The Basque Connection

Bilbao fansThe Basque country is something of a historical relic. The region was never conquered by the Romans and the Basque language, bears no resemblance to any other living language. The Basque people are notorious for doing things their own way and have fought fiercely for decades to protect their local customs from the imposition of Spanish culture.

This independent spirit extends to the region’s biggest football club, Athletic Bilbao. The club, nicknamed Los Leones (“The Lions”), are a unique organisation in world football, having achieved considerable success whilst preserving their core traditions and maintaining close ties to their local community.

Athletic are renowned for their “cantera” policy of only recruiting players who are native Basques or who grew up and trained in the Basque country. The policy has resulted in Bilbao gaining a strong reputation for promoting home grown players and investing in world-class youth development facilities. But, despite this focus on local talent, in its formative years the club owed much to the influence English football .

Athletic are one of the oldest football clubs in Spain thanks to the introduction of the game to the area by English miners and shipyard workers who migrated to Bilbao to work in the region’s flourishing steel industry in the 1890s. These workers, along with Basque elites who had studied in England and developed a taste for football, founded Athletic Club in 1898, the precursor to club as we know it today. The connection with England does not stop there. The club’s famous red and white striped kit was inspired by Southampton’s strip after a student from Bilbao brought back fifty of the Saints’ kits for the club to use. As the colours matched those on the flag of the city, the red and white stripes were adopted as the clubs official colours, and have remained unchanged since 1910.

The club was one of the most successful in Spain during the early years of the Copa del Rey and La Liga, its golden era coming in the 1930s when Les Leones won four league titles and four cups. Much of this success was orchestrated by a string of English managers, including William Garbutt and Fred Pentland. The latter transformed the fortunes of the club by introducing a short passing game, somewhat ironically now, given England’s use of route one football and the Spanish love of Tiki-Taka. In fact, nine of Bilbao’s first 15 managers were English and the connection is kept alive by the use of the anglicised “Athletic” rather than the Spanish “Atlético”.

But, now the tables have turned and English football can learn a great deal from the way Basque club develops local talent and how it maintains its relationship with the local community.

The famed cantera policy operated by the Athletic has undoubtedly ensured that the Basque country has remained one of the powerhouses of Spanish football.  The tiny region has contributed more than its fair share of players to the national team over the years, including past greats such as Telmo Zarra and Andoni Zubizarreta, as well as current stars like Xabi Alonso and Javi Martínez. With so much current criticism being levelled at Premier League clubs for not developing English talent, Bilbao’s example shows that investing in local development and promoting young players through the ranks of the team can have significant long-term benefits for the national team.

Furthermore, Athletic’s recruitment policy hasn’t been to the detriment of their success. The Basque club are one of only three teams in Spain never to have been relegated from La Liga in its 82-year history. They are the fourth most successful side in the league’s history, winning it eight times in total, and have won the Copa del Rey more times than Real Madrid – 23 in total. Success in recent years has been hard to come by and key players like Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez have been prized away with big money moves abroad. But, the club has stuck with its philosophy and the emergence of a number of exciting young players, including Iker Muniain and Manchester United target Ander Herrera, sees Athletic currently battling for a Champions League spot.

As a one club city, Athletic is a uniting force in Bilbao. The city might be known as the home of the Guggenheim museum, but for the locals San Mames, Athletic’s home stadium, is the city’s most important landmark. For exactly 100 years the stadium nicknamed La Catedral (the cathedral) was just that: a centre of worship for the people of Bilbao. So when the club decided to build a brand new 53,000 capacity stadium, rather than uproot the club from its fanbase, they chose to construct a new home next door, quite literally, to the old stadium.

Opened for the start of the 2013 season, the new stadium retains the name San Mames, something many fans of Premier League clubs will look to with envy as their grounds increasingly become permanent adverts for their corporate sponsors. The new San Mames is the antidote to the current taste for sprawling, soulless, corporate modern stadiums, stuck out in an industrial estate out of town. The stadium has managed to retain the atmosphere of the old Cathedral by preserving the roots and spirit of the old ground within the club’s traditional community.

