In recent times followers of the Spanish top-flight will be more familiar with Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Atletico Madrid occupying the top positions but back in the early 1980s, there was a run of Basque dominance that lasted four years. La Real won back to back titles in 1981 and 1982 while their rivals, Athletic wrestled the crown away from them to win back to back championships in 1983 and 1984. Athletic also added the Copa del Rey in 1984 to assert their position as the best side in Spanish football at the time.
A simpler time
Football was a much simpler game in the 80s, unlike the corporate world it is nowadays. Back then both Athletic and La Real only used Basque players. In the 1980s most La Liga sides were full of homegrown players but the three foreigner rule meant that the likes of Diego Maradona, Bernd Schuster and Lawrie Cunningham were in Barcelona and Madrid for at least some of the time that the Basque sides were enjoying their period of dominance.
La Liga is now full of the worlds best players from all nations with only non-EU players being counted as foreign and even then some of the best ones have played in Europe look enough to have EU passports. La Real stuck to their guns regarding Basque players until 1989 when John Aldridge signed from Liverpool and then 13 years later, they allowed non-Basque Spanish nationals to join the club with Boris signing from Real Oviedo. Athletic, to their credit, have stuck to their principals and still to this day operate their 'Cantera' policy.
Since Athletic won the double in 1984 it has been a barren spell for both sides of this old rivalry. La Real won the Copa del Rey in 1987 but their only trophy since changing their signing policy came in 2010 when they won the Segunda Division at the third time of asking having being relegated from the top flight in 2007. Athletic's only trophy came in 2015 when they beat Luis Enrique's treble-winning Barcelona side in the Spanish Super Copa. Despite that long drought, Athletic do have history on their side with eight league titles and 23 Copa's which is second only to Barcelona. La Real's league wins in the early 80s were their only two and that Copa win in 1987 was only their second of all time.
What of the modern era?
There's no doubt this has been a great start to the season for Athletic and La Real. Athletic remain unbeaten with three wins and two draws from their first five games while La Real have three wins and a draw with their only defeat coming against Athletic when Los Leones dominated the opening derby of the season at San Mames. However, only the most optimistic of fans would believe they have a realistic chance of winning the title.
There's little doubt that Athletic and La Real have some real quality in their squads but in terms of depth and longevity, they will still almost certainly finish behind Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. Those sides haven't enjoyed the best of starts to the season but they will all be aware that winning league titles happens in May rather than August and September. That said, there's absolutely no reason why the Basque pair cannot be involved in the next battle that will see the fourth-placed team enter the lucrative Champions League group stages next season.
Valencia and Sevilla will also have designs on that fourth place with Sevilla alongside La Real on 10 points so far. Los Che are a bit further back with just five points from five games but it wouldn't be the first time that they made a poor start before a second-half of the season rally saw them push themselves up the table and into European contention.
There are still 33 league games left to play which is roughly 87% of the season so there's loads of time to go for both sides to make a push up or fall down the table. Realistically, it's unlikely either will finish higher than fourth but they can both point to some very talented players in their squads. Athletic have Raul Garcia, Ander Capa, Yuri, Yeray Alvarez and Unai Nunez all in good form while La Real have seen some great displays from Martin Odegaard, Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal already this season.
While football has changed a lot from the early 80s, it's nice to see some old faces doing well. Both Athletic and La Real are staples of the Spanish game and while they might not always be at the top of the table, in what they sometimes lack on the field, they make up for in passion and these old Basque giants are a real asset to La Liga and Spanish football.