Getting to Know the Athletic Bilbao-Real Sociedad Basque Derby

Carter Lawson · Profile
Getting to Know the Athletic Bilbao-Real Sociedad Basque Derby

(Above photo by imagestockdesign via shutterstock)

One of the oldest derbies in Spanish football, the Basque Derby between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad is one of the few derbies where rival fans coexist and even sit together.

First, we’ll start with a very brief history of each club. In case you didn’t know, the Basque Derby, refers to the region of northern Spain (and southern France) where both of these clubs are from.

Pregame atmosphere at the San Mames (photo by Mikolaj Barbanell via shutterstock)

Athletic Bilbao History

Football was introduced to the city of Bilbao by Basque students returning from their studies in England, as well as English workers moving to the city to work in various industries. These two groups came together in 1898 and founded “Athletic Club,” originally using the English spelling. In 1902 Athletic merged with Bilbao FC and began to compete in the Copa de la Coronación, which was the precursor to the Copa del Rey. They won the competition in 1903, securing the club their first major trophy.

In 1912, after signing mainly English players to that point, they introduced an unwritten policy that they will only develop and sign players born in the Basque region or who learned football at a Basque club. They have stuck with this policy ever since, though it has at times been the subject of debate, like how far back in one’s ancestry can you go to find a Basque relative, or does moving from another country to a Basque youth academy constitute a connection to Basque culture.

They are fourth on the list of Spanish league titles and second on the list of Copas, behind only Barcelona. But virtually all those wins came before the 1960s, in the glory years which, combined with their Basque-centric policies, built a large and devout fanbase that is truly a thing to behold.

They won eight Copa del Reys from 1904 to 1923. In 1928, Athletic Club became one of the founding members of La Liga, making them one of the five Basque clubs in the first division. They are also, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, the only club to never be relegated out of Spain’s top tier.

Athletic Club continued their success in the Copa del Rey in the 1930s, winning seven between 1930 and 1945. They also won their first League title in 1930 and claimed three more titles in the next six years.

Read Our Groundhopper Guide to Athletic Bilbao

In 1941 the club officially changed its name to Atlético Bilbao following a decree by Francisco Franco. The very same year, Bilbao legend Telmo Zarra made his debut. He would go on to 294 goals for Athletic. In 1943, Athletic won the league title and the Copa del Rey. They held the Copa del Rey for the next two years, securing them three cups in a row. They would go on to win another double in 1956 and two more Copa wins in 1955 and 1958.

Since then, they reverted (in the post-Franco 70s) to the current name, but they have only gathered one cup each in the 1960s and 70s. They did reach the UEFA Cup final in 1977, losing to Juventus.

During the 1980s Athletic gained a bit of their success back after winning the league in 1983 and a double in 1984. The next two seasons they finished 3rd and 4th. Since the 90s, they have lost a few finals and survived a few relegation scares, and in 2015, they defeated Barcelona over two legs to secure the Supercopa de España, their first trophy in 29 years. 

2022-23 SEASON: 8th in La Liga, Copa del Rey Semifinal

2023–24 SEASON: La Liga (since the beginning)

Pregame at Real Sociedad in San Sebastián

Real Sociedad History

Similar to their Basque rivals, Real Sociedad was also a founding member of the Primera División in 1929, however unlike their neighbors, they have been relegated and promoted back to La Liga a number of times in their 100+ year history.

During the majority of Real Sociedad’s early history, they were a yo-yo club bouncing between the first and second division of Spanish football. This was very apparent in the 1940s when they were relegated and promoted a staggering 7 times.

Ultras Members Can Read Our Full Real Sociedad Profile

Real Sociedad really hit their stride and gained success in the late 70s and early 80s. During this time they won La Liga two times and were runners-up another two times. They also managed to secure a Copa del Rey title in 1987, their second in their history and their first since 1909. This was also during their longest stay in La Liga, which lasted 40 years from 1967 to 2007.

The club began to struggle in the mid 2000s when they were relegated to the second division, where they spent the next 3 seasons. Even after making it back to La Liga, the club went through a number of managerial changes, creating a sense of unrest within the club. However, recently Sociedad have regained some of their previous success, defeating their Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao in the 2020 Copa del Rey final and qualifying for the 2023-24 UEFA Champions League for the first time in over 10 years.

Origins of the Basque Derby

As soon as Real Sociedad came into existence in 1909, there was an obvious rivalry with their regional neighbors. Much of the early rivalry was fed by Sociedad’s accusations of Atheltic Bilbao achieving their success in the Copa del Rey using non-Spanish players. These accusations were later ruled invalid after the Royal Spanish Football Federation found that Athletic Bilbao had not been in violation of the rules.

Athletic Bilbao won most of the early matchups, until the 1970s and 80s when Real Sociedad entered the best period in the club’s history. The derby has also evolved into a very civil and friendly affair with opposing supporters intermingling on gamedays and even participating in organized events like a supporters parade.

During the 100+ year history of this derby, there have only been a handful of seasons where it has not taken place. This was due to Real Sociedad being relegated, as Athletic Bilbao has never been relegated.

Take a look at the January 2024 version of the derby!

Shared Basque Glory in the 1980s

The 1980s was the best era of the Basque Derby for both clubs. To start the decade, Sociedad won La Liga in 1981 and again in 1982. The next year Athletic won the league and followed it up with a double in 1984.

Not to be outdone, Real Sociedad would also go on to win the 1987 Copa del Rey over Atletico Madrid. Sociedad would get the better of the two during this decade, ending it with 14 wins in all competitions to Athletic Bilbao’s 10.

Basque Derby Copa del Rey Final

In 2021, these two clubs played an installment of the Basque Derby with arguably the highest stakes ever. The two reached the final of the 2020 Copa del Rey, but due to COVID-19 the game was postponed in hopes of allowing fans to attend the next year. Both clubs strongly advocated for fans to be allowed to attend this game, because of the historical significance and importance of this game to both clubs and to the rivalry, but the game was ultimately played in front of an empty stadium. Real Sociedad would go on to win the match 1-0 off of a penalty kick, giving them their first trophy since 1987.

Overall State of the Basque Derby

As of the start of the 2023-24 La Liga season, Bilbao and Sociedad have played 190 times since 1909, with Bilbao winning 78 to Sociedad’s 62, with 50 draws.

The derby continues to be a friendly affair for supporters and with both clubs back in La Liga, you can expect this matchup to occur at least twice a year for years to come.

Written By Carter Lawson
Carter Lawson, Content and Social Media Director · Profile

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