The Curious Case of Athletic Bilbao’s Kit

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Written By Chris Azzopardi

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve always been interested in soccer jerseys, and the genesis of a team’s colors. Juventus, for example inherited their black and white stripes from a Notts County donation; the Australian national side play in green and yellow to reflect the country’s flora and fauna, and not any color on their flag; and (cheap joke alert!) Manchester Utd play in red as it represents the shade of embarrassment Ryan Giggs turns when one of his affairs is revealed.

On this subject, perennial La Liga mid-tablers Athletic Bilbao have an interesting kit history, and the fans’ relationship with the colors today is also rather unique.

Athletic Club legend Pichichi – after whom La Liga’s golden boot trophy is named – in a strip from the 1910s

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Basque side started off playing in all-white, and soon sported a Blackburn-esque blue-and-white ensemble. Being an industrial port town, however, Bilbao had strong links with its equivalent trading cities in England, notably Sunderland and Southampton. Depending on which legend you read, both the Mackems and the Saints will claim to be responsible for giving Athletic Club their famous red and white stripes, but it is likely that ship builders, dock workers and engineers from both British cities had a part to play, as they are equally credited for introducing the beautiful game to the Basque region of Spain.

Fascinating as that little history lesson is, the origin of Los Leones’ red and white stripes isn’t the most curious part of the tale. On my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few games at San Mames stadium, a worse-for-wear and soon-to-be-replaced structure that is always packed with the fiercely loyal locals who populate the town (you’re probably more likely to see a unicorn in Ikea than a Bilbao local wearing a Barcelona shirt). To say they are traditional to the point of orthodoxy and a little ‘inwards facing’ is an understatement: the club’s ‘cantera‘ policy means the team can only field players from the Basque country, and the local owners seem to do everything in their power to source all advertising, sponsorship and human resources within the local region.

Athletic Club’s sponsor-free shirt from 2007/08

It’s fair to say an insular mentality prevails in Bilbao, and this is reflected in the kit. They were one of the last top flight sides in Europe to succumb to putting a sponsor on the shirt in 2008, when Petronor, a local refinery, struck a long-term deal. You’d think a nice local sponsor that provides for the local community might appease the traditionalist fans, right? Wrong. I first visited the stadium in the 2008-09 season, and was amazed to see that hardly a single person was wearing the new shirt emblazoned with Petronor – their chests were all sponsor-free. Upon visiting the club shop, I saw that the club actually still sold a version of the shirt without a Petronor logo on it. “People just don’t like the shirt with the sponsor on it,” said a shop assistant nonchalantly when I quizzed her. That they were given a choice to purchase a shirt without the endorsement of the club’s primary sponsor was an odd concept to take in, but a telling indicator of the fans’ lack of willingness to acquiesce to the increasingly finance-driven nature of the game.

On my second visit to the region, for a relatively sucky game against Zaragoza (think of a dreary version of Bolton vs Stoke and you get the picture), the local kit supplier had been replaced by Umbro (who rock, by the way). The locals seem to have embraced the new training kit and apparel, but the vast majority in the stadium were still wearing the traditional strip, unencumbered by the advertisements of the companies with the skills to pay the bills.

So, this has essentially ended up as a long-winded Grandpa Simpson-style tirade about a red and white shirt, but hopefully the traditional (and slightly anti-capitalist) leanings of Athletic Club’s fans have demonstrated that a uniform’s color is so much more than a way of telling the team apart from their opposition. And, that given a choice, people won’t wear big ol’ logos on their clothes. Funny, that.

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