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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Three things learnt from Liverpool’s pre-season win over Athletic Bilbao in Dublin
It was Liverpool‘s final pre-season friendly in Dublin and the Reds saw it out in style with a 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.
The Reds got off to a good start with Roberto Firmino converting from the penalty spot, but catastrophic defending allowed Inaki Williams to equalise after Dejan Lovren froze.
Ben Woodburn put his side back in front in the second half with a fine finish before Dominic Solanke added a third, as Liverpool ended the game easing to victory comfortably.
Here are three things that The Boot Room learnt from the tie…
Alberto Moreno could be the solution to Liverpool’s midfield headache
Moreno looked a completely different player against Bayern Munich last week and replicated that quality against Athletic Bilbao. The Spaniard was imperious going forwards and looked a real threat whilst remain responsible at the back, something he struggled to do in the past.
That could open the door to James Milner returning to midfield, particularly with Adam Lallana ruled out for the start of the season. Moreno could share the left-back role with Andrew Robertson, but it may be a gamble for Jurgen Klopp to make such a call even if he cannot add a midfielder to the ranks.
Dominic Solanke is a huge threat
The former Chelsea man once again stood out as a real threat. Adding his second headed goal of pre-season, he reacted perfectly to Ragnar Klavan’s surprisingly pinpoint cross to head past Kepa with a great finish.
Solanke showed that he was comfortable drifting wide and deep to help his team-mates, something that Jurgen Klopp is known to value. Such flexibility and such an impressive work rate may go some way to helping Solanke edge past the likes of Divock Origi in the pecking order.
Ben Woodburn is one to watch
Woodburn has struggled to hit the headlines as he did on his debut against Leeds when he scored a late winner, but performances like this one will do exactly that. The highlight was an exquisite finish from the edge of the box, taking a nice touch to set himself up before curling into the corner.
Playing in a deeper role behind the front three, Woodburn was a dangerman throughout and was instrumental in creating and setting up chances for his team-mates. In the absence of Philippe Coutinho, he could shine.
2015: The Death of the One-Club Man
A incredible day in the transfer market yesterday saw two of football’s most iconic figures forfeit their status as one-club men. Bastian Schweinsteiger traded Bavarian superpower Bayern Munich for a resurgent Man United while former Real Madrid skipper Iker Casillas left the capital of Spain to join Portuguese giants Porto. The departure of two of the games most loyal stalwarts tops of a year which has perhaps proven that the one-club man truly dying breed, with no fewer than seven of their contempories also choosing to turn away from their monogamous careers:
1. Darren Fletcher
Scottish international Darren Fletcher joined Man United as an 11-year way back in 1995. During his time with the Red Devils, Fletcher lifted four Premier League titles, the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup, making 324 appearances across all competitions along the way. Fletcher’s 20-year affiliation with the club came to an end on February 2nd when he joined fellow Premier League side West Brom on a free transfer.
2. Victor Valdes
Victor Valdes technically left Barcelona at the end of the 2013-14 season but it wasn’t until January that his status as a one club man was truly broken. Having been a free agent since his contract expired in July last year, Valdes opted to sign for Man United where he reunite with manager Louis van Gaal. Fast forward 6 months and the Spanish ‘keeper’s decision has rewarded him with just 2 appearances at Old Trafford.
3. Steven Gerrard
Captain Fantastic. Few players, if any, have been as symbolic of a club’s identity as Steven Gerrard. It comes as no surprise then that supporters of Liverpool and indeed the footballing world as a collective were left stunned when Stevie G announced that he would be joining MLS side LA Galaxy next season. Gerrard amassed an incredible 707 appearances for Liverpool, scoring 186 goals in the process and captained the Reds to iconic victories in the FA Cup and Champions League .
What Steven Gerrard was to Liverpool, Xavi was to Barcelona. The legendary home-grown midfielder broke Catalan hearts when he confirmed that he would be leaving the club to join Qatari side Al-Sadd at the end of the season. Xavi was an instrumental figure in the most successful period in Barcelona’s hiistory, guiding the club to 8 La Liga crowns and 3 Champions League titles in his 24-year spell at the Nou Camp.
5. Sven Ulreich
At 26-years old, goalkeeper Sven Ulreich is youngest player on the list. Having joined Stuttgart in 1998, Ulreich had spent 17 years at the club and looked set to one day join the ranks of the legendary one club men. That all changed when Bayern Munich swooped in and signed him last
month to serve as back up at the club to Germany’s number 1, Manuel Neuer.
6. Andoni Iraola
Spanish international Andoni Iraola joined Athletic Bilbao in back 1999. The right back made over 500 appearances for the Basque club during that period, earning runners-up medals in the Copa Del Rey (three times) and in the Europa League. Iraola parted with ways with Athletic at the end of last season to join up with MLS newcomers New York City.
7. Itumeleng Khune
South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune ia perhaps the most inconspicuous name on the list but with over 200 appearances for local side Kaizer Chiefs, with whom he was captain, he has earned his spot on this list. The 28-year old spent 16 years with the Soweto giants before allowing his contract to run down at the end of last season. He is still without a club.
8. Bastian Schweinsteiger
The aforementioned Schweinsteiger finally completed his move to Manchester United yesterday after months of rumours linking him with the club. Schweinsteiger, who turns 31 next month, joined Bayern in 1998 and made exactly 500 appearances for them across all competitions. The legendary German achieved incredible success in Munich, winning the Bundesliga 8 times and the Champions League once. The World Cup winner also has 7 DFB-Pokal titles to his name.
