Luis Suarez's trophy-laden association with Barcelona came to an end on Wednesday as he joined LaLiga rivals Atletico Madrid.

Suarez celebrated countless titles after swapping Premier League giants Liverpool for Barcelona in 2014, while establishing himself as a Blaugrana great.

During his time at Camp Nou, Suarez formed part of Barca's famed 'MSN' alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar before it was broken up three years ago.

As Suarez prepares for life in the Spanish capital, we look at the 33-year-old's Barca career in numbers.

 

13 – Suarez departs Catalonia having won no less than 13 pieces of silverware in a Barca jersey. Among his haul are four LaLiga titles, the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, four Copa del Rey triumphs and a pair of Supercopa de Espana honours.

283 – The Uruguay international was a mainstay in Barca's starting XI, amassing just under 300 appearances.

198 – Only two players in Barca's history have scored more goals than Suarez – Messi (634) and Cesar (232). Of those goals, 147 were in LaLiga from just 191 matches. He also netted 25 Champions League goals.

1 – He opened his goalscoring account for Barca in his sixth game. A Champions League encounter against APOEL in November 2014 set the tone for Suarez.

59 – In his second year at Barca in 2015-16, Suarez earned the Golden Shoe as Europe's top scorer thanks to 40 LaLiga goals and 59 across all competitions.

114 – Suarez reached a century of Barca league goals quicker than anyone else in the team's history – needing just 114 games – in January 2018.

97 – Not only a prolific goalscorer, Suarez provided plenty of support up front. The veteran contributed close to a century of assists in Barcelona.

Lionel Messi is staying put, meaning he will be able to add to his stunning goal haul for Barcelona.

Messi made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old and has gone on to become Barca's all-time leading scorer with 634 goals and 276 assists in 731 appearances in all competitions for the club.

His incredible feats in front of goal have helped him win 34 trophies with the Catalan club, but his days had looked numbered when he expressed a desire to leave following a trophy-less campaign in which the club suffered a humiliating 8-2 Champions League quarter-final loss to Bayern Munich.

However, after running into issues over the release clause in his contract, the Argentina superstar confirmed a dramatic U-turn on Friday.

Despite all of the drama, Messi's goals have undoubtedly solidified his status as an all-time great and here is a look at a chronological top 10 from the six-time Ballon d'Or winner's collection.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already seen one goal wrongly ruled out for offside – an audacious chip from the edge of the box – Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's scooped pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for one of Europe's great clubs.

Malaga (H): March 22, 2009

Thierry Henry's favourite goal by Messi during their time playing together for Barca. Why not let the France great take up the story? "It defied logic what he did," Henry said in the 'Take the Ball, Pass the Ball' documentary. "There's a diagonal ball and he controls it on his chest. He runs full speed, then the first player goes and the second player is just behind. If he takes another step, that player will clear the ball." A shimmy of the body and deft touch later – in the blink of an eye – Messi stabbed into the top corner to conclude a moment of 100-miles-per-hour brilliance.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, this strike against Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in a goal that began when he won the ball from a tackle at halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling into the far corner, leaving coach Pep Guardiola speechless.

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

At the height of the Clasico rivalry between Guardiola's Barca and Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the two teams met four times in three different competitions in less than a month. The league meeting ended in a draw and Madrid won the Copa del Rey final, but Barca triumphed in the Champions League semi-final with a 3-1 aggregate win. The first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, an ill-tempered affair to say the least, saw Messi make it 2-0 by bursting beyond four attempted challenges and slotting past Iker Casillas, all in the space of around five seconds.

Athletic Bilbao (A): April 27, 2013

Barca would regain their LaLiga title from Madrid but were in the midst of a Champions League semi-final shellacking from Bayern when they arrived at San Mames. A goal down in a match that would eventually finish 2-2, Messi received possession from Thiago Alcantara, twisted past Mikel San Jose, Carlos Gurpegui and Ander Herrera with minimal space in which to operate before nonchalantly side-footing home from just inside the penalty area.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Guardiola returned to Camp Nou with a Bayern side struggling with injury problems. They kept Barca at bay until the 77th minute of this Champions League semi-final first leg, when Messi finally struck. It was his second goal that earns a place in this list, though: collecting Ivan Rakitic's pass, a simple-looking shimmy left Jerome Boateng on his backside before he chipped Manuel Neuer with his weaker foot.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in stoppage time gave Jordi Alba the chance to square to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Rarely has a hat-trick been completed in finer fashion. Messi's two goals had helped Barca to a 3-1 lead at the Benito Villamarin, before he passed to Rakitic, ran onto the return ball and sent a first-time chip over goalkeeper Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from just inside the box. It was a sublime effort that even had the home fans on the feet, applauding – something Messi himself admitted he had not experienced before.

Liverpool (H): May 1, 2019

Over the past few years, Messi has mastered the art of free-kick taking, with the skill being one of few to elude him in his younger days. Liverpool held their own for long periods at Camp Nou but goals from Luis Suarez and Messi gave the hosts breathing space. Jurgen Klopp's side then had to bow to greatness when, after being brought down by Fabinho, Barca's talisman swept an unstoppable 30-yard effort into the top corner. Barcelona would incredibly blow their 3-0 first-leg advantage, however, losing 4-0 at Anfield as Liverpool reached the Champions League final.

Atletico Madrid (A): December 1, 2019

It was goalless in the 86th minute at the Wanda Metropolitano when Messi collected the ball on the right flank, 10 yards inside the Atletico half. Those famous feet began to shuffle with purpose, and although Atletico knew what Messi had in mind, they were powerless to resist the execution of his plan. Messi surged on, playing the ball to Luis Suarez on the edge of the penalty area before taking the return pass and cracking a brilliant 20-yard shot into the bottom left corner of Jan Oblak's goal. A winner, and one of the highest class.

