It's been difficult to avoid Athletic de Bilbao this week, despite the fact that their 2-2 draw at struggling Villarreal was a fairly predictable result, given the current tidal patterns on both clubs' shores. Apart from the draw - not in itself a bad result - just about everything else over in Bilbao has been absolutely tickety-boo. Never mind the recession. The city is humming with content.
Let's just list the reasons, then get on with analysing them. First of all, they're doing pretty well in the league. Their current total of 34 points leaves them at shoulder-rubbing distance with the 35 points accumulated by the current 4th-placed Champions League team, Levante. And despite the fact that only four points separate them and their neighbours Real Sociedad - the latter still looking nervously over their shoulders at the relegation positions - you get the feeling that for the foreseeable future, the only way is up for Los Leones. Oh, and next week they're at home to Real Sociedad in the Basque derby. It's all happening.
Secondly, they're in the final of the Copa del Rey, against none other than Barcelona, for the second time in four years. Nobody knows where this will be played as yet, but more on this topic later. Thirdly, they're in the 'octavos' of the Europa League, and will be travelling to Old Trafford on March 8 for the first leg against Manchester United. These two games will be wonderful things. I'll explain why. Fourthly, without so much as a new paragraph, they seem to be filling up the two national sides with players from their squad, a fact that rather suggests that the good times are here to stay for the Basques. Two national sides, you ask? Well - I refer to the squad for the European Championship in June and the other for the Olympics in London in July. And last but not least, just to round off the paragraph, their best player Javi Martinez hit the headlines on Saturday morning with the revelation that he was Jose Mourinho's main target for the summer. The tabloid Marca led with 'Mou asks for a lion'. It's the kind of headline that means it's probably true - and even if it isn't, it means that Marca's chief editor wants Javi Martinez, which is tantamount to the same thing.
Starting with the league, there were doubts at the beginning of the season as to whether it had been a good idea to dispense with manager Joaquin Caparros, a man who had done a surprisingly good job, had overseen much of the youth movement that is paying such dividends now, and who only left for Mallorcan shores because of a change in the presidency at San Mames. The new incumbent, Josu Urrutia, preferred a fresh start with new personnel, and brought over the controversial but always 'interesting' Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa preferred Athletic to Inter Milan and ignored further overtures from his old pals at Newell's in Argentina. It was an interesting choice for him (and for Urrutia) because managing Athletic requires a certain je ne sais quoi, although I'd be reluctant to define that too deeply. Bielsa had a good record, particularly with national sides (most notably Chile), but Athletic like their managers to be fiery and charismatic - Caparros being the exception in that he seemed to quieten down during his spell at San Mames. Luis Fernandez remains the favoured template, with his lollipop-sucking and his instinctive understanding of what made the Bilbainos tick. He still calls them 'my Athletic', a phrase you are unlikely to ever hear from Bielsa, who has spent his time since September with his head largely beneath the parapet, barely giving interviews and demonstrating as much charisma as a wall of drying paint. But it's paying off. After a shaky start during which the players complained (privately) that they didn't understand him (presumably his tactics, not his Spanish), things are going just fine. Bielsa's great ability has always been to work with what he is given, not with what can be subsequently brought in.
Then there's the Copa del Rey. Athletic cruelly destroyed little Mirandes' dreams in the semi-finals, but you can hardly blame them. However, their renewed presence in the final against Barcelona has resuscitated several bad national memories, of a certain political persuasion. It may be difficult to understand this outside of Spain, but the main controversy at present is Real Madrid's refusal to have the game played at the Bernabeu, ostensibly due to the 'works' that they have allegedly scheduled for May 25, a fortnight after the final game of the season. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Athletic even announced that they would be prepared to have the game played at the Camp Nou, but now the Mestalla or the Calderon seem the most likely venues. The lack of a real, politically neutral national stadium, makes this a nightmare game for the authorities. The feeling in the parts of the country and in the press that dress to the left is that the rectors of Madrid do not want a repetition of the 2009 final in which the national anthem was booed and King Juan Carlos subjected to various chants of - shall we say - a non-patriotic nature. TVE1's famous turning down of the volume caused heads to roll and democracy to be questioned, and there have been suggestions that 'Bernabéu-Gate' is actually a product of pressure from on high. The new right-wing PP government has enough on its plate, without a Cup final which turns into a celebration of so much that is anti-Spanish.
