After 40-year wait, Athletic finally set sail on the gabarra

'This is Athletic Club!' - Fans join the Copa del Rey winners with boat parade (1:17)

Rodrigo Faez details Athletic Club's Copa del Rey celebrations from a boat on the city's Nervion river.  (1:17)

BILBAO, Spain -- "We had ten commandments in the dressing room and one was: don't mention the gabarra," Nico Williams said when at long, long last they could after winning the final of the Copa del Rey (stream a replay on ESPN+, U.S. only). "If you did, you had to cross yourself, confess to Jesus Christ. The gabarra was the unnamable." It was, but now they have seen it. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them with their own eyes. A million or more, the mayor said. And it was real.

A gabarra is a barge, that's all.

But it is not all. In Bilbao, it is not just a barge. It is the barge, something almost mystical, a legend passed on through the generations, all those stories told; always there but not there at all, all their hopes and dreams contained within, and all of their fears.

The gabarra: a word immediately understood with a single mention, conjuring up countless images and emotions, the invocation of everything they are and aspire to be, their identity, their idiosyncrasy. Unique. Just say it and you knew, nostalgia clinging to every letter, longing too.

Especially longing.

Go into a bar in Bilbao, almost any bar, in the narrow streets of the old town or along Pozas, that long, straight road that is not so much a road as a portal, carrying you through the red-and-white flags to San Mames, the football ground they call the Cathedral: a place of worship but above all of community, tradition and liturgy. On the walls there, chances are you will see a picture of gabarra. In a frame or cut from the paper, mostly in black and white, they date from 1984, when Athletic Club celebrated winning the league by traveling up the estuary, along the river Nervion from Getxo to the heart of the city on a gabarra.

They are wild, chaotic pictures, unlike anything else, a barge instead of a bus. On the water either side of the gabarra there are boats everywhere -- tugboats, rowboats, dinghies, anything they could find -- and the banks of the river are packed with people, red and white everywhere, felt even in the monotone images. More than a million people were out, they said.

The barge had been built in 1960 by the Celaya shipyard. A functional means of transporting heavy loads up the estuary, essentially a floating platform, 18½ meters long and 8½ meters wide, pulled by a tug boat, it was given the functional name Gabarra No. 1. With time it came to be known as Athletic's barge.

The idea of celebrating success by taking it up the river had come from a director named Cecilio Guerricabeitia. This was not a tradition, not really, but the inspiration went back a long way: to 1925 and Acero Club de Olabeaga, a team from the shipyards by the river and winners of the local championship, and to a song about a barge going down the Nervion, rumba la, rumba la. When Athletic boarded the gabarra in 1984, it was actually only the second time they had ever done so, after the previous season. It was also the last.

It had only travelled twice with them on board. The tradition of the gabarra, if it could be called that, was more about popular imagination, the impact from that day, the images that survived and the stories that were told, than a ritual oft-repeated. But that became something to aspire to, to do again, an act of affirmation; and with time, in its ever increasing absence, it became even deeper, somehow more imbedded.

Athletic are a unique club, famously following a policy of playing only with Basque players. In a post-Bosman world, that is even more remarkable, like something from another era, an act of grand defiance, resistance, a refusal to let go of who they are. One of only three clubs to have spent their entire history in the first division, Athletic had won 24 cups by 1984. They did not win another until Saturday in Seville, 40 years later.


The story goes back to the 1950s when Athletic won the cup often; captain Piru Gainza once collected the trophy and said, "See you next year, then," but those were different times. Even the 1980s are, and an entire generation had gone by without them winning anything. Not one Athletic player was alive the last time they won a major trophy; even the sporting director wasn't. Many had passed, lost forever. As for the gabarra, it was removed from service in 2013, and placed in a museum near San Mames, a piece of history.

As centre-back Dani Vivian insisted, that didn't mean that nothing had been written in the meantime. Rafa Alkorta, the club's former central defender and sporting director, rightly insisted: what this generation has done is wonderful. The Basque Country accounts for less than 5% of the Spanish population: a team from a pool that small, where the depth of identification is unlike anywhere else, had reached five finals this century, which is a huge achievement. But they had not been back on the barge, and "gabarra" had come to be shorthand for everything, not being able to emulate those scenes from 1984 to which everyone clung.

Kids listened to parents, even grandparents, talk about that day. Managers came and went, as did hundreds of players, but nothing happened. They reached final after final -- 2009, 2012, 2015, 2020, 2021 -- and it still didn't happen. The wait was, well, a weight. The pressure had built; those stories from '84 got further away and yet somehow ever closer, more present. They so wanted to have their own gabarra, but it had become almost like a ghost ship, a curse. Every time they got to the final, it came up again -- the sports paper Marca this week calculated 780 articles mentioning the gabarra -- and in most years preparations were made for it to sail again, just in case.

It became something best not mentioned, a commandment. And then in Seville, at last, Athletic beat Mallorca 4-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw and it all came pouring out. Coach Ernesto Valverde has won 11 trophies, but he said: "Nothing compares to this: because of how hard it has been, because of the finals we lost, because of what the cup means to us, who we are." Because of the gabarra.

In the buildup to the final, one Bilbao paper had put the gabarra on the front page every day for a week: with each new edition, it came a little closer. On the morning final, the headline said simply: "To dream." Now, that night it was here. They had done it, the release intense. "At last," the front page said this time.

Everyone knew what this meant. Immediately, the gabarra was everywhere, as if winning the cup was not about winning the cup, or at least not only, but about getting the chance to sail up the Nervion. About everything that encapsulates Athletic and why it is different. About being able to honour a tradition, follow it, at the club that most honours tradition.

