The most unique philosophy in football started with an accusation, a protest and a fit of pique. It also began with a couple of Englishmen who shouldn’t have been there, or so it goes. Messrs. Sloop and Martin (full names unknown) were in the Athletic Club team that won the Copa del Rey in Getxo in 1911 and that wasn’t right, their opponents said. They were pretty much ringers, the charge had it: neither man had resided in Spain for the requisite two years that would make them eligible to play, and so there were demands that their opening match against Fortuna Vigo be made null and void and the players kicked out.
That didn’t happen, not yet, but plenty did. Real Sociedad pulled out of the competition completely in protest. Then Español and the Valladolid Cavalry Academy, who knew that the winner would face Athletic in the final, refused to play their semi. That’s one version of the story, at least, although it’s not entirely confirmed and, having presumably changed their minds later, Español did play the final. Athletic won it and the complaints continued. The entire competition was annulled then reinstated. Eventually the federation ruled that teams could only field three foreigners and they had to have been residents for three years.
Feeling accusing fingers pointing their way, Athletic reacted, something to prove. Oh, that’s the way you want it? That’s the way you can have it, then. Three foreigners? How about none?! And never mind Spaniards, they’re all from Vizcaya. A kind of: we’ll show them. And they did too. No foreigner played for them ever again.
It might have started as a bit of a huff, chest out in umbrage, but it became historic. Pride often comes before a fall but this was the best thing they ever did. That was the origins of an approach that evolved over the years, reaching expression in the 1958 Copa when an Athletic side known as The Eleven Villagers, an entire team of locals, defeated Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid who had been European champions three years running. Usually known as a Basque-only policy, they have followed it for over a century, the sense of connection to its community profound.
No one else does it, Chivas in Mexico the only club that’s similar; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that no one else could do it either. Still less so now; every club has an identity, tries to construct one, but building an approach so deeply integrated into and intertwined with its surroundings, its society, surely couldn’t be done, not like this. It takes time to write a story like this and few places that could allow for it like the Basque Country does, expressed not just by Athletic but the other clubs there. Saturday’s derby against Real Sociedad will underline that.
Even if one day it failed, the policy is not for changing, entirely non-negotiable, as Ander Herrera recently told ESPN. “I had this conversation the other day with the physios, people who have been here for ever. I’ve asked: ‘What do you prefer? Change the philosophy or have Athletic get relegated to the second division one year?’ And the response was unanimous: go down. You can’t lose that philosophy because that’s what makes the club special.”
And it hasn’t failed, far from it. In 125 years, Athletic never have gone down. Only three clubs have spent their entire history in Spain’s first division. The other two are Real Madrid and Barcelona. Athletic are a kind of resistance, holding back the tide.
“I don’t think our philosophy weakens us, quite the opposite,” said the Athletic director of football, Mikel Gonzalez, and listening to him explain it in practice, looking at what they have achieved both on and off the pitch, that comes into sharp focus. Any possibility of doing it any other way was long since left behind. “It is so ingrained, so assimilated, so much a part of us, that you never think: ‘I wish I could sign this guy or that guy’. That just never happens.”
Gonzalez added: “I would call it a philosophy more than a policy: linked to the values of the club, the Basque Country. It’s sentimental, philosophical, an identity with Euskadi. There is a sense of pride, a way Euskadi presents itself to the world through sport … And it’s successful, because this would never have been sustained for so long if it was not. If you did this now and you played in the fifth tier: congratulations. But while you’re a romantic, you’re an amateur team. Athletic competes, wins. 24 cups, eight leagues, three Super cups.”
It is, Gonzalez said, “madness” and he is right. If it was always impressive, is almost absurd now. When the league started in 1929, only around 4% of players were foreign. Basque footballers represented a more significant percentage of the professional players; now, post-Bosman ruling, that has changed dramatically. The Basque Country accounts for 1.4% of Spain’s territory and just 4.9% of its population (using official Spanish administrative definitions). That is the pool from which Athletic must draw all of its players.
“Our market is infinitely more limited and that means you have to work differently to other clubs,” Gonzalez explains. “It’s concentrated. You have to have have loads of scouts and recruiters locally. From aged eight or ten onwards, you have to have all players in Euskadi 100% under control. Every player in the data base, every player monitored. It’s ‘easier’ in the sense that the network is a smaller area, it’s reduced, but it has to be more complete.
“That’s at youth level and then at professional level, you have to have 100% [of the eligible players] covered, whether their level is high, medium or low. Even if you think they will never join you, we still monitor them every week, or fortnight. That degree of details means that when you sign, whether for the first team of the academy you are sure — or as sure as you can be: there are never any guarantees — that they will succeed.”
“Our philosophy is clear: a player has to be born in Euskal Herria [Basque country] or formed as a footballer there,” he continues. There is no drawing from the diaspora: the doubt has sometimes been there but Athletic can’t discover a Basque parent or grandparent and use that as a reason to sign a player. If a player didn’t begin his footballing development in the region, a Basque relative changes nothing. No good looking for Lionel Messi‘s long lost family member from Lezama.