Lionel Messi's incredible Barcelona career appears set to come to a remarkable end after the Argentina great informed the club he wishes to leave Camp Nou.

Messi made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old and has gone on to become Barca's all-time leading scorer with 634 goals and 276 assists in 731 appearances in all competitions for the club.

His incredible feats in front of goal have helped him win 34 trophies with the Catalan club, but Stats Perform News has learned he has committed to a decision to activate a clause to leave on a free transfer at the end of the 2019-20 season.

Barca's campaign ended in a humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, with the arrival of club legend Ronald Koeman as the replacement for Quique Setien seemingly not enough to convince Messi to stay.

Messi's goals have solidified his status as an all-time great and here is a look at a chronological top 10 from the six-time Ballon d'Or winner's collection.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already seen one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's scooped pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for one of Europe's great clubs.

Malaga (H): March 22, 2009

Thierry Henry's favourite goal by Messi during their time playing together for Barca. Why not let the France great take up the story? "It defied logic what he did," Henry said in the 'Take the Ball, Pass the Ball' documentary. "There's a diagonal ball and he controls it on his chest. He runs full speed, then the first player goes and the second player is just behind. If he takes another step, that player will clear the ball." A shimmy of the body and deft touch later – in the blink of an eye – Messi stabbed into the top corner to conclude a moment of 100-miles-per-hour brilliance.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, this strike against Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in a goal that began when he won the ball from a tackle at halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling into the far corner, leaving coach Pep Guardiola speechless.

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

At the height of the Clasico rivalry between Guardiola's Barca and Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the two teams met four times in three different competitions in less than a month. The league meeting ended in a draw and Madrid won the Copa del Rey final, but Barca triumphed in the Champions League semi-final with a 3-1 aggregate win. The first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, an ill-tempered affair to say the least, saw Messi make it 2-0 by bursting beyond four attempted challenges and slotting past Iker Casillas, all in the space of around five seconds.

Athletic Bilbao (A): April 27, 2013

Barca would regain their LaLiga title from Madrid but were in the midst of a Champions League semi-final shellacking from Bayern when they arrived at San Mames. A goal down in a match that would eventually finish 2-2, Messi received possession from Thiago Alcantara, twisted past Mikel San Jose, Carlos Gurpegui and Ander Herrera with minimal space in which to operate before nonchalantly side-footing home from just inside the penalty area.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Guardiola returned to Camp Nou with a Bayern side struggling with injury problems. They kept Barca at bay until the 77th minute of this Champions League semi-final first leg, when Messi finally struck. It was his second goal that earns a place in this list, though: collecting Ivan Rakitic's pass, a simple-looking shimmy left Jerome Boateng on his backside before he chipped Manuel Neuer with his weaker foot.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in stoppage time gave Jordi Alba the chance to square to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Rarely has a hat-trick been completed in finer fashion. Messi's two goals had helped Barca to a 3-1 lead at the Benito Villamarin, before he passed to Rakitic, ran onto the return ball and sent a first-time chip over goalkeeper Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from just inside the box. It was a sublime effort that even had the home fans on the feet, applauding - something Messi himself admitted he had not experienced before.

Liverpool (H): May 1, 2019

Over the past few years, Messi has mastered the art of free-kick taking, with the skill being one of few to elude him in his younger days. Liverpool held their own for long periods at Camp Nou but goals from Luis Suarez and Messi gave the hosts breathing space. Jurgen Klopp's side then had to bow to greatness when, after being brought down by Fabinho, Barca's talisman swept an unstoppable 30-yard effort into the top corner. Barcelona would incredibly blow their 3-0 first-leg advantage, however, losing 4-0 at Anfield as Liverpool reached the Champions League final.

Atletico Madrid (A): December 1, 2019

It was goalless in the 86th minute at the Wanda Metropolitano when Messi collected the ball on the right flank, 10 yards inside the Atletico half. Those famous feet began to shuffle with purpose, and although Atletico knew what Messi had in mind, they were powerless to resist the execution of his plan. Messi surged on, playing the ball to Luis Suarez on the edge of the penalty area before taking the return pass and cracking a brilliant 20-yard shot into the bottom left corner of Jan Oblak's goal. A winner, and one of the highest class.

Another week, another Lionel Messi milestone.

The Barcelona forward has scored his 700th career goal just a little over two years since reaching 600 for club and country.

It's another remarkable feat for a footballer who continues to break new ground after turning 33.

Here, we look at the details behind the incredible numbers to see when, where and how he tends to find the net, who likes to set him up, and who is sick of the sight of him...

 

FOR BARCELONA:

- Messi has scored 630 goals in 724 appearances for Barca in all competitions - that's 0.87 per game on average. 

- His first goal came on May 1, 2005 against Albacete in LaLiga. Since then, he has reached 441 goals in 480 matches in Spain's top flight, at least 130 more than any other player in history.

- He has scored 114 goals in the Champions League, 53 in the Copa del Rey, 14 in the Supercopa de Espana, three in the UEFA Super Cup, and five in the Club World Cup.

 

FOR ARGENTINA:

- Messi has scored 70 senior international goals. His first came on March 1, 2006 in a friendly against Croatia, and his most recent was in a friendly last November against Uruguay.

- He has scored 34 goals in international friendlies, 21 in World Cup qualifiers, nine at the Copa America, and six at the World Cup.

 

PER YEAR:

- In each of the past 11 calendar years, Messi has scored at least 40 goals for club and country. In nine of the last 10, he has reached at least 50.

- His best record in a single year came in 2012, when he scored 91, breaking the previous record of 85 held by Germany great Gerd Muller. He already has 12 in 2020, despite the COVID-19 disruption.

