Basque And Proud: Athletic Bilbao Are Sticking To Its Roots And It's Paying Off

In an era of global football, Bilbao are doing things differently
16:00, 22 Dec 2019

As football becomes an increasingly globalised community, with clubs chasing a global audience, a loss of connection with their core base is a frequent criticism.

A maintenance of this relationship between fan bases and their community can be the defining factor in their survival, particularly if they are unable to create a sustainable non-local base.

Clubs from across Europe have endured differing results when expanding into new markets, with only the elite sides making a sustained impact.

The reality for clubs outside the top ten in Europe is that a system of pragmatic expansion is healthy to avoid stagnation, but a constant link between the club and community is essential.

La Liga side Athletic Bilbao have blazed a trail in this regard, fusing a bridge between the club and their fans, built on maintaining and promoting Basque players and the unique culture of the area.

Athletic Club were a founder member of La Liga in 1929, enjoying a period of early dominance, winning four of the first seven championships, prior to the ensuing domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid.  

The club have enshrined the principle of using local players, from across the region, within a policy that has lasted over a century.

The cantera structure at the club meant that only players from Bilbao and surrounding areas, including Biscay, Alava, Navarre and Gipuzkoa and parts of southern France, could play for the team.

Due to their successes at the start of La Liga and continued stability either side of the pre and post WWII eras, the policy was maintained. 

Supporters took pride in the fact the squad was made up of local players, particularly at a time where Basque nationalism was under continued threat from Francoism in the country.

The club conceded to name change, in 1941, by order of General Franco, becoming Atletico Bilbao, but refused to bend to pressure on their Basque-only policy.

They returned to Athletic in the late 1970s, with their stance on players emboldened by the fall of Franco and the success of Javier Clemente’s side in the early 80s.

Whilst the policy had always existed in an unwritten sense, the club took the bold step in 2008, of formalising it the club’s rulebook.

Ironically it is from this point that criticism of their position began to increase, with fellow Basque side Real Sociedad moving in the opposite direction in terms of a new open-door policy.

Calls of hypocrisy and rule-bending were levelled at the club, over the famous case of Aymeric Laporte.

The Manchester City defender had no links to the Basque area of France, and was recruited by the club via the back door route of playing for a youth side in the area – Aviron Bayonnais.

This was viewed as double-standards by critics of the policy, who claimed the spirit of the policy was no longer being adhered to, and it should be scrapped due to its discriminatory edge.

The club refused to change tack, despite pressure from La Liga, citing that the negativity came from rival clubs, and in particular neighbours Sociedad. 

There has also been a sustained movement to eradicate accusations of racism within the policy, by including Basque-born mixed ethnicity players including Jonas Ramalho, Inaki Williams and Yuri Berchiche in recent seasons.

The argument was raised again in January 2019, after Bosnian international Kenan Kodro signed for the club from FC Copenhagen.

However, his signing was ratified by being born in San Sebastien, moving away as a teenager. 

The club has arguably found ways around their own policy, ranging from bringing Basque born players back to taking advantage of the local club training loopholes, to adapt with the changing demands of La Liga football. 

But despite the seeming dilution of their fervent cultivation of local players, the reality is much closer to an intelligent reaction to criticism and a sustainable plan for the future of the club.

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