To further fuel the flames, the famous Basque chef Karlos Arguinano, who does a daily cooking show on national Spanish television, dropped in one of his jokes last week as he was working on a Vizcayan dish from Bilbao. Arguinano is a very funny man and a natural raconteur but he has been in trouble before, largely because he simply talks to the camera as if he were in the pub with his mates, an endearing style that can nevertheless lead him down paths that certain elements of Spanish society find less than amusing. Last week he announced, whilst making up his sauce (which reminded him of Athletic), that the Bernabeu was actually the place where the final should be held. Grinning at the camera from behind a fish, he then added the line - amusing or deadly depending on which side of the fence you sit - "If it was the Generalissimo's Cup [referring to Franco] then of course Florentino [Perez] would hold it there". He then made things even juicier with the almost subliminal rider, "But because the king's a bit on the quiet side...". The fact that Arguinano had probably got it right was immaterial. His own connections to Basque nationalism brought a tsunami of rage down upon his head, with some calling for him to be taken off the television. This is unlikely, given his laddish popularity, but the incident showed how barren is the valley of free speech here. Certain minorities here are easy game. But attack the sacred cows and it's a national scandal.
Turning to the Europa League, the pairing of Athletic and Manchester United is a gem of a fixture for the romantics. It will also help to improve the image of the competition, already enhanced this season by the unexpected presence of the two Manchester sides and Valencia. The last time these two sides met in Bilbao was back in January 1957, on a snowy San Mames pitch. It was at a golden moment in English football, with the Busby Babes in their prime, a year before the Munich air disaster. Bilbao had won the double the previous season, re-asserting themselves for the first time since the early 1940s and hoping to bust the myth of the emerging Real Madrid side, inspired by Di Stefano and company. Athletic won 5-3 in what remains one of the mythical European Cup encounters, only to lose 3-0 in Manchester - a game played at Manchester City's old Maine Road (in front of 70,000) because the floodlights at Old Trafford were yet to be installed. United lost to Real Madrid in the semi-finals that season, but had that squad survived, Los Blancos' hegemony might never have happened. It's a fascinating hypothesis and Athletic seem inextricably tied up with the story. The sight of the two names drawn together again makes the month of March seem a lot more interesting.
Last but not least, Vicente Del Bosque announced the national squad last Friday for the friendly game against Venezuela. Apart from the headline-making absence of Fernando Torres, four Athletic players were included, namely Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez, Iker Muniain and Andoni Iraola. For the Olympic squad to play Egypt, Luis Milla included Mikel San Jose, Ander Iturraspe, Oscar De Marcos and Ander Herrera. It's difficult to disagree with any of these choices, and it's an obvious reflection of the strength and the promise of the current squad. Of course, Martinez and Llorente have long been the target of various clubs, and Llorente is fancied by several teams in England, for obvious reasons. Martinez is also on the agenda at Manchester City, but then again who isn't?
All this and more, as I was reminded by a chap to whom I was talking this Sunday at a local Juvenil match here. Athletic's Cosecha de 1995 (1995 vintage) is considered the best in decades, and these players will be emerging from the ranks in a couple of year's time, possibly to replace the stars that may have left by that time. In days of yore, players from Athletic (although there are examples to the contrary) were largely left alone by the likes of Real Madrid, since it was assumed that they would not wish to pull on the hated white shirt. But it is a measure of the changing political climate (Arguinano aside) that this is no longer the case. Xabi Alonso, although a product of Real Sociedad, has also had plenty to do with that. Whatever - congratulations to Athletic for a wonderful week, but I sincerely hope that they lose the derby next Sunday. I'll be there as witness.