 

HIS FAVOURITE OPPONENT:

- Messi has scored 37 goals in 39 games against Sevilla in all competitions. Next up are Atletico Madrid (32 in 41 games).

- He has managed 26 in 43 games against Real Madrid, making him the all-time top goalscorer in Clasico history.

- Messi has faced 40 different LaLiga teams and scored at least once against 37 of them. Last November, he became the first player to score against 34 different Champions League opponents, surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul on 33.

 

HIS LEAST FAVOURITE OPPONENT:

- Only three LaLiga teams have ever avoided conceding a goal to Messi: Xerez, Real Murcia and Cadiz.

- Xerez are the only team Messi has faced more than once without scoring. He has played against them twice.

 

WHEN AND HOW HE SCORES:

- Messi has scored 43.32 per cent of his goals in the last 15 minutes of the first half or last 15 minutes of the second.

- He has scored 142 times from set-pieces: 90 penalties and 52 free-kicks.

- Only 24 of his career goals are headers. The most recent was back in March 2017 against Sporting Gijon. 

- Messi has scored 83.1 per cent of his goals (582) with his left foot, and 82.8 per cent (580) from inside the box.

- He has scored 36 LaLiga hat-tricks, which is a record. He has scored three or more times in 54 different matches, the most being five against Bayer Leverkusen in March 2012.

- His tally of 50 for the 2011-12 LaLiga season is a record.

 

WHO SETS HIM UP:

- Luis Suarez has assisted more Messi goals than any other player: 47 in six seasons with Barcelona. Messi has returned the favour 36 times. (CHECK WHO SETS UP ATHLETIC GOAL)

- The other players with the most assists for Messi are Dani Alves (42), Andres Iniesta (37), Xavi (31), Pedro (25), Neymar (22) and Jordi Alba (20).

- Messi has 247 assists for Barca. Since his first goal for the club, he has been involved in 879 of their 2,183 goals in all competitions, or 40.2 per cent.

Lionel Messi's cheeky, chipped penalty against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday took him to 700 career goals for club and country.

The Barcelona and Argentina star has been the scourge of defenders in Spain and across the globe since making his debut professional debut at 17 and his career has now yielded another incredible landmark.

In the process, the forward has collected 34 club trophies and a record six Ballons d'Or, but international honours have eluded him since he won gold at the 2008 Olympics.

To celebrate Messi's latest century, we take a look at 10 of his very best and most important goals.

 

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already had one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete stopper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for a club.

 

Getafe (H): April 18, 2007

In the 12 years since he first got on the scoresheet, only one of Messi's strikes was ever going to top this list: his Diego Maradona-esque solo goal against Getafe. Messi picked up the ball in his own half and danced around two players before turning on the pace, beating two more defenders and going around the goalkeeper, capping it with a right-footed finish.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, Messi's strike against Real Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in this goal, which began when he won the ball from a tackle on halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling the ball into the far corner - leaving Pep Guardiola speechless.

 

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

This was the height of one of the fiercest Clasico rivalries in decades, as Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid waged war on Guardiola's Barca. They met four times in three competitions in less than a month, including in the Champions League semi-finals, when Messi faced pretty brutal treatment as Madrid tried to shackle him. He scored twice in a 2-0 first-leg win at the Santiago Bernabeu but it is the first goal people remember: the tension of the match, the bitterness of the rivalry, the ducking, weaving slalom through the defence and the composed finish past Casillas, all from the most nonchalant Sergio Busquets assist you will ever see.

 

Iran (N): June 21, 2014

Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Messi had only scored one goal in eight appearances. Seemingly determined to step up for Argentina, he netted in his side's opening match before going on to score one of the goals of the tournament in the second against Iran. With the score at 0-0 heading into stoppage time, Messi took control of the ball and bent a powerful strike past the despairing arms of Alireza Haghighi to break Iranian hearts.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Having already opened the scoring three minutes earlier to give Barca a 1-0 advantage over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, Messi doubled his tally with a sumptuous effort. Ivan Rakitic's pass sent Messi on his way, before the little maestro's trickery put Jerome Boateng on his backside and allowed the Argentine to casually lift the ball over the onrushing Manuel Neuer.

 

Athletic Bilbao (N): May 30, 2015

The second part of a treble-winning season for Barca came in the form of the Copa Del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. With 20 minutes gone and the score deadlocked, Messi set off on a marauding run down the right wing and soon found himself trapped amongst three defenders. Naturally, Messi was able to float past the trio as if they weren't there, before cutting into the box and beating Iago Herrerin at his near post.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Real Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in the 92nd minute gave Jordi Alba the chance to square it to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

 

Ecuador (A): October 11, 2017

Romario Ibarra's first-minute goal in the last match of CONMEBOL qualification left football fans across the globe staring at the prospect of the unthinkable – a World Cup without Messi. Enter the man himself, who dragged Argentina out of a bumbling stupor to single-handedly tear Ecuador apart with a sensational hat-trick. The shift of pace and stunning, dipping finish into the top corner to claim the matchball was the best of the bunch and a grateful bench spilled on to the field to mob their hero.

 

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Messi has never won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the year, although he has twice come second, most recently for this effort against Real Betis in a 4-1 win last season. He sent the ball left to Ivan Rakitic and hurried to the edge of the box for the return ball, then - having shaped for a powerful strike towards the near post - chipped a sublime effort into the far corner beyond the despairing Pau Lopez. The goal completed his hat-trick and earned an ovation from the home fans but was not enough to beat Debrecen's Daniel Zsori to the Puskas prize.

Lionel Messi is celebrating his 33rd birthday, which provides the perfect excuse to reflect on the Barcelona star's best 10 goals.

The Argentina forward has been the scourge of defenders in Spain and across the globe since making his professional debut at 17.

