From 1941 until 1975, the club was known as Atlético de Bilbao following a decree from the ruling regime of the period that foreign words should not be used – the Athletic name, adopted at the turn of the 20th century, reflected English connections to football in the area. Therefore, any references to Atlético Bilbao in matches during the period correctly reflect the official title at the time.
It is traditional for the captains of teams visiting Athletic's stadium for the first time to present a bouquet of flowers to a bust of the club's 1920s star Pichichi. Since it is rare for Athletic to encounter new opponents in domestic football, most of these brief pre-match ceremonies take place prior to European ties.
1950s: The Magyars and the Babes
Athletic's first experience of European competition was the non-UEFA Latin Cup held at the end of the 1955–56 season in which they were champions of Spain; in the small four-team tournament held in Milan, the Lions finished as runners-up to A.C. Milan. The relatively obscure status of that competition, which ended in 1957, have meant its statistics are not always recorded by the participants – the club's website lists the two matches as friendlies with minimal information although they were taken seriously at the time.
Winning the domestic league also granted Athletic entry to the European Cup, the first edition of which had been won by Spanish rivals Real Madrid. During the 1956–57 campaign, They defeated FC Porto in the opening round and were then drawn against Budapest Honvéd of Hungary at a significant point in that nation's history. Before the first leg of their tie – originally scheduled for Budapest – had been played, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began. The Honvéd players, who formed the backbone of the 'Mighty Magyars' international side, were already out of the country, but their families remained at home amidst the chaos of the uprising. The legs were switched, with Athletic winning narrowly 3–2 in Bilbao.
The second leg was eventually played a month later in Brussels after Honvéd, unwilling to return to Hungary, took part in several exhibition matches around the continent. That return ended in a 3–3 draw with Athletic progressing 6–5, although Honvéd played a portion of the match with ten men after the goalkeeper was injured; their international winger Zoltán Czibor took his place between the posts. Honvéd continued to play tour matches across Europe and in South America for some time, until most returned home. Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and captain Ferenc Puskás did not go back and had to serve bans for their defection before they were able to play for their new clubs – Athletic's domestic rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Honvéd would not be a major force in the game again.
The Busby Babes
team, pictured about two years before their tie in Bilbao
Athletic's next opponents were the young Manchester United squad known as the Busby Babes, who progressed after another battle ending 6–5. After 85 minutes of the first leg in Bilbao, the home side led 5–2 before the Red Devils scored a third goal, giving themselves a more achievable target in Manchester, and it was also with five minutes remaining in the return that they found the decisive goal to win 3–0. The United players had helped to clear snow off their aeroplane at Bilbao Airport to enable them to fly home after the first leg; exactly a year after their win over Athletic, the English club was decimated in the Munich air disaster which involved their plane failing on take-off in wintery conditions.
1960s and early 1970s: Diminishing returns
It would be nine years before Athletic played in Europe again, although a Copa del Generalisimo win in 1958 and three league finishes in the top five (1958–59, 1959–60, 1961–62) achieved in the period would have been sufficient to qualify in later eras.
In the 1964–65 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tournament, the club progressed through two early rounds before meeting Scotland's Dunfermline Athletic. Both won their home leg 1–0 necessitating a playoff in Bilbao, won 2–1 by the home side with a late Fidel Uriarte goal. The quarter–final opponents were another Hungarian side, Ferencváros, and the tie finished 3–3 on aggregate; again a playoff was required, which took place in Budapest, and Ferencváros won 3–0 on their way to the trophy, beating Juventus in the final.
Athletic have played six matches in Hungary, including four against Ferencváros
at the Nepstadion
, losing them all
Athletic's next entry into Europe in the 1966–67 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was a short unhappy venture, as Red Star Belgrade won 5–0 in the first round, first leg match in Belgrade, which remains the club's heaviest European defeat. Prior to the match, the Yugoslav side's manager had underplayed his team's strength, stating "The best we can hope for is a draw". A 2–0 win at home could not retrieve the situation for Athletic. Red Star did not have much impact on the competition, losing to another Spanish club Valencia in the next round, but their domestic rivals Dinamo Zagreb went on to win the cup.
In the following campaign, a win over Denmark's Frem was rewarded with a cross-border meeting with Girondins Bordeaux, the shortest-ever away journey at 257km. That tie was successfully passed, but after receiving a bye to the quarter-finals through the luck of the draw, Athletic's next opponents were Ferencváros who once more proved too strong, despite enduring a miserable journey from Budapest to the Basque Country for the second leg; the Hungarians would again reach the final, this time losing to Leeds United.
