Bilbao, the capital of Spain’s Basque Country,
has a deeply idiosyncratic culture – from
their separatist sentiment to their unique
language Euskera. It is a part of Spain, yet
completely unique. Unsurprisingly, this bleeds
into their football as well. As a beacon for
the Basque people, Athletic Bilbao have come
to fly the region’s flag in Spain.
One of the most singular facets of the club
is their ‘Basque-only’ player policy.
It’s an aspect of the club that operates
both in the realm of identity and economy
with multifaceted repercussions in each.
Although their philosophy has evolved greatly
in its cultural significance, the origin was
actually very banal and born out of practicality.
In the 1911 Copa Del Rey, the club were accused
of fielding ineligible players. Offended by
this charge, they decided that their name
wouldn’t be dragged through the muck again
and thus decided upon their Basque-only, or
players “formed locally”, signing policy
to avoid any further confusion.
At the heart of Athletic Bilbao’s policy
is their academy in Lezama, responsible for
churning out over 85% of their players and,
despite oscillating results, has made them
the only side in La Liga besides Real Madrid
and Barcelona, never to have been relegated.
The academy is recognised by its iconic arches,
an architectural carry-over from their iconic
former ground – San Mamés. The iconic training
complex is never short of players, despite
the rule. The academy begins a bit later than
most – at the under-10s level, but last
year boasted around 1,500 nine-year-olds coming
to train at that entry point.
Getting to this stage begins at Los Rojiblancos’
“brother clubs” from the Biscay area and
a network of trusted scouts who understand
the culture and requirements for a young player
coming to Lezama.
How the young talent develops off of the field
is as important as on it. Sporting director
José Amorrortu is as interested in a player’s
‘values’ as their technical ability, especially
in the early stages of footballing development.
“Kids will have roles and responsibilities
as soon as they enter the building; whether
it’s sorting the kit, cleaning the dressing
room or carrying equipment. There’s a rota.”
The teaching of consistent values throughout
their system creates a uniform culture whereby
peers act as a check and balance.
The club is a part of Amorrortu’s DNA, just
like most of the other coaches. Having had
a successful stint as player and youth and
full-team coach, he has gained a generational
vantage point aiding his understanding of
overseeing the evolution of the club, but
also respecting the deep-rooted tradition
in what makes Athletic Club unique in global
football.
On the effects of the policy, Amorrortu said,
“We have a culture here, an identity. It’s
our job to create good people as well as good
players, and nobody does that like we do.
Family is everything for Basque people and
we want to do right by our own people. There’s
no greater sense of pride for a boy than playing
football for this club.”
However, critics are quick to point out that
the club may be being held back by their stubborn
adherence to their historical model. Fellow
Basque side Real Sociedad had a similar rule
up until 1989 but decided to relax it in order
to be more competitive by signing Irish international
John Aldridge from Liverpool. The efficacy
of this move is questionable, with their greatest
success actually coming in the years before
the policy was relaxed.
With claims of discrimination also waged against
Athletic Bilbao, they have been quick to wave
off the suggestion, instead focussing on its
holistic appeal as a part of Basque cultural
expression as well as a sort of last stand
against globalisation’s eroding effects
on a football club’s identity. It’s not
about Basque superiority, rather about perpetuating
an identity.
Around 76% of fans said they’d rather relegation
than relax the tradition. In other words,
fans are happy to accept inferiority, as long
as this cornerstone of Basque culture remains.
Despite positive spin, the club were still
the last in La Liga to field a black player,
Jonas Ramalho in 2011, and it wasn’t until
2015 that they finally had a black goal-scorer
– Iñaki Williams. This is in large part due
to the lack of multiculturalism in the Basque
Country, and larger Spain’s demographics.
When Ramalho played his first game for Athletic
Bilbao, Spain had only ever fielded five black
players.
Not being an official part of the club’s
laws and rulings, the definition has been
outlined by its practice over the years and
has transformed over time through societal
change and different club presidents. Sometimes,
confusion and disagreements have arisen over
certain players.
Players born in the Basque Country but raised
elsewhere are eligible, even in the case of
French-Basque, as was the case with Bixente
Lizarazu, who signed from Bordeaux and had
spent his youth playing at the French side.
Those not born in the Basque country are still
eligible to play on two conditions: they have
Basque parentage or have spent a considerable
time in the region’s academies or canteras.
How long exactly, isn’t clear.
Antoine Griezmann, born in Mâcon in the east
of France, was linked with the club in 2012.
The crux of his eligibility boiled down to
his youth spent in Real Sociedad’s ranks.
He arrived at the club and studied there,
yet his link was perceived as too tenuous
by many in Bilbao. Yes, he was “formed locally”,
but apparently not enough.
Most recently, Romanian left-back Cristian
Ganea signed from Romanian club FC Viitorul
Constanta despite, like Griezmann, having
no familial ties to the Basque Country. His
claim comes from his time spent in the youth
system of Basque side Basconia despite playing
most of his professional career back in his
home country.
Their policy also has implications in the
transfer market for outgoing sales. Given
that the club won’t spend incoming fees
outside of the Basque Country’s borders,
there’s very little to tempt them into settling
for anything less than the player’s release
clause.
Recently, Chelsea found out their bargaining
powers the hard way. Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga
was set to move to Real Madrid in the mid-season
market for £18m but a smart contract extension
netted his club an astonishing £72m. This
strict adherence, or some may say stubbornness,
also worked in their favour with Manchester
United’s purchase of Ander Herrera and their
city rival City’s signing of centre-back
Aymeric Laporte.
For many at the club, victory doesn’t just
come from cups, but from seeing their home-grown
talent run out on the field. That their tradition
sustains in a sport so sensitive to change
is testament to its power.
The strong anti-globalisation message resonates
around the footballing world and the fiercely
patriotic club, regardless of results, often
draw near sell-out crowds. As much as an example
of what a club can be, Athletic Bilbao are
similarly a mirror highlighting what other
clubs are becoming – corporate, faceless entities
with very little connection to their increasingly
alienated fan-base. With the Basque-only policy,
Athletic Bilbao should never have this problem.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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