He has now scored 699 goals, collecting 34 club trophies and a record six Ballons d'Or, but international honours have eluded him since he won gold at the 2008 Olympics.

To celebrate Messi's special day, we take a look at 10 of his very best and most important goals.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already had one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete stopper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for a club.

 

Getafe (H): April 18, 2007

In the 12 years since he first got on the scoresheet, only one of Messi's strikes was ever going to top this list: his Diego Maradona-esque solo goal against Getafe. Messi picked up the ball in his own half and danced around two players before turning on the pace, beating two more defenders and going around the goalkeeper, capping it with a right-footed finish.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, Messi's strike against Real Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in this goal, which began when he won the ball from a tackle on halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling the ball into the far corner - leaving Pep Guardiola speechless.

 

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

This was the height of one of the fiercest Clasico rivalries in decades, as Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid waged war on Guardiola's Barca. They met four times in three competitions in less than a month, including in the Champions League semi-finals, when Messi faced pretty brutal treatment as Madrid tried to shackle him. He scored twice in a 2-0 first-leg win at the Santiago Bernabeu but it is the first goal people remember: the tension of the match, the bitterness of the rivalry, the ducking, weaving slalom through the defence and the composed finish past Casillas, all from the most nonchalant Sergio Busquets assist you will ever see.

 

Iran (N): June 21, 2014

Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Messi had only scored one goal in eight appearances. Seemingly determined to step up for Argentina, he netted in his side's opening match before going on to score one of the goals of the tournament in the second against Iran. With the score at 0-0 heading into stoppage time, Messi took control of the ball and bent a powerful strike past the despairing arms of Alireza Haghighi to break Iranian hearts.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Having already opened the scoring three minutes earlier to give Barca a 1-0 advantage over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, Messi doubled his tally with a sumptuous effort. Ivan Rakitic's pass sent Messi on his way, before the little maestro's trickery put Jerome Boateng on his backside and allowed the Argentine to casually lift the ball over the onrushing Manuel Neuer.

 

Athletic Bilbao (N): May 30, 2015

The second part of a treble-winning season for Barca came in the form of the Copa Del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. With 20 minutes gone and the score deadlocked, Messi set off on a marauding run down the right wing and soon found himself trapped amongst three defenders. Naturally, Messi was able to float past the trio as if they weren't there, before cutting into the box and beating Iago Herrerin at his near post.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Real Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in the 92nd minute gave Jordi Alba the chance to square it to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

 

Ecuador (A): October 11, 2017

Romario Ibarra's first-minute goal in the last match of CONMEBOL qualification left football fans across the globe staring at the prospect of the unthinkable – a World Cup without Messi. Enter the man himself, who dragged Argentina out of a bumbling stupor to single-handedly tear Ecuador apart with a sensational hat-trick. The shift of pace and stunning, dipping finish into the top corner to claim the matchball was the best of the bunch and a grateful bench spilled on to the field to mob their hero.

 

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Messi has never won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the year, although he has twice come second, most recently for this effort against Real Betis in a 4-1 win last season. He sent the ball left to Ivan Rakitic and hurried to the edge of the box for the return ball, then - having shaped for a powerful strike towards the near post - chipped a sublime effort into the far corner beyond the despairing Pau Lopez. The goal completed his hat-trick and earned an ovation from the home fans but was not enough to beat Debrecen's Daniel Zsori to the Puskas prize.

"When you play the first match in old San Mames, you can say that you can die, it's crazy."

Born in Eibar – around a 50km journey to Bilbao in the Basque Country – Markel Susaeta epitomised what it meant to play for Athletic Bilbao.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The Spanish winger even wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

Susaeta made his goalscoring senior debut away to Barcelona 13 years ago and stepped out onto Sam Mames for the first time a fortnight later, scoring a free-kick in a 1-1 draw with Real Zaragoza.

"When you play the first match, you are in heaven. You never thought you could play in that stadium and the supporters are amazing – always helping the team," Susaeta told Stats Perform News.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"For the kids of Basque Country, Real Sociedad, Athletic, many, many kids… I think more kids want to play for Athletic Bilbao," Susaeta said. "When you go to the first division, all the players, it's difficult to keep all the players at Athletic because all the players aren't the same, different things for their future. Kepa [Arrizabalaga] went to Chelsea, [Ander] Herrera went to Manchester United, [Fernando] Llorente went to Juventus, Javi Martinez Bayern Munich.

"Many players they went to other big clubs but a lot of players, more than the players that go, they stay at Athletic. For that reason, Athletic in the last 12-13 years, play very good football, a very good level. One year we played in the Champions League, we won one Supercopa, we played in three, four finals for the Copa del Rey. It's very difficult but Athletic always does things well."

"Athletic are the most special team in the world for me, what can I say? The philosophy that the people that aren't from Basque Country, they love Athletic's philosophy because it's different to other teams from the world," Susaeta added. "The kids love Athletic, they only like Athletic Bilbao. They don't like Barcelona, Madrid, they like Athletic Bilbao. This love is different than the other clubs."

Susaeta is an example of Athletic's production line, which is now headlined by the likes of young stars Inaki Williams and Unai Nunez. The 32-year-old Susaeta came through the ranks, spending one season with farm team Basconia and another with the B team before being thrust into the first-team picture in 2007.

The one-time Spain international was a vital member of Athletic's stunning Supercopa de Espana triumph under former boss Ernesto Valverde five years ago – a 5-1 two-legged rout of Barca ending a 31-year wait for silverware.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta also experienced Athletic's unforgettable journey to the 2012 Europa League final, with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm.

"With Marcelo, you play a very intense football. He always wants to play the ball, for example, he likes man-marking. It's a little bit crazy to keep the whole season with man-marking. We spent two years with him but with Marcelo, it was the best football I ever played," Susaeta said as he compared the two coaches.

