Athletic Bilbao are far from your typical football club. One of the best supported clubs in Spain, with attendances averaging at only just below that of Atletico Madrid and behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, this club is different in every way. The city of the Guggenheim museum, one of the world’s most peculiar pieces architecture, is also home to one of the most unique clubs in world football, and yet one of the most successful too.
So, what really makes them stand out? Their transfer ideology is the simple answer. The club has a policy of only signing players from the Basque Country, which has a population of under 2.2 million people, around the same as West Yorkshire. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque region of Spain has a strong independence movement and this policy is merely a reflection of that. In a form of rebellion against the Spanish state, the club believe that they represent their ‘country’. This is also a reason why the club is one of the most passionately supported in Spain, with one of the highest number of season ticket holders, and one of the biggest fan bases, even more impressive when you consider the number of tourists attracted to the likes of Barcelona, Real and Atletico.
The policy was also used by Real Sociedad; their near neighbours in San Sebastian, until not so long ago in 1989 as they began to step down the process. First, they signed international players, starting off with Irishman John Aldridge from Liverpool, and then in 2001 began to sign players from other parts of Spain. It is worth noting here though that; bizarrely, the policy does not apply to managers. In fact, until WWII, the club had had more English managers than Spanish managers, let alone Basque, and in recent years have included Argentine Marcelo Bielsa and German Jupp Heynckes, whilst current manager Ernesto Valverde; in his second spell at the club, hails from Extremadura, a different Spanish region.
Despite the rarity of such a policy in modern football, it has proved hugely successful. On the field, Athletic Bilbao; alongside FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, are the only side never to have been relegated from the Spanish first division. Their lowest ever finish was in 2007, finishing 17th, but that is the only time in the club’s history when relegation has been a realistic possibility. Don’t start thinking that they just survive by the skin of their teeth though. The Basque club have been one of the country’s most successful sides, winning the league eight times and the cup on 24 occasions. Since their relegation scare, the club has gone from strength to strength. Currently sitting 5th in La Liga, the side won the Spanish Supercup for the first time this season, beating Barcelona over two legs, competing in the Champions League for the second time in their history last season and reaching the Europa League final in 2012.
The policy has also been attributed as a major factor in the bringing through of several talented young players. Iker Munain and Inaki Williams are just two of the latest players to establish themselves having coming through the youth ranks, in a league where it is becoming harder and harder for young players to get a chance in the first team. Whilst La Liga gets richer, clubs the size of Bilbao; such as Sevilla and Valencia, are increasingly looking abroad for players, whilst Bilbao look to their youth ranks. Not only does this help to bring through a new generation of key players for the club, but it also has its own benefits on the financial balance sheet.
There have been numerous examples of this effect, one such argument was the signing of Ander Herrera. Bought for £5 million in 2011, he was sold to Manchester United three years later for a fee of £29 million. They could have done it again in the case of Fernando Llorente, who scored 85 goals for the first team having come through the youth ranks, before moving to Juventus on a free transfer having run down his contract. With Aymeric Laporte the latest in-demand Bilbao youth product, their finances could well be set for another boost with a reported release clause of £40 million, not that it puts off Manchester City. Another current star, 35-year-old Aritz Aduriz; who has 33 goals to his name this term, was signed for just £2 million in 2012, having been sold for £5 million in 2008 having come through the youth ranks himself. This; alongside their large fan-base, has helped to finance the building of their redeveloped stadium, known as the New San Mames, with a capacity of 53,000.
The policy does have its draw-backs however. The most common criticism is that it is often labelled as racist. Despite being formed in 1898, it was not until 2011 that right-back Jonas Ramalho became the first ever mixed race player to play for the club. Despite qualifying through his Basque mother, many traditionalist fans claimed that he should not have been allowed to play for the club due to his Angolan father. Even now, barriers are still being broken down. Exciting young winger Inaki Williams became the first black player to ever score for the club in February 2015, and is showing all signs of becoming the first player to establish himself in the first team who is non-white. Yet despite this, the critics remain strong, claiming that the fact he was born and brought up in Bilbao is relevant, even though he has a Basque name, as his parents are from Ghana and Liberia. Whilst attitudes in Spain; and particularly in Spanish football, are changing rapidly and have come a long way, this policy is one of few actions that can be labelled as racist.
Other criticisms include the controversial claim that the policy holds the club back. Some argue that with such a large fan base and a proven track record of developing players, if they invested that money in players from all over the world, they could really compete at the top of La Liga again after 32 years without a league title. The counter argument is that Bilbao only attracts such a high number of fans because the club sticks to its roots and heritage, and to abandon the strategy would see them lose revenues in terms of ticket sales. Having employed the policy since 1912, it doesn’t show any signs of being ditched now.
The desire of the club to represent their beliefs and morals is testament to the club and its fans, and the fact that they have even achieved the results to make such a strategy sustainable is impressive; yet at the same time, it seems hard to imagine any other club in world football applying such a strategy. In a way, that makes this brave policy even more admirable.
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