Spanish Inquisition: Athletic Bilbao - Football’s Last Romantics

Ahead of Wednesday's Copa del Rey final,'s Subhankar Mondal explores a unique tradition followed by Basque giants Athletic Bilbao.....

Con cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion: With home-grown talent and local support, you don't need foreigners. This saying might seem like arrogance bordering on chauvinism, but it is what has kept Athletic Bilbao alive for over a century. For the Basque giants self-reliance and self-sustenance have always been lofty ideals that they have followed so religiously since their birth. So much so that in their 111 years of history the Basque giants have not signed any player outside their own parish, except Bixente Lizarazu (who is in any case from the French side of the Basque Country. To many Basques this is one and the same with the Spanish side, after all...)

The Basque country is said to treat everyone non-Basque as a foreigner. Anyone outside the 3 million Basque inhabitants who cannot get a grasp of the Euskera language is treated indifferently. The Basques, like the Catalans, have their own language, their own culture, their own history and more importantly their own pride that they are never willing to abnegate. And they have their own club, officially known as Athletic Club, unofficially as Athletic Bilbao.

Okay, they do have Real Sociedad (and Osasuna over in Navarre) but since La Real’s official abandonment of the Basque-only policy in 1989 when they signed John Aldridge, it's been Athletic Bilbao who have been the flagship of a ‘country’ that is strictly anti-Spanish and where Spain's Euro 2008 triumph was taken with a dose of reluctance. Formed in 1898 Bilbao have always had a policy of playing only with players of Basque nationality - and if you are wondering that this is naiveté inching towards the insane, then you are both right and wrong.

Athletic Bilbao are statistically one of Spain’s four biggest clubs with eight league titles and 24 Copa del Reys. Also, along with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Los Leones are the only club who have never played outside the Spanish top-flight. Formed by British workers from Sunderland and Southampton who came to work in the steel and shipbuilding industries, Bilbao have always been a club that has been dedicated to promoting young players. Their countryside training ground Lezama was once the production centre of Spain’s finest, such as Piru Gainza, Sarabia, Javi Clemente, Julen Guerrero and Rafael Moreno (people know him better as Pichichi).

The strange thing is that there is no official rule that Bilbao have to play with only Basque players; it's simply a footballing philosophy that they follow, just as Barcelona so obsessively follow the Cruyffian ‘Total Football’ philosophy. And it gives them a sense of belongingness, a sense of familial atmosphere. When captain Joseba Etxeberria says that they "identify more with the club than other players; we’re not mercenaries who join one team one year and another the next”, it is hard not to agree with him; no other club in Spain or in Europe can aim to boast such a tradition that is so fiercely deep that next season Etzeberria would play for the club for free.

The Bilbao followers too adhere to this policy. San Mames’ 37,000 or so faithful do not want to lose this unique identity and would rather see their team in the Segunda Division than win the league on the back of signing “mercenaries”. Their joy at watching their very own rise through the ranks of the Basque country's biggest club and don the colours of what they believe to be the most important club in Spain is unconfined.

Admittedly in recent times the interpretation of Basque-ness has been made more flexible. Now anyone who has acquired his football training in the Basque country can play for Bilbao, irrespective of his country of birth. Which gave license to Bilbao to sign the Brazilian born Patxi Ferreira and to try and convince players from other canteras of Basque clubs to join them. Which allowed former coach Luis Fernandez to lead Bilbao to second in the league in the late 1990s.

These days Bilbao boast of players such as Usraritz, Carlos Gurpegi, Aduriz, Francisco Yeste and Fernando Llorente, who is a Spain international. Bilbao take on the mighty FC Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday and although the Catalans would be favourites to win, the fact that a team comprising only Basques have come so far in a major club competition is an achievement in itself.

Yet the inadequacies of this ‘Basque-only policy’ are very apparent. Way back in 1928 when the Spanish league was established, according to data in the Spanish daily AS, 56% of the footballers in Spain were Basques; now it’s less than 10%. These days football is run, often overrun, by money; and Bilbao don't have that, the departure of Asier del Horno serving as a prime example.

Bilbao’s last major success came in 1984 when they won the league and the Cup, and although they finished second in La Liga in 1998, they have more or less failed to be more than a passenger in the 20-team Spanish first division in recent years. In 2006-2007 the Rojiblancos staved off relegation only on the final day of the season.

Yet the tradition remains alive even though it’s getting harder and harder for the club to sustain itself based on this noble but perhaps utopian principle. Outsiders have admired this philosophy and Italians have done a study on it; but many have deemed the policy to be foolish. Which it might well be, but Bilbao are an exclusive club, football’s last remaining romantics.

The Leones (Lions) have survived for over 100 years. But the jungles are rapidly shrinking in the 21st century and the lion is an endangered species. How long can football’s last romantics survive without following an un-romantic route?

Subhankar Mondal,

Check out our Basque country video, brought to us by our friends at Carlsberg.