A late goal by Emlyn Hughes at Anfield sent Athletic's 1968–69 Fairs Cup first round tie with Liverpool into . (with this tiebreak method now preferred to a deciding match), When that did not provide a winner, the toss of a coin (or specifically picking the correct colour of card the referee was holding, from a choice of red or green) was employed for the only time in the club's European matches, with luck favouring the Lions. They overcame their first German opponents Eintracht Frankfurt through a spectacular volley from teenage defender José María Igartua and advanced to the quarter-finals to face Rangers, where two late goals in the first leg at Ibrox proved decisive as the 4–1 loss, including a strike by Alex Ferguson who had been in the Dunfermline side narrowly beaten four years earlier and had a goal disallowed in that tie, was only countered 2–0 at home with some good chances to score a vital third being squandered.
In 1969–70, Athletic Bilbao entered the Cup Winners' Cup for the first time as winners of the 1969 Copa del Generalísimo; they were eliminated in the opening round by eventual winners Manchester City. Athletic returned to the Fairs Cup for its final edition but again exited early, this time at the hands of Sparta Prague.
The change of competition to the UEFA Cup in 1971–72 brought little upturn in fortune, as Athletic qualified (their sixth successive European campaign, the longest sequence in club history) but lost to Eintracht Braunschweig after beating Southampton.
After a year's hiatus, a domestic cup win in 1973 provided entry into the 1973–74 European Cup Winners' Cup, the last time the club would enter that competition, ending after two journeys behind the Iron Curtain: Athletic were accompanied to the USSR by 1000 supporters for the goalless draw with Torpedo Moscow, but this result was followed by a heavy 3–0 defeat to Bulgaria's Beroe Stara Zagora which could not be overturned back in Bilbao.
Late 1970s: UEFA Cup finalists
The club's first major successful run to the latter stages of European competition occurred in the 1976–77 UEFA Cup under head coach and former player Koldo Aguirre. Early rounds against Újpest of Hungary and Basel of Switzerland were overcome thanks to strong home wins in the second leg. In the third round against Italians Milan, Athletic played at home first, and this time secured a strong 4–1 lead to take to Italy after scoring on 81 and 86 minutes. In the second leg at the San Siro, Milan scored a penalty with less than ten minutes remaining to lead on away goals before an even later Athletic penalty turned the tie.
That victory over one of the continent's biggest names provided confidence in facing another: domestic rivals Barcelona. It was the first time Athletic had played another Spanish team in Europe, and the two clubs had already played both league fixtures that season, the Catalans winning 3–1 in Bilbao and the Basques claiming a 2–0 victory at the Camp Nou ten days before their UEFA Cup tie. The tie was played in an unusually friendly atmosphere due to the similar regional identity of the two clubs, whose supporters were excited by the prospect of a brighter future for their respective territories after the death of dictator General Franco and the weakening of his regime. Athletic held on for a 2–1 lead at San Mames and led by the same score by half–time in the second leg thanks to a brace from Javier Irureta, requiring Barça to score three more times in the last 45 minutes. They could only manage one, through Johan Cruijff, so the Lions qualified for the penultimate stage of a European tournament for the first time.
In the semi-final tie, against Belgians R.W.D. Molenbeek, a 1–1 draw was achieved in a tough contest in Brussels before a 0–0 draw in Bilbao was sufficient to progress to the two–legged final against another Serie A club, Juventus. Athletic's veteran goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar would face his 'twin', the Italian national custodian Dino Zoff (the two were of similar age, height and appearance).
Both clubs fielded teams of a single nationality in the showpiece first leg at the Stadio Comunale on 4 May before a 75,000 crowd, with the only goal scored by the hosts' Marco Tardelli. In the return on 18 May, an early away goal by Juve's Roberto Bettega left Athletic with a tough task to score three against the side that were about to be crowned Serie A champions, had only conceded 20 goals in the league and given up just one to each of their UEFA Cup opponents that season. Athletic quickly equalised on the night through Irureta, but could not find another goal until Carlos scored the second on 78 minutes. A frantic last portion of the match failed to produce the vital third goal, the tie finished 2–2 and Juventus claimed their first European trophy on the away goals rule. A few weeks later, Athletic suffered further disappointment when they lost the 1977 Copa del Rey Final in a to Real Betis.