Nico Williams dared mentioned it now, the spell broken. "You have no idea how much this weighed on us," captain Iker Muniain admitted. Imagine the pressure of the penalties. Now they had been liberated; time to take the barge out.

"I'm looking forward to experiencing what they have told us so much about," Nico Williams said. All evening in Seville and Bilbao and everywhere, as celebrations went on, the talk was of the barge. Get the gabarra out, we're bringing it home. One message from inside the dressing room: "You've got to come and see the gabarra."

"It's been a long time, I hope it still floats," goalkeeper Unai Simón joked.

Two days later, for the first time in 11 years, a crane lifted the barge onto the river, preparing it to sail. It took eight minutes to lower it onto the water, and tests followed. There were celebrations in Bilbao, impromptu street parties -- four Athletic players even got fined for an unauthorised gathering, setting up an improvised outdoor disco -- that went on all night. But that was a prelude. To this, to this thing that had become their everything, that they had heard so much about.

Javier Clemente, the coach of the 1984 team, insisted that the current players had no idea just what was waiting for them.

The date was set: the afternoon of Thursday, April 11. This was going to be huge, built up so much that somehow you thought it could never live up to its billing, but you would be wrong. From schools and kids' football clubs, letters were sent home, classes were cancelled so that everyone could enjoy this, live it, even if just once. Forget coming into work. It might not be back in a hurry. The whole of Bilbao was off. From around the country, people arrived in the Basque Country: this was the party of a lifetime and they weren't going to miss it.

The gabarra set sail, if you can call it that, from Getxo at 4:30 p.m. It was dragged by a tugboat, and a blue portaloo had been placed at the back. The players leapt about, although none leapt into the water: there was a €60,000 fine for anyone that dared. Midfielder Unai Gómez kept crying. On board, Valverde took out his compact camera. Among the many astonishing photos of an extraordinary day, those are the ones you'll want to see.

Around 160 boats accompanied them up the river, 38 rowboats too, oars easing them through the water. One boat was captained by Iñigo Martínez, the Barcelona centre-back and a former Athletic player. They travelled 13 kilometers along the river, past factories and offices, schools and universities. From the windows of the hospital, patients watched. Every inch of the route was packed, every space taken hours in advance, the place smelling of sulphur from flares. The kalimotxo (a Spanish cocktail) came in huge quantities. People occupied bridges and trees and traffic lights. By the factories, workers came to wave, high up cranes.

Every balcony was taken: squashed, standing room only, everyone you have ever met and many you have not invited round. In every direction there were people, red-and-white stripes. If there had been a million out in 1984, there were surely more now. "We saw so, so many people. I don't think we're really aware of what we have done," Simón said. "Maybe in the future we will be." Maybe if 40 more years pass.

"We have waited a long time for this," said Dani, the captain of the 1984 side. He and his teammates travelled alongside on another boat. The club's legendary goalkeeper Iribar, 81 now, was with the current team -- there were more songs for him than anyone else. "Iribar es cojonudo, como Iribar no hay ninguno": "Iribar is the business, there's no one like Iribar." A cup winner in 1969 and 1973, he wore a replica of a beret made for the 1958 final. "This is amazing," he said.

Time has passed, and they marked it. The Athletic players had been given red-and-white shirts -- actual shirts, not football shirts -- emulating those prepared last minute by a local tailor and worn by the team in 1984. One man wore the actual shirt from 1984: Valverde's assistant coach Jon Aspiazu was a player then and had kept it. Under his shirt, Muniain wore a T-shirt with the logo of the club's centenary on it, a quarter of a century later, although it wasn't long before he wasn't wearing any shirt at all. After the final, Iñaki Williams had worn the Athletic shirt of his childhood, a Kappa classic. History is there to be made, but also recognized.

The sun shone, everything brilliant in the light, except when it was engulfed in smoke, a day spent in glorious technicolor. Time has passed for sure: it's not just the fact that the photos are not in black-and-white now; the city looks different, is different; the whole region is, many of the shipyards and forges giving way. Nothing shone, nothing marked the passage of time like the smooth, silver sides of the Guggenheim museum. When the gabarra passed by San Mames, it paused. The players threw red-and-white flowers into the water, in memory of those who had not made it. As it went past the neighbourhood of Olabeaga, the entire side of a building had a single word written on it: "dream."

"This is the nearest thing to heaven," full-back Óscar de Marcos insisted. He and Muniain had been in all those lost finals, and they shared this with those who had been there with them but are gone now. "This is the dream of our entire lives, bloody hell: our grandparents and parents told us about this," Simón said. "I'm still pinching myself," Iñaki Williams insisted. Ander Herrera has won things before -- along with Raúl García, the only Athletic player who has -- but this, he said, was incomparable to anything. Well, almost anything: there was 1984.

"Those who thought we were exaggerating about the gabarra can see it now," said Clemente, the coach on board the barge that day.

Eventually, they clambered off and up the stairs at the side of the river and made their way through the crowd to the city hall. A barrier briefly fell to the ground, Valverde and Muniain rushing to attend, no harm done. And there, from the balcony, they sang and sang and sang, the captain who lost four finals now a champion leading the kind of crowd no one had ever seen. History makers, one and all.

See you next year, the mayor said, and some dared think he might be right, no fear naming the unnamable now as the bus pulled out and went through the streets with the Copa del Rey on board. Fans with fireworks accompanied them along the route, by road this time. "See? Told you it would be madness," one said, getting off the bus and heading into the council building, where the authorities waited. He was right, you did have to come to see the gabarra. Bars filled, no one expected home until morning, and songs were sung.

A barge went down the Nervion, rumba la, rumba la.

"This is the most fascinating club on earth," Valverde said, "and when it comes to celebrating, it is the best."