Athletic Bilbao: The Basque Lions

Posted on November 29, 2011 by

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Imagine a club deliberately restricting itself to only recruiting playing staff from a small region within a major European country, yet being successful and highly competitive in modern football. Crazy, isn’t it? Well not if you’re an Athletic Bilbao Supporter. Bilbao, in the Basque region of Spain, was a major port in the 19th century, providing jobs and contributing greatly to the Spanish economy, because of this, British workers travelled to the Basque region to seek work. The foreign workers introduced the Basque people to the game of football. Upper class Basque students also made the journey over to Britain to study, where they too experienced the game and returned to Bilbao eager to play against the British workers in their own country.

These two groups of nationals and foreigners both created football teams, however it was a merged Basque team called ‘Club Bizcaya’ which won the first ever ‘Copa Del Rey’ in 1902. Shortly after this, an agreement was made to merge the Basque teams, creating  ‘Athletic Club de Bilbao’.

In 1909 the club directed a young Basque student who was studying in London, to replace the teams plain white strip with a new design. The student was probably too busy kicking a ball about and in a panic buy, bought 50 Southampton strips to bring back to Bilbao. As a result the club’s home strip to this day is white and red stripes.

After a period of increased popularity and success, Athletic Bilbao were dominating the Spanish game, wining multiple league and Copa del Rey titles. They soon adopted the nickname ‘Los Leones’ (The Lions) and were the first Spanish club to build a football stadium, which was christened, ‘San Mamés’ (The Cathedral).

The most intriguing yet controversial, aspect of this club is its ‘Cantera’ policy of developing Basque players through their academy. Athletic Bilbao believe that only Basque players should play for the club, which means that the club will only sign players which are native to the Basque region, however over the years this has changed so that players with direct Basque heritage, or who have been developed by a Basque team can now play for the club. This policy has brought about praise but also criticism that it is principally a racist policy.

It is a brave club in today’s modern era of football that sticks to its traditional, romantic policies of recruitment, and does not fully embrace the transfer market and foreign-born players, to benefit the team.

Although it could be argued that this stubbornness to remain true to the traditions of the club has held it back in terms of success. How can the club which has such a small pool of players to recruit from, really be successful both at home and in European competition?

Despite the obvious potential that is not being exploited, this is how the supporters of the club wish it to remain. For the Basque fans of the Basque team, it is the clubs identity that is the most important thing, not footballing success.

In a survey carried out in the 1990’s by ‘El Mundo’, 76% of Bilbao supporters would rather the team were relegated, than give up its ‘cantera’ policy. That’s quite a bold statement of support for the values of the club.

Con Cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion’ which translates, ‘With home grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners’, sums up the arrogant but principled philosophy of the Basque people.

The Basque identity of the club has never been hidden even under the Franco dictatorship.  The club was used as an instrument to glorify and highlight Basque nationalism throughout Franco’s reign. In a bid to undermine the club and others, Franco issued a decree banning the use of non-Spanish language within the name of the club and put an end to the policy of only Basque-born players representing the team. As a result the club changed its name to Athletico Bilbao, and became open to the ‘grandparent ruling’.

Many prominent figures within the club were involved in the Basque political movement, campaigning for nationalism and independence from Franco’s Spain.

In a match between Bilbao and Real Sociedad shortly after the death of Franco in 1975, the captains of both teams, Bilbao’s Jose Angel Iribar and Real’s Inaxio Kortabarria, paraded the illegal Basque national flag onto the pitch. This was the first public display of the Basque symbol since Franco came to power. Soon after this the club reverted back to the name Athletic Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao have won ‘La Liga’ a total of 8 times. They are one of only three teams to have never been relegated from La Liga throughout the leagues history, the other two being Barcelona and Real Madrid. They came runner-up in the UEFA Europa League in 1976-77, and reached the quarterfinal of the UEFA Champions League in 1956-57.

With a new stadium under construction, one of the most talented strikers in Spain, if not Europe, in the Basque born Fernando Llorente, and one of the hottest prospects in Spanish football, Iker Muniain, Athletic Bilbao are a club on the up. They currently sit 8th in La Liga and are comfortable leaders of their Europa league group with 10 points from 4 games.

This is an example of how a football club with such unique history, strict philosophy, political identity, and proud basque culture, can still develop and remain competitive in major competitions.

Could this be a lesson to world football about the power of a clubs beliefs, policies, and youth development, over bought success?

I believe so.

You can follow Louis on Twitter @McCaffrey14.

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Posted in: Europe