"With Valverde, we played in the Champions League. It's more difficult because after Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it's a very crazy season. With Valverde, you're more regular in defending and attacking, all the team go together. It's different. But the best football, the more attractive football that I ever played was with Bielsa."

Athletic lost the all-Spanish Europa League decider in 2012, beaten 3-0 by Atletico Madrid in Bucharest. While Bielsa's men left Arena Nationala emptyhanded, their campaign was a memorable one, having outclassed Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in the last 16 – a shock 3-2 victory at Old Trafford the highlight.

It was a famous win for Athletic, who came from behind to record a first win on English soil and Susaeta said: "It's the one of the most important matches in my life. We played at Old Trafford and we played amazing football. That morning, with Bielsa, we trained for two hours, doing sprints. It was crazy.

"In the evening, we won playing amazing football. It was a very good memories because that year we won against very good European clubs but in the final we were tired, I don't know what happened but we couldn't win the final."

Susaeta was also fortunate to play in both the old San Mames and new San Mames, which opened in 2013.

"In the old San Mames, I played my first match, in that stadium, we played very good football with Bielsa – a crazy year with two finals," he added. "In the other San Mames, we played in the Champions League. In the two stadiums, I have very good memories. They are two very special stadiums."

Susaeta now finds himself playing for Melbourne City in Australia after a difficult spell with Japanese giants Gamba Osaka.

A January arrival, Susaeta had scored two goals and set up another for City – part of the City Football Group (CFG) – before the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about a possible Athletic return after his unceremonious exit last year, Susaeta replied: "I don't want to see the future, I want to live the present. I'm very happy in Melbourne and Australia, it's a very good country and city. I'm very happy with my club and team-mates. My family is happy here and we want to stay here longer. Now it's very crazy the situation but I hope we can train again in a few weeks and finish the season in a few months.

"Japan was very difficult for me and my family because many things are different. Here we feel very good, we feel happy. My kids are happy in childcare. Here everything is perfect. I'm very happy in the football. For me, it's perfect. I'm very happy here and I hope I can stay here more years."

Gaizka Garitano has seen his Athletic Bilbao contract extended by another season after guiding the Basque club to the Copa del Rey final.

Garitano – previously Athletic's reserve coach – was appointed until the end of the 2018-19 campaign when Eduardo Berizzo was sacked with the team in relegation trouble after 14 matches.

The former Real Sociedad midfielder took Athletic up the table and into European contention to earn the opportunity to continue in the role for 2019-20.

And another impressive outing has seen Garitano secure a further 12-month extension.

Athletic endured a three-month winless run earlier this term but were 10th in LaLiga when the season was suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Crucially, Garitano's side had also reached a mouthwatering all-Basque Copa decider against rivals Real Sociedad.

"I am very happy for the confidence shown in me by the club," the coach said.

"This is the team that I have followed since childhood, from my heart. Running it is a joy and a responsibility.

"The experience lived this year in the Copa is magnificent and we have the opportunity to win a title. You have to stick with the positive things and try to improve."

Athletic Bilbao great Markel Susaeta has lauded former team-mate Aritz Aduriz following his retirement, hailing the star's longevity at San Mames and in Spanish football.

Aduriz was given a special send-off by Athletic on the hallowed San Mames turf last week after the 39-year-old retired – the coronavirus pandemic and a hip injury prematurely ending the forward's career.

Retiring at the end of 2019-20 had always been the plan for Aduriz, who netted 118 league goals for Athletic across three different periods and was the only player other than Lionel Messi to score in 15 successive LaLiga seasons after his stunning last-gasp bicycle kick against Barcelona in August.

Aduriz – a late bloomer – also enjoyed spells with Real Valladolid, Real Mallorca and Valencia, while he made his Spain debut in 2010 before earning an international recall six years later at the age of 35.

Susaeta, who amassed over 500 appearances for boyhood club Athletic before leaving in 2019, told Stats Perform News: "Aduriz always played a very good level, very good football.

"After the first seasons at Athletic, he went to Mallorca and in Mallorca he scored many, many goals. At Valencia, the same. But when he came to Bilbao at 31-32 years of age, he started scoring goals like a crazy man.

"Very good football level and in six years, it was amazing. Everything he touched was gold. The secret? I don't know. He is a very professional man, he ate very clean."

Susaeta played alongside Aduriz – who did not move to San Mames until he was already 19 – as Athletic stunned Spanish giants Barca in the 2015 Supercopa de Espana, the club's first piece of silverware in 31 years.

Aduriz scored a second-half hat-trick in Athletic's 4-0 first-leg rout of Barca before they earned a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou.

"I remember that final," Susaeta, who now plays for A-League side Melbourne City, said. "One of the most important moments of my football career. Amazing night because winning against Barcelona is very difficult if you play two games.

"At San Mames, we won 4-0 and it was an amazing night. Aduriz scored three goals and the other one was [Mikel] San Jose. In the second game at Camp Nou, we drew 1-1 and Aduriz again scored.

"The last trophy Athletic won was maybe 30 years ago and this trophy was very special for supporters, the players."

Having already decided to hang up his boots at the end of the campaign, Aduriz looked set for a fairytale farewell after Athletic earned a blockbuster Copa del Rey final showdown against Basque rivals Real Sociedad, however, the COVID-19 crisis has left the decider up in the air since March.

"For this pandemic, coronavirus, it is a very crazy moment for the world and football," Susaeta added. "The pain for him is very strong now and he couldn't play that final. But if Athletic win that final, Aduriz is like the other players. It's his trophy also."

While Susaeta and Aduriz flourished together on the field, it is their friendship outside of football that the 32-year-old winger cherishes most.

