Its Basque-centric player policy makes Athletic Club Bilbao’s success remarkable, says Oli Trussler Jones, and one of the last non-globalised football clubs remaining.
The list of Spanish football clubs that have never been relegated from the top flight reads as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Club Bilbao.
However, while Barcelona and Real Madrid have enjoyed incredible success, claiming numerous La Liga titles between them, Athletic Club generally has to settle for European qualification at best.
What makes Bilbao’s achievement special, however, is the club’s insistence on only signing Basque players.
To understand why Athletic Club does this, you first have to understand Basque politics. As in Catalonia, the Basque country has a strong separatist movement and Basques are proud of their culture and believe in hard work.
Some Athletic Club fans would rather be relegated than relax the club’s policy on Basque players but in a sport that has become so globalised, how has the club managed to stick to its sometimes controversial policy?
Critics label the policy archaic – Bilbao was the last club to field an ethnic minority player, Jonas Ramalho in 2009. It also meant no black player scored for the club until Iñaki Williams in 2015, a player who has become a star in the current, ever-evolving Athletic Club side.
Bilbao manages to retain its players by being firm in negotiations, usually only accepting a deal because of a player’s release clause. A great example is Chelsea’s pursuit of Kepa Arrizabalaga in summer 2018, with the London club forced to pay a world-record £71 million fee for the goalkeeper.
The same can be applied to the transfers of Aymeric Laporte and Ander Herrera – and it will be the same if a club comes calling for Williams.
Athletic Club Bilbao has an incredible focus on developing youth – the first team features a staggering 85% of academy players. This success is made even more remarkable by the club having such a small talent pool to choose from.
To qualify for the academy, a player must have Basque parentage or have spent a significant amount of time or had a prior footballing education in the Basque country.
Success remains modest on the field but Athletic Club is in this year’s Copa Del Rey final, facing bitter rivals Real Sociedad.
The club’s Estadio San Mamés opened in 2016, replacing its stadium of the same name. It is an incredible place to watch football. If you visit Athletic Club Bilbao one day, you will be watching one of the last non-globalised footballing entities left.
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