tie to bed. Six days later Suker scored the only goal of the game as Japan were defeated 1-0. The victories meant that the final group stage tie against Argentina became a group decider. Croatia suffered their first defeat of the tournament as a goal from defender Gonzalo Pineda put the South Americans ahead. Nonetheless, Croatia progressed from the group in 2nd place and faced Romania in the 2nd round.

The newly-dyed blonde bombshells of the Romania team managed to frustrate the Croatians for large parts of the match, with an inspired performance from their goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea helping to keep the scores even.

However, in first-half injury time Croatia’s star striker, and tournament revelation, Suker popped up yet again as Croatia were awarded a penalty for a foul on the forward. The Real Madrid based Suker stepped up and sent the ball past Stelea into the bottom right corner before the referee called him back for a retake seconds later. Not to be deterred the Croatian scored again in an almost identical fashion. The Romanians were incapable of mustering a reply and Croatia moved on to the quarter-finals.

In the quarters they were drawn against their Euro 96 nemesis Germany and managed to produce arguably Croatia’s finest international performance and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup. Up until this point Germany had barely been troubled as they progressed though the competition with ease. Many expected them to breeze through this Croatia side on their inevitable journey to the final.

Initially, the Germans confirmed prior predictions as the Berti Vogts managed Germans strangled the life out of their opponents, not even allowing Croatia to register a single shot on goal.

In the 40th minute everything changed when Norwegian referee Rune Pederson, dubiously, showed centre-back Christian Worns a straight red-card for an ‘open-field’ tackle on Suker.

The red provided Suker and his teammates an incredible opportunity to break through the Germans ranks and they took full advantage. Croatia absolutely overwhelmed the more illustrious Germans in a blistering performance.

Left wing back Robert Jarni scored the first goal with a fine finish to break the deadlock in the 45th minute. Germany put up a brave defensive performance against the marauding Croatians but couldn’t prevent the second goal which came in the 80th minute as Vlaovic put one past Kopke.

Five minutes later, the tournament’s favourite predator Suker killed off the game with his 5th goal of the competition. In the space of 60 minutes, and thanks to some fortuitous refereeing, Croatia had gone from being the darkest of dark horses to tournament contenders with a realistic chance of leaving France with the Jules Remee.

The eyes of the world set upon Paris for the semi-final as Croatia went into the tie hoping to cause an even larger shock by eliminating the hosts, France. Unfortunately, for the Croatians it appeared as though lady luck favoured France on this occasion.

For the first 45 minutes both sides seem to struggle under the weight of their respective pressures. Croatia gained the upper hand in the 46th minute as Suker scored yet again. But France responded in quick fashion only a minute later as their right back Lillian Thuram did something he had never done before in his international career, he scored a goal.

In the 70th minute Lillian Thuram turned up again to score the second of the game, and what would turn out to be the second goal of his France career. In the 76th minute Laurent Blanc was sent off and Croatia tried to force a breakthrough but France stuck to their guns and did not capitulate like the Germans who came before them. They held on and went through to the final which they won by defeating a distinctly out of form Brazil side.

Croatia were afforded a consolation of sorts as they defeated a Dutch side containing the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer 2-1 in the 3rd place play-off. Once again Suker lead from the front and scored the winning goal, whilst also bagging himself a very justified Golden Boot award in the process.

Due to some outstanding performances and fantastic support, Manager Miroslav Blazevic and his players led by the likes of Zvominir Boban, Davor Suker and Slaven Bilic put Croatia onto the world map. Not only in a footballing sense but also in a broader one.

The manager and his players created a footballing and national identity for the seven-year old state and it is one that continues to endure to this day, as can be witnessed by the seemingly endless supply line of technically and tactically adept footballers being churned out of Croatian academies. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Rakitic are some of the most prominent players from the current crop of Croatian footballers who claim to have been inspired by their 1998 predecessors.

Boavista’s Title Win of 2001: When Portugal’s Big Three Became Four

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Only two teams in the history of the Primeira Liga have won the title outside of Benfica, Sporting and Porto. One of those was Boavista in 2000/01.

Full article featured on These Football Times.