"I have many memories," Susaeta said. "I am a privileged man because I've given him the most assists during his career. Always when we played together, we played good, very good years.

"But for me, it's more important that we have very good memories outside of the pitch, outside football. We are very good friends. We usually go on holidays, for dinner with the families."

With Aduriz now in retirement, all eyes are on Inaki Williams – who signed a new nine-year contract in August – to lead Athletic into a new era.

Asked if Williams is the man to take Athletic forward, Susaeta replied: "Yes, because in the past he played very good football. Now he is the present.

"Inaki Williams is different than Aduriz. Inaki Williams is one of the fastest players in the world and Athletic and him use that condition."

Aritz Aduriz said his farewell inside an eerily quiet San Mames stadium was more than he deserved at the end of a storied career.

The 39-year-old announced his retirement this week after 20 years playing mostly in LaLiga with Athletic Bilbao, for whom he scored 118 league goals.

The Spain international striker was given a special send-off on the Athletic home pitch on Friday, with team-mates giving him and his family a guard of honour as he took one more walk on the turf.

A celebration of his career would likely have seen the stands packed with supporters were it not for health protocols during the coronavirus pandemic making such an occasion impossible.

Aduriz, though, thinks he has already received more than enough recognition.

"This is more than I think I deserve," he said. "I think I've had a load of tributes. I've enjoyed it so much here. I don't feel they have to say goodbye to me.

"I've had so much fun that this is more than I ever imagined.

"Athletic are special, different. Above all, there's a crazy human level that makes it like a gang competing against the rest of the world. That makes us different."

Aduriz chose to retire after doctors advised he needs hip replacement surgery, with the weeks during Spain's strict lockdown showing him the time was right to stop.

It had been hoped his final match would be in the Copa del Rey final against Basque rivals Real Sociedad, but Aduriz does not believe he would have been of much use to his side even if he tried to play.

"I'd been fighting for some time," he said. "After this lockdown, that was the end.

"The body has a limit and the hip made that fight unbalanced. These two months at home have been very difficult for the hip.

"The team is better off without me being there. I couldn't be there in these conditions."

Aduriz confirmed his retirement via a dignified social media post in which he told fans his goodbye was "just an anecdote" amid the trauma of the COVID-19 crisis.

He was similarly reluctant to feel downcast on Friday as he reflected on a career he never thought possible.

"It's a very beautiful day for me. It's not sad at all," he said. "I would never have imagined such a long and beautiful journey, from start to finish. It's a day to be happy and thankful, although it's not easy speaking in the middle of San Mames with so much silence!

"The hardest thing won't be not playing in these remaining 11 games [of the league season], nor in that much-loved and sought-after cup final. The hardest thing will be not being with this squad anymore. I'll miss you all so much. Thank you all for this journey. It's been wonderful, unforgettable.

"I liked football, but it was unthinkable that I'd get to play a game for Athletic. If I've reached this point in my life, aged 39, it's because I've done what I liked the most. I've had a great time."

Picking out the best bits from the career of Andres Iniesta is rather like trying to get the ball off him. It's damnably difficult.

Still, to mark the former Spain and Barcelona star's 36th birthday, we have selected 10 truly top moments from one of the 21st century's finest footballers.

These have been chosen from among his career highlights with Barca and the national team, so, Vissel Kobe fans, we must apologise.

Enjoy a stroll down memory lane to look at 'The Artist' and his finest work...

2006: FINAL SUPER-SUB

Iniesta later admitted his "blood was boiling" when he learned he was on the bench for the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal.

With Barca 1-0 down at half-time, Frank Rijkaard moved to rectify that error by introducing the midfielder for Edmilson. It proved pivotal.

Fellow subs Henrik Larsson and Juliano Belletti, along with Samuel Eto'o, might have provided the telling touches to secure a 2-1 victory, but it was Iniesta's arrival that catalysed the comeback. Future team-mate Thierry Henry, who was in that Arsenal side, recalled: "The person who really killed me was Andres. When he comes on, everything changes."

 

2009: INIESTAZO AT STAMFORD BRIDGE

Chelsea fans might remember this Champions League semi-final second leg for a string of questionable refereeing decisions, but there is one moment that will forever stay with Barca fans.

The Catalans were moments from going out to a Michael Essien strike, but Iniesta's thumping effort from outside the box in the third minute of injury time sent them through on away goals.

Barca went on to beat Manchester United in the final and win the treble in Pep Guardiola's first season in charge. Iniesta's goal made it all possible.

2010: WORLD CUP GLORY

Iniesta recalled his winning goal in extra time of the 2010 World Cup final as a moment of clarity, when it seemed as though the world drifted into slow motion.

That feeling of calm was a far cry from the year leading up to the tournament, in which the player struggled badly with mental and emotional concerns despite his success on the pitch. "It was like nothing was right," he recalled in his book, The Artist: Being Iniesta.

The loss of his friend Dani Jarque in 2009 - the Espanyol defender who died at just 26 years old - had deeply affected Iniesta, and it was only fitting he celebrated securing Spain's first World Cup by pulling off his shirt to reveal a message beneath reading: "Dani Jarque, always with us."

2010: A CLASICO FOR THE AGES

Guardiola's Barca reached their peak in 2010-11 and arguably their greatest performance came in November 2010 against Real Madrid.

Jose Mourinho's first taste of the Clasico as Madrid coach ended in a 5-0 battering at Camp Nou in which Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets utterly dominated proceedings.

He was not among the goals - Xavi (from Iniesta's pass), Pedro, David Villa (twice) and Jeffren were on the scoresheet - but Iniesta's display underlined his position as one of the world's best midfielders in the finest team on the planet.

2011: UNITED BACK ON THE CAROUSEL

Alex Ferguson famously compared facing a midfield of Xavi and Iniesta to being stuck on a carousel after Barca beat United 2-0 in the 2009 Champions League final.

