Bilbao bounces back in La Liga

Athletic Bilbao had overcome a horrible start, having won only one of its first four matches, to execute a La Liga leapfrog over FC Barcelona.

On Saturday, Oct. 31, Bilbao (3-4, 9 points) defeated Sevilla at home and Barça (2-2-2, 8 points) drew at Deportivo Alaves, creating Athletic’s rare perch over the superpower. Probably few outside that fiercely defiant swath of land between France and Spain noticed. Residents with generational Basque or Catalan blood, though, no doubt knew the score.

“Two fanatically nationalist teams,” wrote the Madrid-born and London School of Economics-educated scribe Jimmy Burns in his bravura 1999 book “Barça: A People’s Passion.”

These two are brothers who constantly belittle the Spanish crown, battling any and all outsiders, but reserve extra venom for each other.

In March 1984, fisticuffs and kung-fu kicks followed the brutal tackle of Barça striker Maradona by Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea, known ever since as the Butcher of Bilbao. However, while 26-time La Liga victor Barcelona chases and obtains the world’s best players, and has a global fan base, Bilbao, whose most recent of eight titles came in 1983 and ’84, hires only homegrown talent. Five on its current roster hail from Bilbao proper and four are from Pamplona, the rest calling suburbs like Zumarraga and Victoria-Gastiez home.

Four are called Unai, a common Basque male name meaning “shepherd.” Four are named Iñigo, a Castillian derivative of the medieval Basque Eneko, which translates to “my little (love/dear).”

Outsiders have criticized the locals-only policy as xenophobic if not prejudicial, but it’s the club’s unshakeable foundation. Bilbao struggles away from home. Even without fans, though, it has been successful inside its refurbished San Mamés Stadium. To coincide with its 100th anniversary, it re-opened in 2013 and is one of the world’s model arenas. It’s named after Mammes, an early Christian thrown to the lions by the Romans who then pacified the beasts, sealing a sainthood. Bilbao is known as the Lions.

Barça visits San Mamés, where it has scored only once in its past four matches, on Jan. 6, and Athletic plays in Barcelona on Jan. 31.

Now for the juicy pub bet. Watching a match with pals? Ask them to name the three sides from the original La Liga that have never been relegated. Barcelona and Real Madrid are givens. Then they’ll stammer and sweat. If any says Bilbao, listed as Athletic Club on La Liga’s table, they’ll deserve one on your tab.

La Liga started in 1929 with 10 clubs, those three and Real Sociedad, Getxo, Real Unión, Atlético Madrid, Espanyol, Europa and Racing Santander. Only Barça, Real Madrid and Bilbao have stayed in the Spanish top flight since that very first day.

In the 1890s, migrant British workers first brought the game to Spain, to Bilbao, and it spread throughout the country, where I’ve spent some time. In 1997, on the train from Barcelona to Pamplona, a young guy sitting opposite my friends and I spoke Basque, which is tricky. Legend says the devil spent seven years by a Basque farmhouse trying to learn it, and he emerged having mastered only two words —“Yes, Ma’am.”

Between my rudimentary Spanish and this kid’s Basque, our narrow common thread was the game. Beaming with pride, he eagerly flashed his Athletic Bilbao supporter’s card when I asked whom he supported. Order was restored over the weekend, when Barça beat Real Betis and Bilbao lost to Real Valladolid. But for seven intoxicating days, that guy must have glowed.

Saturday

Luxembourg +142 at Cyprus: The home squad has mustered a paltry four total shots on target in four Nations League games, tying it with Andorra for the meekest attack among this tournament’s 55 countries. The visitors are 3-1 in this competition and know how to finish. LUXEMBOURG

Andorra at Malta -136, Total 2 Un -120: Over its past 24 matches in all competitions, Andorra is 0-11-13, having been outscored 33-8. It is one of two sides that has not scored in four NL tilts. The Maltese — yes, Falcons is a nickname — have tallied four in four games. MALTA and UNDER

Spain -110 at Switzerland: The Swiss have defeated the Spanish only once in 21 meetings. In Switzerland, the Spanish are 7-0-2, with a 23-6 goals advantage. A barrage is headed toward the home side, as Spain is second in this tourney with 17.5 shots per match. The visitors have yielded only two goals in their four NL matches. SPAIN

Last week: 1-3

Season: 13-19-2