Results thereafter were not as impressive: the following season began in familiar circumstances as Athletic defeated opponents from Switzerland (Servette) and Hungary (Újpest again, requiring extra time to progress) before falling to Aston Villa, and the 1978–79 UEFA Cup run ended even sooner as Ajax overturned a two-goal deficit to win the first–round tie with Søren Lerby scoring the decisive goal with two minutes remaining. It was a fair outcome, as the second of Athletic's scores in Bilbao should not have been awarded: Juan Carlos Vidal's shot struck the outside of the supporting stanchion and rebounded onto the in a similar manner to the legitimate goal earlier in the match, and was mistakenly given by the referee.
1980s: No joy in European Cup
After three years with no European football for Athletic, in the 1982–83 UEFA Cup it was the Budapest team Ferencváros who once again ended their participation. It was the third time they had been drawn together and Athletic had lost on every occasion.
In 1983, Athletic won the Spanish league 27 years after their last triumph, so that autumn they re-entered the Champions' Cup for the first time in a generation. After seeing off Lech Poznan, Javier Clemente's side faced Liverpool, winners in three of the past seven seasons. A goalless draw in England appeared to bode well for the return, but Liverpool showed their strength by winning 1–0 at San Mamés through Ian Rush, the first opponent to win there since 1968 (22 matches). The Reds would go on to win the final in Rome.
Athletic retained their league title and added the domestic cup in 1983–84, but the subsequent European Cup campaign was disappointingly brief, with Bordeaux prevailing in the first round tie despite Athletic only needing a single goal to win at home and progress on away goals; two goals home were disallowed and the crowd threw missiles at the referee in frustration. The small consolation was that the French champions proved their mettle by reaching the semi-finals where they came close to beating the eventual winners Juventus.
Unremarkable UEFA cup campaigns would follow, with defeats to Sporting CP (losing 3–0 in the second leg after a run of five straight wins in earlier matches) and Beveren, with the latter campaign in 1986–87 the last of five consecutive seasons of qualifying for Europe. In 1988, Athletic returned to Turin and the Stadio Comunale to face Juventus once more, this time losing heavily 5–1. Michael Laudrup, who scored two of the goals, also opened the scoring in Bilbao to all but end the tie as a contest, although Athletic did come to within two goals of levelling the aggregate before having to settle for a 3–2 win on the night.
1990s: Italian trips and Champions League
After five seasons without qualifying, Athletic returned to European football with enthusiasm in the 1994–95 UEFA Cup, eliminating Anorthosis by overcoming a two-goal first leg deficit and Newcastle United in a tie memorable for the positive interaction between the two groups of supporters, before losing out to Parma, who would go on to lift the trophy, in another closely–fought contest over the two legs. In their next qualification in 1997 the situation was reversed, with Athletic overcoming an Italian opponent – Sampdoria – before losing to an English rival: Aston Villa.
The 1997–98 domestic season saw Athletic finish as runners-up, providing a qualification route to the 1998–99 UEFA Champions League. In the play-off round, a lengthy journey to Georgia was rewarded with a narrow win over Dinamo Tbilisi on away goals to make it into the group stage. Facing Juventus once again (finalists in the previous three editions), Athletic managed to avoid defeat to the Bianconeri but lost away matches to Rosenborg and Galatasaray to finish bottom of a very tight section. It would be their last European involvement for six years.
2000s: Group stage experience
Athletic, coached by Ernesto Valverde, made a comeback to continental competition in the 2004–05 UEFA Cup, their only participation in that tournament's five-club group stage involving one match against each opponent. Revenge for the defeat a decade earlier was achieved with a home win over Parma in the opening fixture, and progression to the next stage was achieved in style by defeating Standard Liège 7–1 in Belgium, the club's biggest-ever win in Europe (Santiago Ezquerro scoring three). However, these positive results proved to be a false dawn as an underwhelming loss in the first knockout round to an Austria Wien side inspired by Libor Sionko followed. In the aftermath of the defeat, Valverde announced he would be leaving the club at the season's end after disputes with the hierarchy.
A few months after the Austria defeat, Athletic lost a domestic cup semi-final on penalties at San Mamés, again to Betis (see 1977), and this method would also be their undoing in the summer in their sole entry to the early-season Intertoto Cup (having declined previous invitations) following a 9th place finish in the league. In perhaps their most ignominious early exit, the only time they have fallen at a preliminary stage, and (to date) the last of seven occasions where the team was eliminated from Europe after a playing just a single two-legged tie, a young understrength side lost to Romania's CFR Cluj in the opening round after both legs finished 1–0. The result came in the wake of the departure of two important players – Ezquerro to Barcelona and Asier del Horno to Chelsea, and set the tone for a disappointing domestic season in which the club narrowly avoided relegation after gaining 10 points in the last four matches.