Two years later, Guardiola's men led the Red Devils on an even dizzier dance, winning 3-1 at Wembley to secure another European triumph. Such was Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta's control over events that even Ferguson could find no complaints over the scoreline.

"They do mesmerise you with the way they pass it," he said. "I would say they're the best team we've faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It's not easy when you've been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that. It's a great moment for them."

 

2011: A WORLD RUN BY MIDFIELDERS

At the 2011 Club World Cup, Barca went into the final against Santos with David Villa injured and Pedro on the bench. Guardiola's solution? Let's midfield them to death.

Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara (oh, and Dani Alves) all lined up behind Lionel Messi in a 3-4-3. It gave Barca a grip on the game that never loosened.

Messi (twice), Xavi and Fabregas scored in a 4-0 win in which Barca had 71 per cent possession and a young Neymar was given a glimpse of his future. Iniesta, the beating heart of the side, described the performance as "unique... it was something to remember and enjoy".

 

2012: THE BEST IN EUROPE

Iniesta was part of the Spain side that won Euro 2008 under Luis Aragones before Vicente del Bosque led them to World Cup glory. Two years later, one of the great modern eras of international football was secured as they defended their continental crown, dispatching Italy 4-0 in the final in Kiev.

Del Bosque's team comprised six midfielders and no strikers, a remarkable line-up that represented the zenith of tiki-taka football, where technical mastery of pass-and-move play trumped all else and the classic number nine was rendered obsolete. It was the footballing equivalent of a guitar band deciding guitars aren't cool any more.

Iniesta was named man of the match, player of the tournament, and crowned UEFA's Best Player in Europe later that year.

2015: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE HISTORY

Another former Barca player in his first season as head coach, another treble, and another Iniesta assist on a big stage.

Luis Enrique's Barca took the lead against Juventus in Berlin through Ivan Rakitic after four minutes, as Iniesta became the first player to assist a goal in three different Champions League finals.

Alvaro Morata equalised but Luis Suarez and Neymar secured a 3-1 victory, as Iniesta claimed another man-of-the-match prize in a major final.

2015: THE SANTIAGO BERNABEU STANDS AS ONE

Iniesta is one of the few Spanish players who is generally admired throughout rival fan bases and territories - even among Real Madrid supporters.

In the Clasico of November 2015, Barca destroyed Madrid on home turf with a 4-0 victory in which Iniesta set up Neymar for a goal and scored a stunner himself.

Such was the supremacy of Iniesta that day - with Lionel Messi out injured - that the Bernabeu gave him a standing ovation as he left the pitch in the 77th minute. Only two other Barca players had ever been accorded such an honour: Ronaldinho, and Diego Maradona.

2018: THE INIESTA FINAL

Iniesta had not yet confirmed he would be leaving Barca at the end of 2017-18, but he made sure to provide the perfect curtain call anyway.

Having played a reduced role for much of the season, Iniesta seemed to have been saving himself for a last hurrah: the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla.

Although nearly 34, he looked at the peak of his powers, dictating the game at his own tempo as Barca cantered to a 5-0 win.

He even scored the goal of the game - exchanging passes with Messi, dummying the keeper and firing home - before yet another ovation serenaded his teary-eyed exit from the last major final he would play for the club he joined as a 12-year-old.

Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have agreed to ask that the Copa del Rey final be held with spectators present.

Sport in Spain has been on hold since March due to the coronavirus pandemic and there is no date scheduled for the resumption of LaLiga or the postponed Copa final.

Clubs were granted permission to return to hold individual training sessions from Monday, provided strict protocols were followed.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday he was optimistic sport could return soon but it would likely be behind closed doors.

However, the Basque rivals will request that measure does not apply to their Copa final, which was initially scheduled to take place at Estadio de la Cartuja in Seville on April 18.

A joint-statement published by Athletic and La Real read: "The presidents of Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, both finalists of the Copa del Rey for the 2019-2020 season, after meeting with the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation [RFEF], have agreed to ask RFEF for the final to be played with open doors, in public and in an official way, on a date to be determined and agreed between the three parties involved.

"The desire and will of both clubs has always been, now and before, to play and enjoy the final along with the supporters. This is what we would like most. A final to be lived with our supporters in the stands.

"At the same time, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club want the RFEF to guarantee that the final will be played as an official competition and will, therefore, be considered an official title.

"To this end, they have asked the general secretariat of the RFEF for the delegate committee of the RFEF General Assembly, whose next meeting will be held on Friday, to adopt a calendar amendment agreement that will enable the final to be held as an official title with the support and warmth of the fans of both teams.

"With this decision, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club wish to highlight one of the most prestigious and traditional sporting events that can be played around the world, unique in this edition, and to do so together with their fans, supporters, subscribers, members and partners, the true essence, and raison d’être of this wonderful sport."

It took a pandemic to stop the goals flowing from Lionel Messi, the brilliant Argentinian who first found the back of the net for Barcelona on May 1, 2005.

Fifteen years since that first strike, Messi has ploughed through the 600-goal mark for the Catalan giants, coincidentally reaching that landmark on May 1, 2019.

He was spending May 1 at home this year, along with every other footballer in LaLiga, which has been paused since March due to the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

To watch Messi in his pomp and assess the pick of his goals for Barcelona is a pick-me-up for any dark day, and here is a look at a chronological top 10 from the Argentinian's collection.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already seen one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's scooped pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for one of Europe's great clubs.

