In the late seventies and early eighties, Catalonia and the Basque Country had much in common. Only a few years after the death of Francisco Franco and the reintroduction of democracy to Spain, both still smarted from the sting of despotism and the repression of their language, culture and political freedoms over the course of several decades. Singled out for their separatist movements, socialist elements and resistance to Francoism, they had suffered some of the worst excesses of his dictatorship, and had formed a bond of mutual respect and solidarity as a result. That did not extend to the football pitch, however, where two of their biggest clubs were escalating a bitter and acrimonious rivalry which would come to define an iconic era of La Liga.
During the seventies, football in Spain was dominated by the two Madrid sides, Real and Atletico. The former were favourites of Franco during his reign and were, to him, a symbol of a centralised, homogenous, Castilian country, or at least that is how competitors in other regions sought to explain their incredible success. Los Blancos claimed five league titles in the seventies and also won the Copa del Rey on three occasions, while Atletico – formerly favoured by the regime but rapidly positioning themselves as the antithesis of their cross-town rivals – also boasted an imperious side which won two titles and two cup finals. Towards the end of the decade, though, two regional clubs began to reassert themselves, namely Catalan giants Barcelona and one of the biggest clubs in the Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao.
Though another Basque club, Real Sociedad, won two titles at the dawn of the eighties, Barca and Bilbao found themselves 2nd and 4th respectively come the end of the 1981-82 season. This was when the touchpaper to their combustible mutual enmity was ignited, not only by their competition for European places but also by an incident involving Bernd Schuster and the man they called 'Goiko'. His full name was in fact Andoni Goikoetxea Olaskoaga, and he was a lumbering, muscular defender from Alonsotegi, a red-tiled hill town in the green and verdant mountains of Biscay. With a face like smashed rubble and an expression of almost permanent menace, he was a formidable figure in the middle of the Bilbao defence, and from his senior debut in 1975 onwards he became known for his brutal tackling and seeming relish for demolishing opponents by any means.
Schuster, who had already won the European Championships at this point and was one of Barca's most influential players, found this out to his cost during a league fixture against Bilbao early on in the campaign. While attempting to dribble through the Rojiblancos' back line, he was brought down by a thunderous tackle by Goiko, who managed to plant his studs right on the most vulnerable part of the German's knee. The tackle severed Schuster's cruciate ligament, and saw him miss the rest of the season with a miserable nine-month lay off. Barcelona fans were furious, especially when they went on to miss out on the title by a mere two points to Sociedad, with many accusing the Basque defender of deliberately sabotaging their team.
Whether or not there was any merit to these conspiratorial whispers, Goiko soon came to represent a style of football inimical to Barca. The Catalan side was fast becoming one of the most watchable in La Liga, down in no small part to the management of first Udo Lattek and then, come March 1983, Cesar Luis Menotti, the man who had led Argentina to World Cup triumph in 1978. With the likes of Quini, Tente, Francisco Carrasco and Victor Munoz, the Blaugrana boasted a Spanish and Catalan core furnished with both resilience and flair, and once Bernd Schuster regained his fitness he put the final touches to a sophisticated midfield. Then there was the small matter of Diego Maradona, the Argentine sensation signed from Boca Juniors in 1982, who had thrived under Menotti's debonair management at the FIFA World Youth Championship three years before.
Known as El Flaco ('The Thin One') in Argentina, Menotti was a huge influence on Maradona during his time as coach of the national team, with his protégé later stating: "Every time El Flaco spoke I went deathly quiet inside. That was because El Flaco was God." Menotti had a reputation for non-conformity and creative football, and he tried to mould Barcelona in this image with Maradona at the heart of their efforts. Meanwhile, while Athletic Bilbao were anything but unimaginative, their approach was considerably less romantic and far more rooted in a workmanlike ethic, not to mention the individual exploits of their talismanic forwards, Dani and Manu Sarabia. With Goiko at the centre of their defence, they earned a reputation for ruthlessness and cynicism as well as excellent football, and so there came to be a fundamental contrast between their style of play and the expressive and philosophical outlook at Camp Nou, or that's how Barcelona supporters saw it, anyway.
