El Centrocampista

NATIONAL SERVICE – How Athletic Club keep their Basque identity

By Sam Hughes

The hopeless romantic in every football fan will always have respect for Athletic Club de Bilbao.

Their Basque-only policy has made sure this special club has stuck firmly to its roots. Every player that pulls on the famous red and white shirt is a son of the region; the club’s spirit is ingrained in them, they represent where they are from. Football fans of all clubs love this, they feel as though they can identify with ‘one of their own’ – they are truly playing for them.

It is fair to say that the policy – admirable as it is – has left them in a difficult position when it comes to challenging for major honours. The bigger clubs – Barcelona, Real Madrid, and others – will often spend big on the latest foreign superstar, or scout the most promising talent across the globe – Athletic Club’s self-imposed rules don’t allow this.

As the club motto says, ‘Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación’ – With a home-grown team and fans, there is no need for imports.

The club’s Cantera is integral to the club; this is where their team comes from. Many will say that the smaller pool of players puts them at a disadvantage which, in a way, it does. However, the players that do come through have a loyalty to the club that is rarely seen in football. It happens from time to time, but essentially loyalty is something that has been consigned to football history.

Not in Bilbao – players are part of the club; they stay out of love and loyalty to the football club. This ‘togetherness’ is one of the key reasons why they are the only club, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, never to be relegated from the top division in Spain.

It is all well and good having such a strong sense of identity within a club, but if the youth system doesn’t produce the players then it just isn’t sustainable. Fellow Basque club Real Sociedad adopted a similar Basques-only policy until the 1980’s before their inability to compete forced them to abandon the idea.

This shows just how consistent Athletic’s youth system has been throughout the years. Their Cantera has produced genuine greats that have mesmerised on the football pitch down the years – players such as Julen Guerrero, Telmo Zarra, Pichichi, Andoni Zubizarreta and Jose Angel Iribar to name but a few.

In fact, Real Madrid aside, Athletic’s Cantera has produced more players for the Spanish national side than any other club. It is this ability to keep the conveyor belt running that has kept the side so competitive throughout its history, despite the ‘disadvantage’.

Even now, the current squad contains key players like Fernando Llorente, Mikel San Jose, Fernando Amorebieta and Javi Martinez that have all been promoted from within. The production line is showing no signs of slowing down, either – Iker Muniain has established himself as a mainstay of the first team at just 18 years of age, showing real signs that the media hype surrounding him may well be justified.

Other youngsters in the shape of Borja Ekiza and Jon Aurtenetxe are other examples of the Cantera producing the goods once more. It doesn’t stop there, though, as a new wave of exciting youngsters are set to make the breakthrough sooner rather than later. Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta, Iker Guarrotxena, Jonas Ramalho – the first mixed-race player to play for the club – and the French-Basque Aymeric Laporte are all expected to make an impact for the club.

With a lot of their youth players attracting attention from some of the world’s biggest clubs, Athletic have chosen to sign their players to semi-pro contracts with large release clauses – an unprecedented move in Spanish football. This stops bigger clubs stepping in and poaching the precocious talent that they produce. Athletic have suffered from this before with Mikel San Jose joining Liverpool before returning, and Yuri Berchiche going to Tottenham.

Athletic’s Cantera will continue to be a huge part of the club as it doesn’t seem they will ever let go of their Basque-only policy. The results of an El Mundo poll said that 76% of Athletic fans would rather be relegated than give up the policy. This further highlights its importance to the club; it is the foundation that the club is built on.

In an ideal world, the club will take it to another level and win trophies once more – showing that the youth system is, and always will be, the way forward. Though, it has to be said, if that doesn’t happen, Athletic’s fans won’t be too disheartened. They have an affinity to their club and players that cannot be matched anywhere else.

After all, with a home-grown team and fans, who needs imports?



  1. Broom_Wagon

    16 November, 2011 at 16:08

    It appears to me, Athletic is one of the few teams that don’t have a crown in its team emblem. It would be interesting to know some of the history as to why a few teams do not have that but of course, one can suspect why with Bilbao. In fact, the symbolism in the shields of all the Spanish teams would make an interesting article.

  2. Broom_Wagon

    16 November, 2011 at 16:37

    Bilbao also has the shirt that shows connections to Blackburn Rovers. I’ve read on Bilbao some. In the Americas, there are a number of Basques. Argentina’s 1990 goalkeeper, Goixcochea seems to be a Basque type name.

  3. Pingback: Mallorca – Athletic Bilbao 1-1 | soccer highlights

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