The club's next entry, into the re-branded UEFA Europa League in 2009 (having lost the previous season's Cup final to Barcelona), involved the setting of new club records, as 16-year-old Iker Muniain became the club's youngest player in a European match in the first leg defeat to Young Boys, then came off the bench and scored the goal which saw Athletic progress on away goals in the return in Switzerland. Despite failing to win at home again in the next round, a long journey north to the Arctic Circle was rewarded with a narrow aggregate victory over Tromsø and qualification to the group stage, where two wins over Austria Wien (the away leg interrupted by a pitch invasion by local right-wing hooligans) were mitigated by a pair of defeats to Werder Bremen (the only German opponent to win in Bilbao). In the first knockout round, Athletic endured their worst aggregate losing margin in a 1–5 reverse to Anderlecht, led by another 16-year-old forward, Romelu Lukaku, while more violent incidents involving supporters occurred at San Mamés in the first leg and in the streets of Brussels prior to the second leg.
Early 2010s: Europa League final
Marcelo Bielsa became Athletic coach in 2011, with his first competitive fixture a Europa League tie at home to Trabzonspor which ended 0–0. A difficult second leg on the Black Sea coast was in prospect, but this was cancelled when were expelled from the Champions League, with Trabzonspor taking the place in that competition and Athletic progressing in the Europa League by default. The club took full advantage of that piece of good fortune, winning the group ahead of Paris Saint-Germain before eliminating Lokomotiv Moscow in the last 32.
Athletic were then drawn against Manchester United and won 3–2 in the first leg at Old Trafford, going on to knock the three-time European champions out of the tournament with a 2–1 victory at home (a long-awaited 'revenge' win from 1957). Fernando Llorente and Óscar de Marcos both scored in each leg of the tie, with the manner of their performances described as "a footballing lesson" in the media.
In the quarter-final, they travelled to Schalke 04 of Germany and won the first leg 4–2, despite being 2–1 down on 72 minutes after a brace. The sides drew 2–2 in the second leg, allowing Athletic to progress to the semi-final against Sporting CP. A few hours after the match in Bilbao, an incident of disorder occurred near the stadium, during which Athletic supporter
Iñigo Cabacas was shot in the head with a 'Flash-ball' fired by a member of the Ertzaintza police service and later died. Five years later, charges were brought against officers commanding the vehicles that attended the scene, with a trial date set for October 2018.
Athletic Bilbao fans in Bucharest
before the Europa League final
Athletic lost the semi-final first leg in Portugal 2–1 after initially taking the lead through Jon Aurtenetxe, but prevailed 3–1 at home with goals from Markel Susaeta, Ibai Gómez and the winner by Llorente in the 89th minute in front of a fervent home crowd to edge into the final in Bucharest, 4–3 on aggregate; Bielsa's adventurous tactics led to 28 goals being scored and 20 conceded across the six group games and eight knockout matches during the run. Llorente scored seven times, while Muniain and Susaeta got five each.
The 2012 UEFA Europa League Final at the Arena Nationala proved a step too far for Athletic as they lost 3–0 to Spanish rivals Atlético Madrid (formed a century earlier by fans of Athletic as an offshoot of the original Bilbao club), The two clubs had shared league wins during the season, but on the day Atlético were inspired by the forward play of Radamel Falcao and won comfortably. A group of supporters had a double disappointment as they charted a flight to the wrong destination, mistaking Budapest for Bucharest. In an unwelcome echo of 1977, Athletic followed up their European final defeat with a loss in the 2012 Copa del Rey Final, again by a 3–0 scoreline.
The team did not break up entirely following the 2012 campaign. The three most prominent players who did depart all won European medals in the subsequent years: Javi Martínez (Champions League with Bayern Munich in 2013), Fernando Llorente (Europa League with Sevilla in 2016, having lost a Champions League final with Juventus twelve months earlier) and Ander Herrera (Europa League with Manchester United in 2017).
As runners-up to Champions League qualifiers Barcelona, Athletic made an immediate return to the Europa League in 2012–13. The qualifying rounds saw the team achieve both their biggest ever home win (6–0) against Finland's HJK, and their highest aggregate margin of victory – the second leg finished 3–3 for a six-goal difference. The group stage was reached, but disappointing results, including two defeats to Lyon and failure to beat debutants Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona of Israel at home, led to an early exit. The final continental fixture at the original San Mamés stadium prior to its demolition was a 0–0 draw against Sparta Prague in December 2012. The club had a strong home record at the century-old venue, losing only six times in 76[a] European matches there.