The club’s close bond with the local community and the cantera policy of only playing native Basques has resulted in the team becoming one of the pillars of Basque nationalism. This was particularly true during the repressive Franco era, when regional identities in Spain were stifled and football became one of the only outlets for the Basques to express their identity. Athletic became almost a Basque national team and every victory over Franco’s Real Madrid was celebrated as national victory. In fact, the first time the Basque flag was displayed in public after the death of Franco was when it was carried onto the field by the captains of Bilbao and Basque rivals Real Sociedad before a derby match in 1976.

What keeps Athletic’s identity and connection to the community alive is the club’s organisation. Bilbao is one of only four clubs in Spain owned by its fans. The club’s president is chosen by a popular vote by all club members and finances subject to a number of restrictions designed to maintain long-term stability. The system of fan ownership at Athletic helps keep ticket prices down, prevents owners siphoning off profits and, crucially, gives fans a voice in the management of their teams. This final point is something many English fans have been crying out for.

Critics of the system have argued it limits a club’s ability to raise funds and leads to football electioneering but, the concept of fan ownership is something English football will ignore at its peril. The recent spate of foreign owners in the Premier League has become an increasingly divisive issue with many fans feeling disenfranchised and ignored as out of touch owners run for their own private interests. Siphoning profits, spiraling debts and unpopular changes to clubs’ identities have become too commonplace in the Premier League.

The Premier League may be the self-proclaimed “best league in the world” but the pursuit of profits and winning at all costs are marginalizing fans and the national team. Athletic Bilbao may be a unique club in world football with an unparalleled sense of history, but they have shown that developing local talent, respecting the fans and embracing the local community can be a foundation for genuine success. English football may have played a key role in influencing the Basque club, but now the Premier League could learn much by following their example.

The Author

Buster Stonham

I'm a football and music blogger who writes for Dream Team fantasy football. I enjoy writing about the big issues in football and try to follow the ups and downs in the top European leagues. Follow me on twitter if you like...

27 thoughts on “The Basque Connection

  1. You are more than welcome, I’m really amazed by the unbelievable feedback I’ve had on this article from Athletic fans. I really admire your club and love the Basque country, I have visited Bilbao and Donostia a couple of times, it’s a beautiful part of the world and the people were so friendly.

    I hope one day to see a match at San Mames and experience the atmosphere of the stadium.

  2. Dear Mr. Stonham:

    Thank you very match for writing about The Football Club I supported. The last two lines you wrote are really sublime (“English Football may have played a key role in influencing the Basque club, but now the Premier League could learn much by following their example”).

    You will be welcomed to San Mames!. Is true that Athletic Club smells like genuine England Football!

    Our Football Club is called Athletic Club. We are from Bilbao, yes, of course, but we are only Athletic Club and not Athletic de Bilbao, Athletic Bilbao, Ath. Bilbao …

    Thank you very much Buster Stonham. Proudly one Athletic Club Supporter from Bilbao. Bye bye!!!.

  3. Thx for explaining so well what athletic means… If you are an athletic supporter you are a parte of something unique, and there are so few unique things in live… Other teams make history, athletic makes leyend. God bless you! Aupa athletic!

  4. Wonderful article, Mr. Stonham!!!. Thank you very much from Bilbao. Nowadays it’s really difficult to explain our philosophy out of Bilbao. You can explain people from other Spanish sites what we feel, and why we don’t want to change, but they hardly understand it. They prefer to have players from other countries, and win a lot of titles, instead of having an own identity. But as you told, we are one of the only three teams that have been always in the first league, and after a couple of difficult years, we are again doing it fine.

  5. Thanks for this article Buster!!
    Amazing words about our team, and if you come back to Bilbao anytime, for sure you´re invited to see the match!

  6. Nice article, captures the essence of a club that is unique in the world, thank you very much to teach the world a sentiemiento for which we are very proud.
    Greetings from Bilbao, Aupa Athletic !!! All Iron

  7. Hi
    Great article, thks a lot…from an Athletic season tkt holder since 30 years….The only thing i would say its wrong is that Xabi Alonso never played in any of our teams; his brother Mikel played in the junior team, and Xabi was playing at the same time in the Antiguoko, which had an agreement with us in those past days, (he used to play with Arteta, Iraola, Aduriz..), but he never played with Athletic, as he passed from Antiguoko to Real Sociedad.
    Thks again, and i must say this article is running hand to hand in Bilbao…we appreciate a lot yoru kindly words.
    Very best rgds
    Charlie Zarauz and Gora Athletic !

