When Barca bowed to Athletic Bilbao – Giant-killing legacy of Fred Pentland

Join us as we go on a mythological exploration of the history of the Basque region, its football and Freddie Pentalnd’s Athletic Bilbao side which felled the largest giants.

An exploration into the history of Spanish football, its ties to the Basque region and an Athletic Bilbao side led by Freddie Pentland.

Mythologists studying the lost pantheon of the Basques will tell you that the euskaldunak – or the Basque speakers – believed in the duality of the world and of its beings. Their concept mentions the mutual existence of two worlds: Berezko, the natural world, and Aideko, the supernatural one. The transition of a being from the natural realms of Berezko to the occult side of Aideko is a process that requires an element of magic, which the ancient Basques called Adur. It is through the fulfilment of Adur – the magical virtue that connects an entity with its representation – that every element in this world begins to make sense.

The mythologists will then tell you about how Christianity came trotting along and how its propagators took care of these ancient traditions and beliefs, burying every bit of such “paganism” under their churches and cathedrals. Well, not every bit, apparently. But they did take care of almost everything that they could get their hands and crucifixes on.

However, what these scholars won’t tell you is that the ancient belief of the duality of our world and of its beings still exists among the euskaldunak who inhabit the autonomous Basque Country in northern Spain. It might be just subconscious thought, but one can tell it is there. Although in a context quite different from the one discussed so far.

You see, ancient traditions might have dwindled into obscurity and become myth over the passing centuries, but football always has a way to raise them from the dead.

In the city of Bilbao, home to the Spanish Primera Division club Athletic Bilbao, you can almost smell the confluence of football and mythology in the air that hangs around here before the weekend arrives. You can almost tell that the people of the city, scurrying about in their natural world, are houndishly impatient to make a transition into a supernatural realm. In Bilbao, the city is Berezko and the football stadium, the Aideko. The sport itself is the virtue that connects this duality and gets things to simply make sense; and once football is at work, everything does make sense.


If one were to track back in time to figure out the origins of football in the city of Bilbao, one is likely to bump into a group of locals huddled up on the northern bank of the Nervion river to “gawp at the British workers playing football”, as told by Phil Ball in his book Morbo: the Story of Spanish Football after hearing the historical accounts of the bilbainos.

Ball notes that the ‘gawping’ continued well until 1894 and looks caught up as he tries to give reason to the locals’ ‘unseemly’ behaviour.

He writes:

It remains unclear…whether this was because of the curious game they were playing or because they took off their shirts in summer – an unspeakably risque act for the conservative Basque onlookers who were also interested, it would seem, in the fact that the players wore shorts just above the knee, God bless us.

However, on May 3, 1894, a bunch of Cambridge-educated Basques had little hesitation in shimmying into those scandalous shorts themselves and playing a game of ‘foot-ball’ against a group of British contract workers. The latter were mostly either miners from north- eastern England or shipyard workers from Southampton and Portsmouth, brought over to the Basque city under short-term contracts.

Anyway, this was how the ball got rolling in Bilbao, covering wider proportions in the years that followed, and contributing in its own prolific way to the greater scheme of things that in Spain revolve around football.

Back in 1920, when the Spanish Seleccion decided to go backpacking to the Antwerp Olympics, the squad had an astonishing 14 Basque players in it, an evidence that throws light upon the domination of that region in Spanish football. They returned with a silver medal from their adventures abroad even as the centre at Madrid made desperate attempts to shove the Spanish capital’s representation down the world’s throat.


When someone mentions a style of play characterized by ‘fluid, short passing’, all attention is automatically drawn towards FC Barcelona.

However, it wasn’t always the Blaugrana who have been the most popular proponents of the short passing approach. Interestingly, they weren’t even the pioneers behind it. That privilege goes to Athletic Bilbao, who were instrumental in instigating the wildfire popularity the playing style gained across Spain.

Strange as it might seem, it was an Englishman with a bowler hat who made short passing fashionable in Spanish football; and the Basques were quite instrumental in the execution of his approach to perfection. So much so that Football Club Barcelona, the present models of that particular playing style, were left blushing a kind of red deeper than the red stripes on their shirts when they faced Athletic Bilbao away at San Mames during the 1930-31 season.

