Athletic Club and Basque nationalism are intertwined.
As in the case with other groups in Spain, independence and nationalism take root in people’s lives. Take, for example, Catalonia. The northeast portion of Spain is an autonomous government. This means that, more or less, they own relative independence from Spain. Granted, the area is still inside the country of Spain, but in many ways it seems like its own nation.
The Basque country is similar in many ways. One of the northern autonomous communities of Spain, the Basque country does not fall into the stereotypical picture of Spain.
The Basque Country and Catalonia differ significantly in one way in particular. Their international appeal and historical significance. Barcelona and Catalonia are economically and socially vibrant. They want to bring things to the world both domestically and internationally.
The Basque Country wants to ensure domestic prosperity above all. Promoting Basque identities, culture and success to ensure autarky.
This philosophy propagates through one of the major soccer clubs in the area, Athletic Club. Basque nationalism and Athletic Club go hand-in-hand. Many people now know the Basque team for their strict policies regarding what players they field.
Moreover, the rule generally goes that the club only plays athletes born in the Basque Country or players who came up through Basque youth systems. This rule causes dilemmas every so often regarding some players’ eligibilities to play for Athletic Club.
This is a deep-rooted tradition. It demonstrates Athletic Club and Basque nationalism, but also how to run a club without the same opportunities as those with significant money.
Athletic Club and Basque heritage
Athletic Bilbao did not always resort to only using players rooted in the area. Early photos of the club show the last time true internationals played for Los Leones. In fact, early on in their existence, Bilbao welcomed English players. They believed that the sport came from England, so the best players come from England.
However, in 1912, officials accused Athletic Club of fielding ineligible players in a cup match. With their title temporarily stripped, Bilbao protested and adopted a new motto.
Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación.
In English, this translates to “with home-grown talent and support, there is no need for imports.”
In many ways, this reflects the political ideology of the Basque Country. Athletic Club and Basque nationalism promote the idea that belief and support domestically can allow a community or group to thrive.
Fans of Athletic Club hold their Basque identity so dear that many would rather the club see relegation than lose their tradition. A symbol of independence in an increasingly international game.
Fortunately for the club and its supporters, the club is one of three to never be relegated from Spain’s top division. They hold that honor with the two giants of the league, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Throughout its history, Athletic Club resembled the Basque Country and the independent nature of the region. The other major club in the Basque Country, Real Sociedad, followed a similar policy up until 1989, when they signed John Aldridge from Liverpool.
Still, the policy hinders the club from acquiring any player on the market.
Success without massive transfers
Athletic Club holds a unique opportunity that almost every other club in Europe does not have. Most of the time, the club does not reuse incoming transfer money to buy players. This means that Athletic Club hold all the bargaining power when making deals. Essentially, the club has no reason to sell a player for less than the contract’s release clause.
Most money acquired through transfers, including recent departures such as Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea for $88 million, is spent on upgrading the youth academy. Albeit, some money is used on transfers, including the acquisition of Yuri Berchiche from Paris Saint Germain for $26.4 million.
Many former players say the money is merely an added bonus to an already stable, and profitable, club.
“We don’t really need the money,” Josu Urrutia, a former midfielder and seven-year President of Athletic Club, said.
Still, the youth academy harbors the majority of the club’s successes. And, considering the relatively limited pool of players to choose from, Athletic Club’s recent success is impressive.
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Remember that Athletic Club and Basque players are a tandem. For one, the club is still in the top division, having never been relegated. In 2012, Bilbao reached the UEFA Europa League Final, losing to Atletico Madrid. The club then went on a run of four-straight seasons of European competition. Their most successful venture came through a quarterfinals appearance in 2015/16.
Domestically, Athletic Club ranks fourth all-time in LaLiga championships with eight. The club won 23 Copa del Rey titles in their history, good for second all-time to just FC Barcelona’s 31. And, in terms of recent success, Athletic Club holds the Supercopa de España. Los Leones beat FC Barcelona to claim their third title in the competition.
Promotion through academy and discrimination claims
All the aforementioned success from Athletic Club and Basque players is admirable. It is more impressive when taking into account the circumstances. Athletic Club grows their players through the academy. It is rare to see a player at the San Mamés Stadium in red and white not be of Basque heritage.
The club is a sense of pride for the youth. Many consider it the highest honor to represent the Basque country through Athletic Club.
Lezama, the club’s youth academy, continually pumps out first-team players. Due to recent success, European clubs bought a handful of the better talents. However, that only speaks to the potential and power of the youth academy.
The message behind Lezama is to promote not only players, but also professionals and humans for Athletic Club and Basque country.
“Athletic Club counts on a vast array of talented individuals to ensure our young players are given an all-round education which prepares them not only for the elite level of football but for life in general,” reads the club’s website.
An honorable deed, but one that draws some ire. Soccer is a progressive sport for much of the world. For better and worse, the Basque country is not a popular spot for immigrants.
The people in the Basque Country are not racist, it simply speaks to their independent ideology.
Still, Athletic Club was the last club to field a black player. Remarkably, this did not happen until 2011, when Ramalho made a substitute appearance for the club. Four years later, Iñaki Williams became the first black goal-scorer for the club.
Athletic Club and Basque culture’s consistency of success is exceptional, but shall be tested as the game becomes dominated by big money.
Author: Kyle Fansler