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Not a day seems to go by without further signs of the globalisation of football, whether it’s FC Barcelona and Manchester United trying to crack the United States, or Real Madrid expanding their reach in Asia and beyond. The disconnect between local fans and their beloved clubs seems to show no sign of slowing down.
However, on the northern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao is a club swimming against the tide. Ever since the British came to work on the shipyards of Bilbao and brought football with them, the city has become the epicentre of football growth across the region. The club was formed in 1898 under the name of Bilbao Football Club by a group of students who had been studying in England. Although this is disputed by some who claim a meeting in the Café Garcia, in 1901, marks the true year of the birth of Athletic Bilbao. Nevertheless, the football romantics will claim the more spontaneous action of playing the game rather than holding a meeting should be the root of any club.
In the complicated world of the Basque Country, football and nationalism have fed off each other. In fact, Jose Antonio Aguirre – a name I’m sure not many people outside the Basque region would have heard of – played for Athletic in the 1920’s before becoming the first President of a genuine Basque government.
Furthermore, under the dictatorships of Miguel Primo De Rivera (1923-1930) and Francisco Franco (1939-1975), public displays of regional nationalism were brutally suppressed. Such as speaking in the Basque language (Euskara), exhibiting the Ikurrina (Basque flag) or promoting any regional literature. Under Franco the club had its name Spanish-ised to Atletico Bilbao. It was under these two periods that the Basque nationalistic movement went underground and it was only at their football stadium the San Mames where people could display their Basque identity for ninety minutes, before returning to begrudging conformity.
Despite these difficult circumstances, this helped drive the identity of the Athletic Bilbao we see today. With their eight La Liga titles, twenty three Copa Del Rey triumphs (yes that is four more than Real Madrid) and being one of three clubs never to be relegated from Spain’s top flight, there seems little interest to grow into a global money making juggernaut. The unique way in which they operate is straight forward, if you’re not Basque or haven’t been raised in the Basque region there is no chance of donning the famous red and white stripes. That’s a population of three million people, a third of the size of London.
This youth policy, known as the ‘cantera’, which simply translates as ‘quarry’ – has been in place since 1912 and has produced numerous players for the national team (second only to Real Madrid). There is no written rule which stops them going out to sign the next Brazilian superstar, which in this day and age makes this decision even more remarkable. In a region that has historically been associated with independence from Spain, the cantera is a source of pride for Basques and fans of Athletic alike, and a factor which preserves and promotes their proud Basque heritage. Just look at the empathy shown towards Harry Kane at Spurs when it comes to the feeling fans have towards a home grown player – now imagine a whole squad of Harry Kane’s – that’s what Athletic have.
It wasn’t just Athletic that implemented this cantera policy, their Basque neighbours 100 kilometres to the east in San Sebastian, Real Sociedad, also adopted this strategy, but abandoned it in 1989 when they signed John Aldridge from Liverpool for ‘competitive reasons’. A somewhat frosty relationship was then created between the clubs, with Sociedad accusing their neighbours of poaching their most talented youth players – Jose Etxeberria being the most famous and controversial.
Since 1978 the Basque Country has been acknowledged as an autonomous region within the state of Spain. However, it is not just within the borders of Spain that Bilbao limit their scouting, as the Basque country spills over the Pyrenees Mountains into the south west of France. It is this geographical boundary which has allowed current centre back Aymeric Laporte and former World Cup winning full back Bixente Lizarazu to represent the club.
The exclusiveness of this policy is not without its critics and has even, in the past, been labelled xenophobic, so over the years, this approach has been tweaked and become more progressive. Take the example of Inaki Williams who became the first ever black player to score for the club, in a Europa League tie against Torino in February 2015. His mother is Ghanaian and father is Liberian, with no Basque heritage. However, Williams was born and raised in Bilbao and is idolised by the fans, showing that race is no barrier when it comes to representing Athletic Club – it is only heritage that counts.
The bond of community which is shared between the people of Bilbao and their football club shows no sign of breaking down. Perhaps, as seasons pass by without trophies being added to the cabinet, the voices of the critics from the outside will grow more confident in their opposition towards the cantera policy.
Here’s hoping this tradition lasts for a long time to come and Basque children are able to continue to dream of one day proudly pulling on the famous red and white stripes of this unique club. As it is here where identity and values are number one, and mega profits appear to be of a secondary importance. For Athletic Bilbao winning is seeing eleven Basques represent their club every weekend.