Exploring the Sociedad-Athletic Rivalry in the Wake of Inigo Martinez's Transfer

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 8, 2018

Bleacher Report

Real Sociedad are keen to erase Inigo Martinez from their memory after the 26-year-old central defender signed for their Basque rivals, Athletic Bilbao, during the winter transfer window. The San Sebastian-based club released a statement inviting their fans to return Real Sociedad jerseys with Martinez's name on them. It has promised to replace each one for free as part of the club's "It's already history" campaign, per Diario AS.

In a similar spirit, Onati, a town of about 10,000 people in the Basque Country heartland, has "dismantled" its Inigo Martinez supporters club in a fit of pique. Martinez's suggestion at his unveiling as an Athletic Bilbao player that he has joined "a great club" that isn't content to be "mid-table" hurts, too.

"Of course Real Sociedad fans are browned off, but it has to be taken relatively speaking," author Phil Ball said. Ball wrote Morbo, a book on Spanish football rivalries, and has been living in San Sebastian since 1991. "This isn't Celtic vs. Rangers or the Barca vs. Real Madrid rivalry. Basques are Basques. There is a healthy rivalry. You would never get any violence between the clubs' supporters nowadays, but there have been times in the past when Real Sociedad fans have felt that Athletic Bilbao have lorded it over them.

"Real Sociedad have always been in Athletic Bilbao's shadow financially due to Bilbao being a bigger city. The Martinez transfer is a good example. Real Sociedad were paying Martinez a salary of a couple of million euros, but now he's getting around €5 million at Athletic. There's an idea in Bilbao that 'the best Basque players in the end come to play for us.' That's a phrase that goes down badly here."

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - DECEMBER 20:  Inigo Martinez of Real Sociedad looks on during the La Liga match between Real Sociedad and Sevilla  at Estadio de Anoeta on December 20, 2017 in San Sebastian, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images
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Ball said it was inevitable Martinez was going to leave the club, mentioning that he has previously been linked with moves to Manchester City, Juventus and Barcelona. What is galling for Real Sociedad fans is that he has gone to Athletic Bilbao.

"This is the shock—that he has gone to Bilbao, especially after the announcements he's made over the last few years like, 'I would never go to the other side,' and as a representative of the club's 'I don't have a second team' advertising campaign; he was probably going to be made captain next year if Xabi Prieto retires," Ball said. "It has taken everyone by surprise. Then again he is from Ondarroa, which is a coastal town in Vizcaya, so he is Biscayan. He does belong to that region; he was a Bilbao supporter as a boy."

The Martinez transfer is part of a pattern. It is the 13th time Athletic Bilbao have lifted a player from Real Sociedad's ranks. The first time it happened was in 1989, when Athletic made a grab for Lorenzo Juarros Garcia, known as Loren, a central defender-cum-striker. Loren later returned to play for Real Sociedad and is currently the club's sporting director. Curiously, the move to Athletic pleased no one—neither Loren, nor the clubs' sets of fans.

"I was 14 when it happened. I remember well when he moved," said professor Angel Iturriaga, author of the Dictionary of Athletic Club Players. "It caused a lot of tension. Real Sociedad fans and directors were irate because Athletic had signed one of their stars without telling them.

"Equally, among the fans of Athletic, many weren't content because the club had spent so much money—300 million pesetas, a record for a Spanish player. He wasn't an international. They felt it was money squandered. I remember talking to socios (members) of Athletic, like my father, who preferred players from the youth academy at Athletic who were performing as well as Loren, like (Jose Angel) Uribarrena.

"In the end, the transfer didn't satisfy anyone. Loren didn't have success at the club. He suffered a lot of pressure from the press and the fans, and he never performed. He ended up signing for Burgos. He didn't triumph at Athletic."

Athletic Bilbao's policy of only signing Basque players, or players who have trained at the club's youth academy, limits their pool. It is a misconception, however, to think that the club's identity is more Basque than Real Sociedad's. If anything, Real Sociedad have a stronger claim in that regard, according to Ball.

"If you look at the clubs' canteras (youth academies), Real Sociedad have produced far more Basque players over the last decade who have gone on to play at the top level than Athletic. In terms of Basque-ness, San Sebastian is a much more Basque city. You can go to the butcher or baker here and you can speak Basque, but you've got to go and look for it in Bilbao. San Sebastian is also a more radical city politically, where Real Sociedad is more associated with left-wing nationalism, whereas Bilbao is associated with right-wing nationalism."