9. Iker Casillas
Much like with Raúl before him, there was to be no fairytale ending to Iker Casillas’ career at Real Madrid. The legendary goalkeeper’s fall from Galactico grace was confirmed yesterday when the club announced that he had agreed to join Porto. It’s impossible to fully reflect on the contribution Casillas made to Real Madrid so we’ll let the stats do the talking. 25 years. 725 appearances. 5 La Liga crowns. 3 Champions League titles. 1 legend.
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Champions League Wednesday round-up
The remaining Champions League matchday one fixtures took place last night, with most of the games tightly contested, although there were emphatic wins for Roma and FC Porto.
Just as Arsenal made their third visit in 36 months to Dortmund earlier in the week, Manchester City did likewise to Munich to face 2013 champions Bayern. Manuel Pellegrini’s side won at the Allianz Arena last season but this time they left pointless after a 90th-minute winner from a former player. Jerome Boateng’s thunderous strike took a heavy deflection off Mario Gotze before looping over Joe Hart, with the Germany defender not hesitating to claim it as his goal. While Man City had a late shout for a penalty that, in truth, could easily have been given on another night, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern had the better of the game throughout and will feel they deserved the victory.
In Group E’s other game, Roma served a real warning of what they could have to offer as they annihilated CSKA Moscow 5-1 at the Stadio Olimpico. The Italians wasted little time in marking their first Champions League game since spring 2011 with a thumping win, racing into a four-goal lead inside half an hour. Juan Iturbe set the ball rolling and ex-Arsenal flop Gervinho, a rejuvenated player in Serie A, struck twice. An own goal early in the second half added to CSKA’s woes, although they gave a spirited performance after the interval and mustered a late consolation through Ahmed Musa.
CSKA next have the unenviable task of welcoming Bayern to Moscow and Man City already face a possible make or break home clash against rampant Roma.
It was three points for Barcelona, but not as we know it. A home game against APOEL Nicosia looked a safe option for accumulators and while the Catalans duly delivered, it certainly wasn’t the cakewalk that many expected. A rather unfamiliar, youthful Barca line-up prevailed thanks to Gerard Pique’s 28th-minute header and admittedly the margin would have been greater were it not for a superb display from APOEL goalkeeper Urko Pardo. It wasn’t all one-way traffic, either, as the visitors threatened Barcelona’s goal on a couple of occasions, but in the end there was a clean sheet for Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.
It was a doubly good night for Luis Enrique’s men as the other Group F match finished in a draw. PSG hit the front early on through Edinson Cavani and it looked for all the world as if the French champions would see off Ajax. However, the Amsterdammers found the net on 74 minutes with a sumptuous Lasse Schone free kick, which remarkably was their first shot on target. The Dutch side managed to maintain parity for the closing minutes and claim an unexpected point.
PSG host Barcelona on matchday two while Ajax face a potentially tricky encounter away to APOEL Nicosia in Cyprus.
When rampaging Premier League leaders Chelsea went in front against Bundesliga strugglers Schalke 04 at Stamford Bridge, it seemed that the only unknown would be the margin of victory. While Cesc Fabregas was on target, returning hero Didier Drogba fluffed two great chances to extend Chelsea’s lead, with the in-form Diego Costa starting on the bench. It was a gamble that backfired on Jose Mourinho as, just after the hour, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar equalised for Schalke. Costa was deployed with 15 minutes to go but for once he was kept scoreless and the German visitors celebrated the point as if they had secured a place in the final itself.
At least Chelsea didn’t lose any ground on their Group G rivals as the encounter between Maribor and Sporting Lisbon also ended 1-1. An uninspiring first half saw both teams hit the woodwork and Sporting looked the more likely to make the breakthrough after the interval. They did just that, although it took until the 79th minute and it came courtesy of a wonder strike from a resurgent Nani. It looked as if the Portuguese side would leave Slovenia with the points, but brave Maribor rescued a draw in stoppage time through 18-year-old Luka Zahovic, the son of ex-Slovenia playmaker Zlatko Zahovic.
All four teams have identical records after matchday one. Chelsea travel to Lisbon in two weeks’ time while Schalke welcome Maribor to Gelsenkirchen.
There were six goals in Group H on matchday one and all of them were scored by FC Porto, who butchered BATE Borisov at the Estadio Dragao. Yacine Brahimi, one of several Algeria players to enhance his reputation at the World Cup, registered a hat-trick and there were also goals for Jackson Martinez, Adrian Lopez and Vincent Aboubakar. BATE didn’t help themselves with the cheap manner in which they coughed up some of the goals, in particular the first one as goalkeeper Sergei Chernik threw the ball straight to the grateful Brahimi.
In their first Champions League game in 16 years, Athletic Bilbao were unable to make the breakthrough against Shakhtar Donetsk, who despite off-field problems have made a flying start to their domestic season. Shakhtar were narrowly the more threatening over the 90 minutes, although it was the home side who looked the sharpest later in the game. Both will feel they could have won it, but neither will be overly disappointed to get a draw out of their opening game.
Porto are sure to have a much tougher night in Ukraine against Shakhtar next time out while bruised BATE will hope for some home comforts against Athletic Bilbao.
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