Malaga (H): March 22, 2009

Thierry Henry's favourite goal by Messi during their time playing together for Barca. Why not let the France great take up the story? "It defied logic what he did," Henry said in the 'Take the Ball, Pass the Ball' documentary. "There's a diagonal ball and he controls it on his chest. He runs full speed, then the first player goes and the second player is just behind. If he takes another step, that player will clear the ball." A shimmy of the body and deft touch later – in the blink of an eye – Messi stabbed into the top corner to conclude a moment of 100-miles-per-hour brilliance.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, this strike against Real Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in a goal that began when he won the ball from a tackle on halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling into the far corner, leaving coach Pep Guardiola speechless.

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

At the height of the Clasico rivalry between Guardiola's Barca and Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the two teams met four times in three different competitions in less than a month. The league meeting ended in a draw and Madrid won the Copa del Rey final, but Barca triumphed in the Champions League semi-final with a 3-1 aggregate win. The first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, an ill-tempered affair to say the least, saw Messi make it 2-0 by bursting beyond four attempted challenges and slotting past Iker Casillas, all in the space of around five seconds.

Athletic Bilbao (A): April 27, 2013

Barca would regain their LaLiga title from Real Madrid but were in the midst of a Champions League semi-final shellacking from Bayern Munich when they arrived at San Mames. A goal down in a match that would eventually finish 2-2, Messi received possession from Thiago Alcantara, twisted past Mikel San Jose, Carlos Gurpegui and Ander Herrera with minimal space in which to operate before nonchalantly sidefooting home from just inside the penalty area.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Guardiola returned to Camp Nou with a Bayern Munich side struggling with injury problems. They kept Barca at bay until the 77th minute of this Champions League semi-final first leg, when Messi finally struck. It was his second goal that earns a place in this list, though: collecting Ivan Rakitic's pass, a simple-looking shimmy left Jerome Boateng on his backside before he chipped Manuel Neuer with his weaker foot.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Real Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in stoppage time gave Jordi Alba the chance to square to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Rarely has a hat-trick been completed in finer fashion. Messi's two goals had helped Barca to a 3-1 lead at the Benito Villamarin, before he passed to Rakitic, ran onto the return ball and sent a first-time chip over goalkeeper Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from just inside the box. It was a sublime effort that even had the home fans on the feet, applauding - something Messi himself admitted he has not experienced before.

Liverpool (H): May 1, 2019

Over the past few years, Messi has mastered the art of free-kick taking, with the skill being one of few to elude him in his younger days. Liverpool held their own for long periods at Camp Nou but goals from Luis Suarez and Messi gave the hosts breathing space. Jurgen Klopp's side then had to bow to greatness when, after being brought down by Fabinho, Barca's talisman swept an unstoppable 30-yard effort into the top corner. Barcelona would incredibly blow their 3-0 first-leg advantage, however, losing 4-0 at Anfield as Liverpool reached the Champions League final.

Atletico Madrid (A): December 1, 2019

It was goalless in the 86th minute at the Wanda Metropolitano when Messi collected the ball on the right flank, 10 yards inside the Atletico half. Those famous feet began to shuffle with purpose, and although Atletico knew what Messi had in mind, they were powerless to resist the execution of his plan. Messi surged on, playing the ball to Luis Suarez on the edge of the penalty area before taking the return pass and cracking a brilliant 20-yard shot into the bottom left corner of Jan Oblak's goal. A winner, and one of the highest class.

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it's a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, it's grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explains to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It's little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

History on hold for the phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will, in theory, be the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While clearly a momentous occasion, coverage of this final hasn't been entirely positive. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – has been met with much praise on the one hand, giving smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez says, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agrees. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. Now there's lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledges, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for a potential postponement of the final, he feels.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said. "That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They are saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalls David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replies when asked if final qualification is a sign of things to come for La Real, who were fourth in LaLiga before its suspension. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 36-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage, while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

Aritz Aduriz does not see his retirement nor Athletic Bilbao's Copa del Rey final with Real Sociedad as important amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The veteran striker, who has scored 172 goals in over 400 appearances for Athletic, announced his intention to retire at the end of this season back in August.

His final season as a player is set to be marked by an all-Basque Copa del Rey final between Athletic and La Real.

Originally scheduled to take place on April 18 in Seville, the Copa showpiece - along with the vast majority of sport around the world - has been put on hold.

It is not clear when the final will be played. However, Aduriz accepts even an occasion as momentous as the clash with La Real has little significance amid a crisis that has killed over 12,000 people in Spain.

"This coronavirus crisis is forcing us to think twice and consider what matters," Aduriz told Athletic's official website. "And now my retirement, or football in general, or if we will play [the Copa del Rey final] or not doesn't matter.

"I think there are many other more important things to stop and solve. I'm sure with everyone's help together, with each of us playing our role, we will get ahead of it. That's what I'm focused on at this moment and that's the most important thing."

Aduriz was born in San Sebastian, where Real Sociedad hail from, but he expects a respectful reception from their fans if and when the final goes ahead.

He added: "Maybe all of us are keeping in mind the Copa del Rey final, but we're prioritising other things now.

"We're all going through a tough time where many people are struggling a lot and even passing away…so, the final of the Copa has its importance, but maybe not that much now.

"There are other things we need to solve together, and if the day [of the final] finally comes, I'm Donostiarra [people originally from San Sebastian]. I've always felt very comfortable in Donostia [the city's Basque name] and that won't change whatever happens in any football game. I'm sure they will treat me in the same way, no doubt."

Asked about recognition for his achievements from Athletic fans, Aduriz replied: "If we've learned something from this pandemic or virus that we're struggling with, it's that we should think twice about what is important.

"I sincerely believe the people who really deserve a statue and recognition are clear nowadays, and it's not me or any football player.

"I would build a statue to those who are battling every day at the very front line against the virus in all the hospitals. They're showing us what really matters.

"We have to realise what's important and what isn't. And this is probably showing us that football isn't important enough for this kind of recognition."

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