Athletic Bilbao was crowned the Champions of the Spanish Super Cup 2021, beating mighty Barcelona in the final. What’s more impressive is that the team had beaten another ‘big boy’ Real Madrid just three days earlier to progress to the final. Beating the two Spanish giants within such a short span of time would be a matter of great pride for many big clubs around the globe, let alone Athletic Bilbao.
Bilbao is a special club, if not for their brand of football, but surely for their recruitment policy. Football clubs around the world can buy any player they want during the transfer market. This is not so much the case for Athletic Club.
Athletic Bilbao is based in the Basque region of Spain. The club follows an unwritten rule which is they only sign players who were born in the Basque region or learned their football skills at a Basque club. This limits the club to only a small pool of players to select their transfer targets from.
Imagine some of the biggest clubs in the world were to follow such a policy. There would be no Ronaldo or Zidane in the history of Real Madrid. Ronaldinho would never have become a Barcelona player in the first place. One would think such a transfer policy would harm the club due to the lack of options.
Yet, Athletic Bilbao remains one of the three Spanish clubs alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona to never face relegation. The club has won eight La Ligas titles, the fourth-highest in Spain. They have 23 Copa del Reys titles under their belt, second only to Barcelona and three Spanish Super Cups. Bilbao boasts a playing squad that hails from the Basque region – and stands as the area’s most successful football club in terms of cups and league titles.
Nicknamed Los Leones (The Lions), the club has been following this policy since 1912. The policy extends across all branches of the club, including their reserves, their feeder team CD Basconia, the youth teams, and the women’s team. The exceptions are the managers and the backroom staff, who are composed of people outside the Basque region.
The fans take great pride in the idea that the players are representing the Basque culture, not only on a national stage but on a continental level too. The club’s motto, ‘Con cantera y afición, no hacefaltaimportación,’ meaning ‘with homegrown talent and local support, there is no need for imports,’ holds as much importance as it did 108 years ago.
Los Leones’ focus to have Basque-only players has meant that the players understand the importance of playing for the club and what every game means to the supporters. The club has a sense of nationalistic pride- wearing the shirt and representing the badge has much more meaning to these players. This very sense of pride pushes the players the extra mile to perform on the pitch.
The ‘Basque only’ policy has a lot of implications as well. The policy basically restricts Bilbao from buying any player without connection to Basque. As a result, the club is reluctant to let go of its players in the first place. Clubs who want Bilbao players need to pay a hefty fee in order to get them.
Thus, transfers such as- Ander Herrera to Manchester United, Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich and Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea were all big-money moves. The money that the club gets from selling players goes directly to the development of the grass root system. For Bilbao, the relationship between the player and the city is a sacred one-they would rather keep the player than sell him for a hefty fee.
The advantage of this policy is that it saves money. Athletic’s biggest signing, for instance, is the €32 million valued defender Inigo Martinez in January 2018; a fairly modest record in today’s transfer market.
It goes hand-in-hand with the healthy promotion of home-grown talent, club loyalty and moderate Basque nationalism by helping to uphold the region’s identity. Even if it puts a lid on the club’s ambition in terms of tangible success, they would rather do it this way, and it seems that few supporters have any complaints against this policy.
The writer is an undergraduate student studying at Dhaka University. [email protected]