  8. Nice article, but as always with this stuff, full of lies. Before writting about polytics and Spanish history (even Spanish football history) you should be aware of what you are talking about: basque language was invented in the last century (thats the reason why there is no trace from it). There has never been such imposition of culture to the basques that you merntioned, that’s bullshit. And for the record, during the first 15 years of Francos dictatorship, Real Madrid never won a league, which may lead to think that they were not ”franco’s team”, huh? It seem obvious to me that Franco start to like Madrid when they started winning Europe Cups in the mid 50s, taking Spains name through the World. Im sick of hearing this, you may want a lesson on history (or perhaps even two) before talking about stuff you don’t know about.

  9. Borja, i think that your spanish nacionalism makes you a little close of mind. The basque language is one of the oldest languages in the world, and that is a scientific fact. Be a little more happy in your life, the anger is not good at all.

  10. Maybe the one that need a history lesson is you, Borja. In my view, he has made a really good summary about the Athletic’s history. The fact is that people like you defending that there have not been any spanish culture imposition(WTF???) or saying that our language was invented in the last century (WTF???x1000) demostrate you are the kind of suporter that make us blush. The Athletic Club is understood with the history that is written in this article and that is what make us special, without it we are only a club that plays with players from around. I recomend you studiying a little bit about “your team” history and if you don´t like it you can change your team to real madrid or atletico de madrid, I think you would be so much prouder of your new spanish team.

  11. Hi Carlos, thanks for your comment. I’m so happy you enjoyed the article and that real Athletic fans have seen it and appreciated my admiration for your club.

    On your comment about Xabi Alonso, the point I was trying to make (probably not that clearly) is that The Basque country as a region has produced some of the finest players for the Spanish national team, so I was using examples of players from other clubs as well as Athletic. Sorry for not making myself so clear.

    Good luck for the rest of the season, I hope to see Bilbao in the Champions League next season. Aupa Athletic!

  12. This article is very beautifull and great for me. Athletic for the basque countries people is the mosr exciting hobby. I am a hooligan of athletic. Thnk you for the article

  13. Great Article…. thanks a lot for expressing in words, what our club is and how present is in our everyday mood…. only one small detail… I am pretty sure Xabi Alonso never played for Athletic Bilbao (unless he did so at a junior age..), when speaking of nowadays international players (where you mentioned Javi Martinez) maybe you ment Fernando Llorente or Andoni Iraola… Nevertheless, very interesting article of Athletic Bilbao from a outsiders view.

  14. OK… I just read your reply to another reader on the the Xabi Alonso comment… and you are right.. you mentioned “the tiny region” instead of the team in that phrase.. sorry for that.. looks like I read too quickly… :)

  15. Great one. Just a small remark: the basque country area was in fact Romanized. It was the islamic moors and visigoths the ones who never got here.

  16. I think it was Scholes who recently said too that English clubs should take example from Athletic Club’s recruiting policy. Well I totally agree. That’s enough paying millions for foreign players when it’s obvious that if you invest in your local players and train them hard they can turn into football stars. And if you care as well about your supporters you got just the perfect combo. That’s why I love Athletic Club.

  17. The premier league might be the most competitive in and of itself but the quality of football in la liga is superior. Atletic Bilbao easily knocked Man U out of the Europa league a few years back-Man U won their league while atletic finished around 7th in la liga.

  18. Nice Post!! Congratulations! AUPA ATHLETIC!

    Athletic, Athletic, Athletic eup!
    Athletic, gorri ta zuria
    danontzat zara zu geuria
    Erritik sortu ziñalako
    maite zaitu erriak

    Gaztedi gorri-zuria
    zelai orlegian
    Euskalerriaren erakusgarria.
    Zabaldu daigun guztiok
    Irrintzi alaia:
    Athletic, Athletic
    zu zara nagusia
    Altza Gaztiak

    Athletic, Athletic,
    gogoaren Indarra.
    Aritz zarraren enborrak
    loratu dau orbel barria.

    Aupa mutilak!
    aurrera gure gaztiak!
    Bilbo ta Bizkai guztia
    goratu bedi munduan
    Aupa mutilak!
    gora beti Euskalerria!
    Athletic gorri-zuria

    Bilbo ta Bizkai guztiak gora!
    Euskaldun zintzoak aurrera!

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