Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao has drawn rave reviews from the tactics crew and also reached two Cup finals. Bilbao may be the top Northern side of the day and historically, but other clubs by the Bay of Biscay have enjoyed unforgettable seasons. Two of my favorite such clubs are Arenas Club de Getxo of the Basque country and Real Ovideo of Asturias. These are the stories of their moments in the sun.
Arenas Club de Getxo was founded in 1909 (as “Arenas Club”) and is located in Getxo, a town of 83,000 souls in Basque country and about 13 kilometers from the City of Bilbao. The town has always served as an escape for the wealthy Bilbao elite, and today boasts subway access to Bilbao proper. In the early 1900’s, before La Liga formed, the club competed in the regional Basque competition with Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao, Racing de Santander, and others. Nowadays, the club plays in the Spanish Third Division and its Campo Municipal de Gobela only can host 1,200 fans. Things, though, were not always so quaint.
Arenas’ President would propose the idea for La Liga in 1927, yet his team’s era of glory passed long before that date. The King’s Cup, initiated in 1902 to both foster competition and celebrate the coronacion [crowning] of King Alfonso XIII, bore witness to Arenas’ finest hours. In 1914, the club played three friendlies with Barcelona and won all three games. This taste of early success against the Catalans inspired them. In 1917, they won the Basque regional tournament and qualified for the King’s Cup. They reached the finals and faced Real Madrid (then “Madrid FC”) in the final. The two teams squared off at Barcelona’s grounds (Camp de la Industria) and the first game ended scoreless. However, this was an era of amateur players and fixture congestion had not reared its ugly head. Thus, a replay followed two days later. This time there were goals, but still the match ended in a 1-1 deadlock. They played 20 minutes of extra time, but nobody could buy a winner. Thus, they agreed to another 20 minutes and a golden goal: the first to score would win. It was a deal with the devil. Three minutes into the added period, Madrid FC’s Ricardo Alvarez broke Basque’ hearts.
Arenas, though, would not stay down. In 1919, they again qualified for the King’s Cup. In the quarter-finals, they squared off with now defunct Racing de Madrid. They demolished the capital team 8-2 in Getxo yet lost 2:0 in Madrid. Sadly, goal difference mattered not. Worse yet, the replay was to take place in Madrid. However, Getxo managed a 3-1 win away from home and in the semi-finals swept away Real Vigo with ease. The final, though, offered a daunting task: Barcelona. During the game, Arenas drew first blood through their star striker Felix Sesumaga, but Barcelona clawed back goals before and after the break. The clock ticked. The Cules led 2-1. Time wound down. Another final defeat to a major club looked inevitable.
However, with ten minutes left, Felix Sesumaga scored. Then, in extra time, Sesumaga scored again to give Getxo the edge. With extra time running out, and two other Getxo players scored at the death to rub salt in Catalan wounds. Getxo finally obtained a national crown to go with its regional titles. However, the victory was short-lived. Barcelona, impressed by Sesumaga, signed him shortly thereafter. This was still ostensibly the “amateur” era of sports, yet clubs found creative ways to compensate players. Big clubs could still throw weight around. Arenas played in the top flight a few years, but got relegated in 1935. In 1944, they got relegated to the third division. Since then, they’ve even descended to the regional league a few times. They haven’t seen second or first division football for decades. Nevertheless, nobody can ever take away Sesumaga’s King’s Cup winning goal against Barcelona in Madrid.
Real Oviedo were formed in 1926 after merging with Stadium Ovetenses. The club is in Oviedo, the capital of the Asturian region of Spain and to the West of the Basque country. The city has a population of around 225,000 and is home to Oviedo University. Oviedo is technically landlocked, but barely: the Bay of Biscay is only 32 kilometers to the North. Real Oviedo labored in the segunda for seven years but finally reached La Liga in 1933. They then proceeded to take Spanish soccer by storm.
Real Oviedo’s squad featured a fearsome five-some of Emilin, Eduardo Herrera Bueno, Gale, Gallart, and Isidoro Langara. Oviedo had paid a then record fee of 30,000 pesetas to Sporting Gijon for Eduardo “Herrerita” Herrera Bueno, matched only by what Madrid FC paid for goalie Ricardo Zamora. Oviedo’s Anglo coach, Fred Pentland, imposed a rigorous fitness regime and also preached the importance of first touch passing. The result? Tiki-taka decades ahead of its time. They became known as the delanteras electricas(electric forwards) and scorched Spanish defenses left and right.
Herrerita scored 117 goals in 213 games for Real Oviedo. This is quite an impressive feat. However, he was overshadowed by Langara, who won the Pichichi award as top goalscorer in 1933, 1934, and 1935. They team failed to lift a trophy, but was poised to knock more established clubs from their perch. There was just one problem: General Francisco Franco.
The Spanish Civil War broke out and eventually the dreaded Falangeforces overtook Bilbao. Langara fled to Argentina, while Herrerita and Emilin transferred to Barcelona. In 1939, only a few years removed from the height of the electric forwards, Real Oviedo were relegated the first season of La Liga post-Civil War. Why? Not points. Not goal difference. Pitch conditions. The authorities had determined that their state of pitch was not acceptable (odd, given that the pitch had been used quite well as ammunition for Franco’s troops). Of course, this had nothing to do with Langara and other players having toured Europe to raise funds for the Republican war effort. Right? Lo and behold, the Air Force team fused with Atletico Madrid and took Real Oviedo’s place in the topflight. What a coincidence.
Still, you can’t keep a good club down. For several decades, Real Oviedo consistently battled between the Spanish top flight and second division. They even qualified for Europe on a few occasions, and won the 1985 Spanish League Cup, a now non-existent second division knock-out tournament. Recently, the club faced financial troubles and dropped as low as the fourth division. Rumors of administration or worse, winding up, percolate. Could the indifference of the Oviedo government deal the death blow that Franco’s political machinations could not? Only time will tell. If the club’s present is panic and future is uncertain, the past offers a refreshing repose. Nobody can ever take away the dashing years of the delanteras electricas.
Two teams, two trophies, two beautiful moments in time. Bilbao may get today’s eyeballs, but here’s to the glorious past of Northern clubs. May the argayus (landslides) cease and, with a bit of luck, ai ene (oh my gosh!) may again echo through their stadiums another day.
By Elliot Turner
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona