The progress of Benfica and Athletic Bilbao to the closing stages of the European club competitions – Benfica duly helping push France down a peg behind Portugal in the UEFA coefficients – illustrates contrasting responses to the political evolution in the big wide world beyond the football pitch.
Benfica, twice European champions half a century ago and a regular presence in subsequent good times and bad times, flew home from Stamford Bridge grumbling about bad luck and bad referees.
Yet, perhaps it’s imagination, but the Eagles of Lisbon have never retained quite the same old aura since they felt that to maintain domestic primacy they could no longer rely on Portuguese talent alone.
However, for “Portuguese” remember that in years gone by that included players from the country’s African colonies such as Mozambique and Angola.
Here Benfica found their European Champions Cup-winning heroes of the early 1960s such as lion-hunter-turned-captain Jose Aguas, playmakers Mario Coluna and Joaquin Santana as well as – above all – the great Eusebio.
In the mid-1970s, however, the end of the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar led inevitably to Mozambique and Angola being granted their independence. That prompted the Benfica management – despite some opposition among largely older fans – into scrapping the Portuguese-only policy.
Now Benfica compete in the international transfer market along with everyone else – with the usual mixture of success and failure. The Portuguese economy does not offer the same sort of media riches as, for example, England or Spain or Italy and thus Benfica cannot pay comparable fees or wages.
They can finance a league title triumph but no longer match it in the Champions League. Hence the sense, in the retreat from Stamford Bridge, that they still have one foot in the old days as they proclaim – rather like fans of Liverpool lately – that “we’re a great club!”
Great clubs do not always generate great results. There is no guarantee that they should. There is a disconnection between perception and practicality.
Being realistic about football life is where Bilbao score.
As all visitors will know well, a seam of independence runs through the Basque country equally as proud and powerful as the one in Catalonia which has been highlighted rather more in the wake of Barcelona’s all-conquering achievements.
Tradition is the key. This is the reason the club reverted to their original, English title of ‘Athletic’ after the end of the Franco dictatorship when the use of foreign nomenclature had been forbidden; Bilbao had been forced to take up the Spanish ‘Atletico’ title though their fans never called them that.
The other strand of tradition which has held firm since the club’s foundation in 1898 is the reliance on only Basque players.
Bilbao have happily employed a string of foreign managers down the years – from Englishmen such as the legendary Fred Pentland in the early 1930s to Ronnie Allen in the 1970s and Howard Kendall in the 1980s. But the players must all have been born or brought up in the northern ‘Euskal Herría’ or across the Basque border in France or possess a first-generation family heritage.
For years the Basque country was scarred by the terrorist activities of the ETA independence movement. Respect for both regional pride – and security concern – is such that the Spanish national team have not played a home match in Bilbao since May 1967 when they beat Turkey 2-0. Goalkeeper that day was Bilbao’s own Jose Iribar.
No immediate plans for a return to Bilbao exist even though the president of the Spanish federation for the past two decades has been Angel Maria Villar who played in midfield for the Atletic side who lost narrowly to Juventus in the 1977 UEFA Cup Final.
Reliance on home-grown talent in the face of cosmpolitan competition from the likes of Real and Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and the rest would sound like a recipe for relegation. In fact, along with Real and Barcelona, Bilbao remain one of only three clubs never out of the top division.
Their preference for investing money in their Lezama academy rather than in the lottery of the international transfer market has also been reflected in the club’s sound finances down the years. When all clubs were ordered to turn themselves into limited companies only four were permitted to maintain their membership-controlled structures: the two Madrid clubs, Barcelona . . . and Bilbao.
Plenty of times they have flirted with relegation but they have never succumbed. Next season they could be appearing in the Champions League in they maintain their bright lively football under the idiosyncratic Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa.
Bilbao can look back on a history which boasts eight league titles (fourth overall) and 23 cup wins (second only to Barcelona on 25) and the top division’s record victory margin of 12-1 over Barcelona in 1929-30.
Unlike some, the Lions of Bilbao still have plenty to roar about.
By Keir Radnedge