Squad photo of the Athletic Bilbao side that would thrash Barcelona in 1930-31

12-1 to Bilbao, the scoreline read, and to this day, Frederick ‘Freddie’ Pentland, Bilbao’s Englishman with the bowler hat is touted as the mastermind behind that extraordinary triumph. It would be interesting to note that Barça themselves had made up their minds to adopt lo de Pentland (Pentland’s way) while they were halfway through the 1928-29 season. They won the maiden campaign that year. However, when they visited their Basque hosts about a year later, they seemed to have simply lost the plot against the original missionaries of Pentland’s method.

The Basques were relentless in that February fixture, trying, as if to tell the visitors: this is how it’s done. The scoring spree began as early as the second minute through a certain Agustín Sauto Arana, who scored yet again six minutes later to double Bilbao’s lead. In the tenth minute Barcelona announced themselves to their hosts with a goal that was to be their only contribution to the scoreboard for the remaining part of the game.

Arana – or should we start calling him by his more popular name, Bata – was destined to haunt the pages of the Catalans’ history as he netted a total of seven goals against Barcelona that day at San Mames. On the sidelines, in the Bilbao dugout, one could imagine ‘Freddie’ Pentland’s ecstacy at beholding his most powerful weapon unleash the entirety of its terrifying repertoire over the opponent.

The Basques would go on to win the La Liga title for the second consecutive time at the end of that season, coupled with a Copa del Rey victory. The Basque club had simply replicated their previous seasons’ triumph with Pentland, and they knew that this Englishman, with his scandalous Spanish and eccentric bowler hat, was a man who deserved their utmost respect.

Spain might have forgotten Pentland, despite the fact that modern Spanish football has borrowed – and benefited –  extraordinarily from his methods. After all, a near-perfect execution of Pentland’s pioneering approach won La Furia Roja a couple of European Championships and a World Cup. But up north, in the Basque city of Bilbao, the folks sure know how to repay their dues when it comes to football.

Bilbao always had a tradition of producing fearsome centre-forwards from their renowned cantera. Before Bata – the bane of FC Barcelona – there was a Rafael Moreno Aranzandi who haunted the ranks of the opponents’ defence and their goalkeepers, and whose legend survives even today despite the lack of the player’s footage. Since 1953, the Spanish federation has stuck to the tradition of awarding the top scorers in both the First and Second Divisions with a trophy that borrows Moreno Aranzandi’s better-known name: Pichichi.

Nevertheless, it was Pentland who gave Basque football the reputation it deserved. The Englishman, whose methods dictated a more patient build up to the game, had an element of magic that channeled the mountainous ferocity of the Basques into a display of composure over the ball. His legacy at Athletic Bilbao earned him honours which the Basques are magnanimous to offer to their footballing allies. In 1959, the club officials invited Pentland, who had grown grey with age, from England to kick off a testimonial match against Chelsea at San Mames.

In 1962, when Pentland died, the club solemnly paid tribute to his memory with traditional rituals and a poetic recitation of the legendary cry pertaining to his bowler hat: Que poco te quera bombin. Solo tres minutos! (Only three minutes left for you, bowler-hat!)

Any record of Basque football would be incomplete without Pentland. Athletic Bilbao’s policy of recruiting only Basque players produced by the region’s cantera could have been a subject of much criticism and ridicule had the Englishman not left behind a legacy of developing fearsome footballers from among the ranks of the club. If there was anyone who could do justice to the club’s claim of being different from the others, it had to be the English gentleman – a being from the supernatural realms of Aideko, playing in a self-willed manner with the rules of Adur.

Mythologists won’t tell you that. Nor will the younger generations of folks falling in love with Spanish football with each passing day mention it to you. But even today, if there’s one name besides Real Madrid and FC Barcelona that has had the prowess to retain its position within the Spanish Primera Division ever since the competition’s birth in 1929, it has been that of the Basques. In particular, it has been that of Athletic Bilbao.

Piyush Bisht

Penman. Journalist. Playmaker. Spends a pretty hobbit-like lifestyle speckled with either creative foolhardiness or slothish procrastination