Every football fan appreciates the romance of Athletic Bilbao's Basque only rule but how long can it last?
Athletic Bilbao is a club that embodies the notion of non-conformity, seeking to position itself on the periphery of the modern game. This is inextricably linked to the adoption of a Basque-only player rule, la cantera (the quarry). The club has been eulogised by fans and the media alike for this staunch and unwavering grass-roots policy, but the idea of a club and supporters able to identity with solely local players isn’t as clear cut as it seems, something Athletic’s fellow Basque clubs are clear to point out.
The European Court of Justice Bosman ruling in 1995, which gave professional football players working in the European Union more freedom to move between clubs polarised Athletic’s unique policy. It would be naïve to suggest that nervous glances by the directors of the club towards the transfer activity of other European clubs, La Liga teams in particular, didn’t occur. Yet despite this, the club remained resolute in its philosophy. It would be unthinkable for those associated with Athletic to take any other stance and adopt the one thing they all fear: an Athletic Bilbao team comprising foreigners.
Although the official club documents were not signed until 1901; supporters of the club recognise 1898 as the founding date, the football club born from the efforts of British steel and shipyard workers, along with Basque students returning home after studying in Britain. It was not until 1912 before the club adopted its Basque only policy.
Athletic Club’s cantera is a successful one and with the exception of Real Madrid, the Bilbao side has produced more players for the Spanish national team than any other; Fernando Llorente, among others. This constant conveyor belt of talent has even led the club to adopt an unprecedented transfer policy whereby their youth players are offered semi-professional contracts with large release clauses, the aim of which is to stop larger European clubs swooping for the best of the young Basque talent.
But the cantera when viewed from an Athletic Club perspective is ambiguous and has adapted over time to meet the requirements of a modern day football club. On the surface, the club claims to only sign players from the greater Basque Country, numbering roughly 3 million inhabitants. These include those from the areas of Biscay; Gúipuzcoa, Álava, Navarre, Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre.
The club is facing difficulties finding new talent in the region, a fact not helped by the area having one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. The net had been widened to accommodate applicable others and Athletic has worked hard to develop links with around 150 partner clubs in the region, building a system of feeder teams which guarantees Athletic the right of first refusal for the best young players in the region in return for financial backing. Athletic now also use a database to search for players with Basque roots of which there is a considerable number in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia so much so that the idea of developing football training schools in Latin America for the Diaspora has been considered.
The descendants of immigrants to the region can also play for the club, a fact evident when looking at the surnames of some of the players who have graced the side during the last century. With such a limited population at the club’s disposal it would be foolish to close the door to the sons of the thousands of migrants who came to the region. Issues of purity still remain within certain elements of the support and this embrace of the maketos – those descended from immigrants – hasn’t always pleased everybody, nor will it.
Atheltic’s definition of what defines a Basque is certainly a complex one, leading many to ask questions of its cantera philosophy, which has relaxed on a perennial basis. It would appear that the definition of what constitutes a Basque is left open to debate by the club and its thousands of members.
David López Moreno comes from Logroño, La Rioja, very much a part of flag-waving Spain - in 2007 the local government was chastised for providing secondary school pupils with literature criticising elements of the Basque culture and illustrating the merits of Franco - while Mario Bermejo, a player who graced the club for four seasons was born in Santander, Cantabria. Llorente, too, is debatable as he was born in Pamplona, with many arguing that because he grew up the municipality of Rincón de Soto; he is indeed from La Rioja, although this is clearly a tenuous claim.
Even more questionable was the inclusion of the now retired Ismael Urzaiz Aranda from Tudela, Southern Navarre. While Navarre remains one of the outlined seven Basque provinces, it is included in what’s often referred to as the ‘Southern Basque Country’. The Basque country term is ambiguous as it may or may not include Navarre, whereas the Basque-derived term invariably includes the regions. This fact is often ignored when Athletic pick the best players from the area.
The draw of Athletic’s Lezama training facility, around 10 kilometres from Bilbao, is undoubtedly a major pull for young players. It contains four standard-size natural grass pitches, two artificial turf pitches, a gymnasium, medical centre and an accommodation block. The state-of-the-art training compound sits at the heart of Athletic’s cantera philosophy: it’s the foundations of the club and the major artery which keeps the club going, Athletic of course being much more reliant than others on the successes of its youth system.
When bringing Real Sociedad into the fray, the water becomes muddied further. The friction between Athletic and Real Sociedad wasn’t helped in 1995 when Athletic signed Joseba Etxberria, a product of Real Sociedad’s youth system who had progressed through the ranks. It is perhaps another example of Athletic poaching players from the canteras of other Basque clubs leading to an understandable ill feeling.
Despite this however, in the early 2000s, Real Sociedad could still claim to have had more regional players from their cantera than their westerly neighbours in Bilbao, as opposed to Athletic’s (debatable) Basque country approach. This is even more of a feat when you consider that Sociedad dropped its Basque-only policy in the 1980s, the catalyst of which was the transfer of John Alridge from Liverpool. A failure to compete with money-rich Athletic was part of the reason, as was the most talented players of the region ending up in Bilbao from annual swoops.
While things are more financially balanced in the region now, Athletic had long been the economic powerhouse prior to hitting financial difficulties, leading to the belief that the region’s best players should join their ranks. Like Real Sociedad, CA Osasuna can too have their gripes. The success of the Spanish national youth side led to Athletic making a successful approach for Pablo Orbaiz, a stand-out during tournament’s and Osasuna player at that time. It seems that Athletic’s quarry can stretch beyond that of the neighbouring clubs. This attitude has diminished the other canteras of the region, something not forgotten by the Basque clubs.
Athletic Bilbao forms an integral part of Spanish football history and is one of Europe’s cult clubs – it is truly special - and to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous and unfair. Bilbao is a football city with a large number of members within the Bay of Biscay region and those on the season ticket waiting list will be waiting a long time. The San Mamés Stadium, built in 1913, is known locally as the ‘cathedral,’ a place to worship; where the football is pure and good, with a sepia-tinged ambience harking back to the game of old. However, the motto -
‘Con Cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion’ which translates, ‘With home grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners’
- is certainly open to debate, particularly when you look at the distinct lack of Bilbao-based cantera graduates who have made the first team squad over the years, something which undoubtedly lessens the ‘strength in locality’ message.
The likes of Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez and the aforementioned Fernando Llorente may all see moves to the English Premier League or elsewhere in the summer transfer market. While purely speculative at the moment, any transfer activity out of the club would be extremely lucrative for Athletic. Of the three, Herrera is the only player born in Bilbao, rising from the youth system of Real Zaragoza. Martínez was signed from Osasuna’s youth system while the ambiguity of Llorente’s ‘Basqueness’ has already been outlined.
The ‘local support’ element as outlined in the motto, or the reliance on the various canteras of the region has in part given Athletic its strong backbone and influence in Spanish football, something those involved with Real Sociedad and Osasuna know all to their cost. Despite the rigours of contemporary football, Athletic's resolute stance looks set to continue, as will the wary looks of resentment from San Sebastian and Osasuna.