This, combined with Schuster's injury, only fanned the flames of their burgeoning rivalry. As the two teams began vying directly for silverware, Barca fans maintained that their side endeavoured to play the better football, while their Basque counterparts saw this as a sign of infuriating pretension from the Catalans. The early eighties were also marked by increasing tension between the two regions, with ETA – the left-wing revolutionary group at the centre of the Basque conflict, then engaged armed struggle against the Spanish government and a sustained national bombing campaign – stepping up their violent activities and alienating an increasing number of people. It was to this backdrop that Barca and Bilbao went head to head, competing for the league title and, separatist sentiment aside, the right to call themselves the best team in Spain.
In the end, things weren't quite so clear cut, even after several seasons of relentless excitement. Though Barcelona would beat Bilbao twice over the course of the 1982-83 campaign and win the cup, knocking Bilbao out in the quarters, it was the Basque side which triumphed in La Liga, nabbing the title and ending six points ahead of the Catalans who somehow ended up finishing fourth. It was at the beginning of the next season, in which Bilbao would once again win the title despite another two defeats to Barca and a single point between them in the final standings, that the most memorable incident of the season took place. It involved the two contrasting club icons, Maradona and Goiko, as well as one of the most notorious tackles in the history of the game.
On 24 September 1983, Barcelona hosted Bilbao at the Camp Nou and comprehensively dismantled their rivals. Menotti and Bilbao coach Javier Clemente had exchanged numerous barbs in the build-up, each man expressing his disdain for the football of the other, which contributed to a fiery atmosphere even as Barca stormed to an early lead. With the home side three goals to the good midway through the second half, Goiko lost his head after Maradona, who had already provided two assists, picked up the ball in Bilbao's final third and looked to initiate yet another attack. The Bilbao defender launched himself into a vicious tackle from behind, crunching into Maradona's leg and leaving the Argentine screaming in agony, his ankle badly broken.
It is no exaggeration to say that this tackle could have ended things for Maradona. The man who would go on to win the World Cup and become one of the world's greatest footballers with Napoli was now faced with a long spell on the sidelines, with months of rehabilitation needed before he would be able to play again. Menotti was enraged by the incident, stating afterwards that Goiko was part of a race of "anti-footballers" and that he should be banned for life. Just as he had torpedoed Barca's 1981-82 season with his foul on Bernd Schuster, Goiko had once again seriously injured the Blaugrana's best player, and this time it was Athletic Bilbao who would pip them to the title. It was this tackle which earned Goiko the nickname 'The Butcher of Bilbao', a moniker coined by British journalist Edward Owen after he witnessed the foul which left Maradona in such excruciating pain.
While Barcelona would get their revenge eventually, winning the league in 1985 as Bilbao limped to a distant third, there would be more suffering to come for the Catalan side and its Argentine maestro. Maradona made it back in time for the second league match against Goiko and friends, scoring two goals in a 2-1 win at San Mames, before he took part in the 1984 Copa del Rey final, in which Barca and Bilbao would face each other in a fraught and feverish game. The match itself was a Bilbao masterclass, with a goal after 14 minutes from Endika Guarrotxena allowing the Basque side to close ranks, marshalled by the looming form of Goiko at centre-back. The score remained unchanged at the final whistle, before the season finale descended into mayhem.
Having received a nasty gash on his leg after another robust tackle from Goiko as well as deafening taunts from the crowd, Maradona showed that he too had a violent side when Miguel Sola attempted to goad him at the end of the match. Initiating what is possibly still the most extreme fight in a major domestic tournament, Maradona kneed Sola in the head – knocking him out cold – before launching himself with a flurry of kicks into a group of Bilbao players. In the whirlwind of kung-fu moves and punches which followed Goiko managed one last swipe at Maradona, connecting with a flying kick of his own as his nemesis found himself at the centre of the maelstrom. Given the tension between the two clubs, it was a miracle that a riot didn't erupt on the terraces, though there were scuffles between supporters as swathes of the pitchside fencing was torn down.
Maradona wouldn't stick around for Barcelona's title win the following season, with the bust-up against Bilbao the main factor in his move to Naples. King Juan Carlos of Spain had been in attendance at the final while it was estimated that half the population had watched on television, and with dozens of people injured in the subsequent melee neither Barcelona nor Maradona were willing to ride the wave of sensationalist press. Meanwhile, the man who had caused so much of the enmity between Barca and Bilbao had a modest end to his career, leaving Bilbao in 1987 and spending three years at Atletico Madrid before retiring. For his part he had already apologised profusely, claiming he had never intended to injure Maradona. This might have been believable, was 'The Butcher' not reported to have kept the boots he wore that day preserved at home in a glass display case.