Ghosts of clubs past define a fright night for former players in dramatic Basque Derby

It was close to full time and something evil was lurking in the dark. Athletic Bilbao had a free kick at the edge of the box in stoppage time. Real Sociedad were on the verge of another victory and another clean sheet at home, their fans inside a bursting Reale Arena jubilant at the prospect of going three points clear at the top of the table once more.

Then the nightmare. The gremlin of a goalkeeping howler. Iker Muniain’s free kick was powerfully-struck but central, and should have been a routine save for most keepers most of the time. Inexplicably, Alex Remiro opted to punch the ball laterally, but could only parry it onto the bar and in. Athletic celebrated like they had won, with Muniain running into Marcelino’s arms and Inaki Williams giving him multiple chest bumps. 

La Real had been in control with a 1-0 lead and a man advantage, but had struggled to manage the game as Los Leones forced them back. Fittingly for Halloween, it was a haunting night for two former players, one for each club. Former-txuri-urdin Inigo Martinez committed the foul on Mikel Merino to concede the penalty from which Alexander Isak scored. Then, to compound his misery, he received a second yellow card and was sent off in front of the fans who used to cheer him. They were cheering here too, but it was ironic and at Inigo’s expense. 

The atmosphere had been magnificent all night, raucous and feverish, although it got out of hand when objects were thrown onto the pitch as Muniain took corner kicks. Post-game, he downplayed the incidents, telling Gol: “It is the salsa of soccer, as long as there are no incidents”.

The story seemed to be a repeat of the Copa del Rey final from Seville in April, a tight, hard-fought match settled by a penalty kick. This rivalry is often far beyond the football on the pitch and, in true derby style, often far from aesthetically pure. Athletic were hammered by Barcelona in the 2021 Copa final, but the narrow defeat in the postponed 2020 edition a couple of weeks before would have unquestionably stung significantly more. Identity means so much to the Basque clubs, perhaps more so than any other region in Spanish football.

After heartache in the spring, the Athletic captain was to have his own redemption story. In that final, the most precious of Basque derbies, Muniain led his team out and committed the cardinal sin of touching the trophy before the game. Whether it was fate or not, Muniain was left to stand alone and applaud the victors as they celebrated. One can only imagine how much that would have hurt him, being the living embodiment of Athletic – both a fan and a captain. Six months on, he would have the last word in this derby, scoring the free kick which would save his team a point. 

The villain of the piece was Remiro, the former-lion, who left the club after finding himself behind Unai Simon in the pecking order. In the previous game, Mat Ryan was man of the match at Balaidos in the pouring rain as La Real kept a clean sheet to register a significant away win. Imanol has been rotating his keepers this season and – with the benefit of hindsight – perhaps Ryan would have been the more level-headed choice.

Remiro was devastated at the final whistle, in disbelief at his own error – the first goal the home fans had seen in their own net this season. In the true spirit of this rivalry and Basque football in general, there was time for a moment of genuine class and sportsmanship. Muniain was the first to console Remiro at the end of the game, just as he had shown humility in Seville. 

Often overlooked and underrated, Muniain is one of the best attacking players in La Liga this season, and has been consistent throughout his career. Using data from fbref.com, he is among the leaders for key passes, progressive passes, passes into the area, shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions. Put simply, he is the creative force and heartbeat of this side, and he was decisive in the derby on Sunday night.

Overall, both sides may settle for this result when the emotion and energy of the match subsides. La Real remain unbeaten since the opening day of the season – a run of eleven matches – their longest stretch since 2013. Athletic have also only lost once in the league so far, reinforcing their European aspirations under Marcelino. These two clubs are exemplary in so many ways, and it is terrific to see them both thriving and competing in this vibrant, pulsating manner.

Tags Athletic Bilbao La Liga Real Sociedad