Late 2010s: Champions League and top scorer
After one season in a half-built stadium and with no European football, Athletic – now coached by Valverde for a second time – finished in 4th place in the 2013–14 La Liga, allowing rare access to the Champions League qualification process. In the first match at the new San Mamés in its completed state, they defeated Napoli to reach the 2014–15 UEFA Champions League group stage. However they could only finish third behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto after losing to BATE (who were defeated heavily by the other teams), meaning they dropped into the Europa League, the only occasion in which the club has been involved in two European competitions in one season. Athletic were then knocked out of the lesser tournament at the Round of 32 by Torino, their first home loss to an Italian club after eight matches undefeated.
In 2015, for the third time in seven years, Athletic lost the domestic cup final to Barcelona (who also won the league title); UEFA's rules had recently changed, so they no longer qualified as runners-up. However they also finished seventh in the league, and with absence of any qualifier from the Copa del Rey, this was sufficient to enter the 2015–16 UEFA Europa League. The first qualifying round involved a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan (the furthest distance they have travelled for a European fixture at 4,309 km) where a goalless draw with Inter Baku was good enough to progress. In the group stage they topped the section, only dropping points to AZ Alkmaar, although it took two late goals from Aritz Aduriz to turn the away fixture with Augsburg on its head. Aduriz also scored in the away legs of subsequent rounds against Marseille (a volley from 35 yards) and Valencia (his former club, against whom he had already netted twice that season during league wins), and in both legs against the holders Sevilla, but there the run ended as the hosts won a penalty shootout 5–4 at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium to go through, eventually winning the trophy for the third consecutive year.
Aduriz finished as the competition's top scorer with 10 goals, and was named in the 'squad of the season'. Due to the early qualifying rounds played, the total of 16 matches in the campaign equalled the previous record set during 2011–12's run to the final.
After finishing the domestic season in 5th place, Athletic qualified directly for the 2016–17 UEFA Europa League group stage. They started poorly with a loss to debutants Sassuolo in a fixture that had significance for Susaeta making a record 56th continental appearance, overtaking Iribar. The campaign was recovered thanks to three home wins, including a 5–3 victory over Genk in which Aduriz scored all five goals (including three penalties), becoming the first player to accomplish this feat since the competition was rebranded as the Europa League and also setting a new club record for most goals by one player in a continental fixture. Having previously been level with Llorente on 16, those goals also took him clear as the club's top scorer in European matches. Weaker away performances were exemplified by the defeat to APOEL in the first knockout round, with a lead from the home leg overturned in Cyprus.
Under new head coach José Ángel Ziganda, Athletic scraped into a Europa League place for the 2017–18 season due to cup winners Barcelona entering the Champions League as usual, leaving a spot for the 7th-placed Lions. Preliminary rounds against strong opposition for that stage (Dinamo Bucharest and Panathinaikos) were overcome, but a poor start in the group stage – including a home defeat to Zorya Luhansk in which Muniain sustained a serious injury and a tough match in Sweden (the first tie in that country) against newcomers Östersunds FK featuring an equaliser by Iñaki Williams in the closing minutes – left Athletic with two points from three games and looking unlikely to progress. However, three victories were then achieved with more late goals by Williams, Aduriz and , yielding 11 points in total and qualification as group winners.
The knockout draw provided a long trip to Moscow to face a fifth new opponent of that campaign, Spartak Moscow; a 3–1 first leg victory for Athletic in wintery Russia proved too much for Spartak to overturn despite their 2–1 win in Bilbao, but the second leg of the tie was overshadowed by violent clashes between home supporters and travelling Russian before kick-off; a police officer collapsed and died from a heart attack in the efforts to control the scene. Both clubs were later sanctioned and fined by UEFA.
In the Round of 16, Marseille took a 3–1 lead at the Stade Vélodrome in the first leg of the second meeting between the sides in three years. The return at San Mamés was the 100th European match held at the two incarnations of Athletic's home stadium,[a] but the outcome did not match the occasion for the home club, as OM won 2–1 for a 5–2 aggregate victory, a margin which reflected fairly their dominance over the two matches. Aduriz, who scored in the first leg, was sent off late in the second, and again there were scenes of violence involving visiting supporters outside the stadium. It was also the first time in 50 years (Ferencváros, 1968) that Athletic had lost both legs of a knockout tie, although they had been beaten home and away in group stages three times between 2009 and 2014.
Marseille went on to finish runners-up two months later. Aduriz (now 37 years old) finished as top scorer – along with Ciro Immobile – with eight goals in the tournament proper. A poor domestic campaign meant there would be no return to Europe the following season.