Athletic Bilbao – More Than a Club
January 12, 2011 3 Comments
Athletic Bilbao are the last team in modern football that can honestly claim to be a team of local players. Resisting the sweeping globalisation in football, this proud Basque club has maintained it’s policy of only selecting players born and bred in the Basque country. This policy has elicited much debate, gaining many admirers as well as critics, and makes Athletic a uniquely fascinating club.
Athletic are one of the oldest and most successful clubs in Spain. Formed in 1928 (only Recreativo de Huelva are older), the club has since won eight national championships and twenty-three king’s cups. Only two teams have bigger trophy cabinets: Real Madrid and Barcelona. Along with these two, Athletic are the only club in Spain never to be relegated. However, with the rapid globalisation of football since the Bosman ruling, Los Leones have been somewhat left behind due to their la cantera philosophy. The last league title came in 1984, and since then the club has been mired in mediocrity. However, to judge this club in pure footballing terms is to miss the point.
Athletic is a symbol of Basque nationalism and pride. Supporting them is a like a religion for the Basque people, with their stadium San-Mamés dubbed as ‘The Cathedral’. The club has a political role as well, with fans often portraying Basque separatist slogans and singing anti Spanish songs. However, Basque radicals are in the minority, and the fans can create an incredible atmosphere. As Phil Ball writes in his book Morbo: the Story of Spanish Football “The atmosphere was unlike anything I have experienced before or since. . . this club is special. Outside the ground that night I saw acts of friendliness and goodwill that would have brought a lump to the throat of the hardest football cynic”.This special atmosphere is created by the fans strong feelings of nationalistic pride, with Athletic playing a major role in Basque identity.
‘Més que un club‘, the famous ‘more than a club’ slogan of FC Barcelona. There are many similarities between Barca and Athletic: both represent a large city in the heart of a region seeking independence (Catalonia in the Barcelona case), both are among Spain’s first clubs, both have an avid crowd that is happy to mix politics with sports, expressing support for separation through the team and both believe in bringing through local players through to the first team. However, Barca have used many foreign players and spent much money to build their success. As pointed out in this article, they are just like all modern clubs. It may have cost them some footballing success, but Athletic have stuck rigidly to their principles. The more football moves on, the stronger the sense of identity and pride the club fosters.
The exclusively Basque players policy has certainly had it’s critics, with many labelling it discriminatory and xenophobic. However this is simply not true. The club was founded by Englishmen, and almost prefers foreign managers and coaches to guide their youngsters. Rather than a ‘no foreigners’ policy it is a ‘only home-grown’ one, and though the difference may seem subtle, it is all the difference in the world. It may be anachronistic, but the la cantera philosophy is certainly not racist. In pure footballing terms it seems like insanity. In the modern climate, where you can pay foreign players less than their homegrown counterparts, to play better football it doesn’t make sense economically either. Te club has suffered on the pitch from the policy, going from one of Spain’s most successful teams to mid-table/ occasional relegation battlers side. However is winning really that important? Even if Athletic were to renounce their policy, they would never break the monopoly that Real and Barca exert on La Liga, at best they could hope for a cup and a European place, surely not worth renouncing the clubs admirable ethos. Incredibly, in a survey carried out by El Mundo, 76% of the Athletic fans said that they would rather see Athletic relegated to the Second Division than allow the club to give up the tradition of la cantera. This portrays how, at this special club, pride, respect and identity are realised to be more important than the fleeting success on the pitch.While Barca claim to be ‘more than a club’, Athletic truly are. In the words of Athletic president Jose Maria Arrate ‘Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it is a feeling and as such its ways of operating often escape rational analysis. We see ourselves as unique in world football and this defines our identity.’
In this modern footballing age of agents, commercialisation and multi million deals for foreign stars, Athletic are a throwback to a more romantic time in football. Athletic was the last club in Spain’s Primera División to allow perimeter advertising boards in its stadium. Athletic’s players still wear jerseys with no advertising, and the team continues to adamantly refuse to become a publicly traded company, a standard shared by only three other teams in the Primera División. To quote Phil Ball again, “The ground, smart though it is, is like some throwback to a happier, sepia-tinted football era. As you take your seat… you seem to be transported back to the days of rattles, cloth caps, steaming hot mugs of tea, mud, rain, and a hard but appreciative working-class audience” The antithesis of modern football’s cynical greed, Athletic are the last bastion of hope for the romantic Basque ideal.
by Ryan Murphy