The signing of Joseba Etxeberria "almost caused a civil war"
The signing of Joseba Etxeberria "almost caused a civil war"RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images

Relations between the clubs deteriorated badly in the summer of 1995, when Athletic Bilbao filched the 17-year-old Joseba Etxeberria. The young winger had only played a handful of games for Real Sociedad, but he was earmarked for greatness, having just finished as the tournament's top scorer in the 1995 FIFA World Youth Championship, in a glittering Spain team that also featured Raul and Fernando Morientes up front.

Real Sociedad were furious because Athletic Bilbao breached a gentleman's agreement that neither club would swoop for each other's youth academy players, per FourFourTwo magazine.

"The Etxeberria transfer almost started a civil war," Ball said. "I remember Etxeberria came back to Real Sociedad's stadium, Anoeta, after he'd been transferred, and fans threw bottles of water at him." The Royal Spanish Football Federation fined Real Sociedad 100,000 pesetas for their fans' behaviour.

"Athletic has always taken players from Real Sociedad, like Etxeberria, Bittor Alkiza, Iban Zubiaurre, Andoni Imaz, Loren," said former Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea, who managed Etxeberria on the Spain team at the 1995 FIFA World Youth Championship. "Real Sociedad must sometimes feel upset at this, but it has no other option. Sometimes it inserts an 'anti-Athletic' clause in its contracts, a clause which restricts players from signing for Athletic. The relationship between the clubs is sometimes harsh and sometimes affectionate, I think."

The Basque flag is common at both clubs
The Basque flag is common at both clubsJOSEP LAGO/Getty Images

Goikoetxea, who is immortalised for his on-field duels with Diego Maradona during the early 1980s when the Argentinian played with Barcelona, is correct when he says there is an ambivalent strand to the clubs' relations. They've had their good and bad days together, including a notorious match in 1918 during the Basque championship at Atocha, Real Sociedad's old stadium.

"It was a very serious confrontation," Iturriaga said. "There was a pitch invasion. Fans threw stones at Belauste, a mythical player of this era for Athletic. A boy from San Sebastian got badly injured. There have been confrontations like that between the clubs during their history. They're like brothers who don't get on well sometimes."

Goikoetxea fondly recalls playing the day when Athletic Bilbao defeated Real Sociedad 2-1 at San Mames to secure the league title in the final game of the 1983-1984 season. It concluded a four-year run in which Athletic Bilbao won back-to-back championships after Real Sociedad had won consecutive titles. "They were happy about each other's success in the 1980s," Ball said. "There is less affection for neighbouring Osasuna, for example, which is seen as semi-Spanish and not quite so Basque."

Goikoetxea was also part of the most notable incident in the clubs' shared history, in December 1976. In only the second Basque derby since the death of General Francisco Franco a year earlier, Spain was transitioning from a fascist dictatorship; freedoms were still curtailed.

One of Real Sociedad's squad players, Jose Antonio de la Hoz Uranga—who was later sentenced to eight years in prison for his part in Basque separatist organisation ETA's 1987 kidnapping of a Basque businessman Andres Gutierrez Blanco, per La Informacion—hatched a plan to display the Basque nationalist flag, la ikurrina, at the match. As the flag was outlawed, he had to get his sister to sew one for him, and he smuggled it into the stadium, past police surveillance, in his kitbag.

"It wasn't legal under Franco to display the flag, so there was a lot of tension and nervousness," Goikoetxea said. "The ikurrina was taken out by the two teams' captains, Jose Angel Iribar from Athletic and Real Sociedad's Inaxio Kortabarria. The national police were there on the pitch. There was great fear. Nobody knew what would happen. Fortunately, nothing happened.

"It was the first time the ikurrina was shown in public. The dictatorship hadn't finished, but at least the Basque flag could be shown, and that was a positive thing. It was the bravery of Iribar and Kortabarria, the captains who brought the flag out together. It was a beautiful thing, and I remember it with great emotion."

The match, which Real Sociedad won 5-0, was almost an afterthought. Today, the makeshift flag resides in Real Sociedad's museum, an erasable symbol of the two clubs' rich Basque history.


All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz