La Liga Lowdown
Spain: The Stories Behind The Shirts - 1997/98 Athletic Club
Written by Dan Parry
Athletic Club de Bilbao and their red-and-white stripes are synonymous with each other. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, from 1902 until 1910 the Basque side turned out in the blue and white of Blackburn Rovers. In their 1997-98 centenary season, Athletic donned the blue and white once more, Kappa designing the away strip as a tribute to the club’s origins.
In almost every way it was identical to the kit worn 100 years before. The only differences appeared to be the red-and-white stripes on the collar and shoulder seams and, of course, local painter Ignacio García Ergüin’s iconic centenary emblem - a few strokes of the brush depicting a player celebrating a goal.
In the pre-war period (1902-1936), Athletic were untouchable. They won a whopping 17 official national trophies, with Real Madrid and Barcelona trailing behind at 9 each by time war broke out. The post-war period brought more mixed fortunes. There were league titles, Copas and finals, but Athletic were overtaken at the top of Spanish football.
It wasn’t just the club that suffered. In the 1980s, the collapse of its powerful shipping and mining industries and some severe floods destroyed Bilbao’s economy. In the 1990s, the city embarked upon a programme of urban renewal to solve the issue. Factories, warehouses and dockyards became cafés, parks and museums. The flagship project was the Guggenheim Museum, but there was uncertainty in Bilbao. Nobody knew whether the gamble of turning an industrial city into a cultural one would pay off.
The 1990s didn’t bring much stability for Athletic but something changed in 1997-98. Under manager Luis Fernández, the likes of attacking midfielder Julen Guerrero, winger Joseba Etxeberria, defender Rafael Alkorta and central midfielder Josu Urrutia led Athletic to their finest season in over a decade, perhaps invigorated by history and the changes to the city.
The campaign contained many highlights: a 3-0 drubbing of Barcelona at home, draws home and away against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, a special friendly against Brazil, a Luciano Pavarotti concert and Champions League qualification. Not that it came easily.
Barça ran away with the league title. Initially, Athletic struggled to build any momentum, forming part of a pack chasing second place and with it, a place in the following season’s Champions League. A 4-0 defeat to Barça on matchday 30 left the Basques in sixth place and seven points off Real Madrid, but Athletic Club’s response was immediate. They edged Racing Santander 4-3 and added four more wins and three draws in their final eight games.
With Real Madrid and Real Sociedad both winning on the final day, they had to beat Real Zaragoza to keep that Champions League spot, which they did courtesy of a scrappy Etxeberria goal – it was the first time in 14 years that they would sit at Europe’s top table. For many, the centenary season also proved that the club’s Basque-only player policy could still lead to tangible success, and that they could be seen as a serious force in LaLiga.
Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry settled on the form of a ‘sort of’ ship for his masterpiece. He wanted the museum to be a reminder what Bilbao was, but also represent what it was becoming. The 1997-98 campaign, and in turn, Kappa’s away strip, would reflect something similar for Athletic Club, making it one of the most sought-after of all the side’s classic shirts.
The centenary season invoked the past but at the same time generated hope for the future. Whilst wearing a jersey inspired by history, Athletic rolled back the years and celebrated turning 100 in true style.
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You can also check out all of the shirts in this series, on the CFS website: http://www.classicfootballshirts.co.uk