“Those who are not born Basque but develop as players here have to have come through normal means: immigration basically,” Gonzalez continued. “So, say, a Moroccan who comes to the Basque Country with his or her parents because they came to work and starts playing here can sign up. But you can’t bring him here because of his football ability and develop him here.”
“Immigration levels have risen a lot here over the last ten or fifteen years. So if you look now at our academy, we have at least one with African heritage in every [age] team, whether that’s north or sub-Saharan Africa. We recently brought in a Guinean, who has been in Bilbao since he was twelve when the family moved here and he was playing locally. We have a goalkeeper with a Mexican parent. There’s a shift which is a reflection of society and is opening up new possibilities, different profiles.”
That pool is small, if expanding, but it is also special, Gonzalez says as he explains how Athletic’s policy conditions the way they work, how a seemingly impossible policy can work. There is something about this place, this society. And about sport’s place here.
And yet, if the reduced pool they can draw from is valuable and expanding one, Athletic are not alone. It is not as if they have sole access to Basque players. On Saturday every one of Athletic’s players will, as ever, have been born or raised as a footballer the Basque-speaking territories which straddle the Spain-France border. But in all probability, more than half of the Real Sociedad team that faces them will be Basque too.
Athletic’s rivals do sign foreign players since John Aldridge’s arrival in 1989 — they brought in Take Kubo from Japan, Mohamed Ali-Cho from France, and Umar Sadiq from Nigeria in the summer — and they have non-Basque Spaniards too: Brais Mendez also came and has starred with David Silva, but of the 15 footballers who played in Real Sociedad’s last game, 10 had played for the club at some level. Their goalkeeper came up through the youth system at … Athletic.
At times there have been tensions because they compete for the same players. Real Sociedad supporters certainly see Athletic as the richer, big fish, a shark even, likely to come for their best players. In 2018, Athletic unilaterally triggered Inigo Martinez‘s buy-out clause, much to the fury of La Real. Young players can be a target too and some Real Sociedad supporters dislike what they see as the praise lavished on Athletic’s academy when their own youth systems develops so much talent.
“We always try to be as respectful as we can be, knowing that our market is what it is and our job is to bring in the best players we can within our philosophy: there can be more friction, that’s obvious, because you’re repeatedly coming up against each other but that’s the only means through which we can be competitive, Gonzalez says. “I think the idea of Athletic as a threat probably does exist for la Real, that’s true. I worked at Eibar and Alaves and you knew that when someone from Athletic turns up they might be looking at your player. Or you go to see a team with only one Basque player and it’s obvious who you’re watching.”
He laughs. “I go in camouflage,” he jokes.
“But this is a special derby,” he adds. “We’re fighting for the same objectives: to get into Europe. It’s a game you want to win, there’s tension, rivalry, and yet it’s a game that I think is a model for football: lots of fans travel, they go together; there have never been significant problems. It’s special.”
The whole place is, which is why this is possible; there are shared values which help explain success.
Look at the league table and Real Sociedad are in third, with seventh-place Athletic just two points from being in fourth. Nor is it just those two sides. Count Osasuna (located in neighboring province Navarre) and that makes a third Basque club in the top eight. Eibar and Alaves, first and fourth respectively, are well placed to come back up from the second division. At the start of the season, there were four coaches in LaLiga — Julen Lopetegui, Imanol Alguacil, Jagoba Arrasate, and Unai Emery — who were Basque. A fifth, Mikel Arteta, is with Arsenal. (Emery and Lopetegui have also since joined Premier League teams).
Real Sociedad sporting director Roberto Olabe talks about a kind of cooperative culture that distinguishes the Basque Country, the structure in the community there. He speaks of the concept of the cuadrilla, a tight-knit group of friends, the way that collective enterprise is expressed through gastronomic societies in which men buy ingredients, cook and eat together, and the high level of sporting participation even at an amateur level. That comes with a deep sense of identification with what is often referred to just as the tierra, the land.
Gonzalez agrees, seeing in that part of Athletic’s success — and indeed Real Sociedad’s. La Real have built a mixed model based on a commitment to have 80% of academy players and 60% of first team players being from the Basque province of Guipuzcoa, the smallest in Spain. It has proven hugely successful, the degree of identification, like Athletic, intense.
“There’s a pride element — and we see that with la Real who are working very, very well too,” Gonzalez said. “Especially since Roberto Olabe and Erik Bretos have been there — two people I have a huge admiration for — they have consolidated a succesful model with their youth team and the first team, and that creates a pride, reinforcing your philosophy.
“It’s not just sporting in Euskadi: it’s business, education, per capita income, economic strength, and that goes hand in hand with a cultural level, a professional level,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a successful society, you can say, and that’s all mixed in together. The football numbers of Basque football — 25% of primera coaches, five top flight teams until recently — are incredible.”
“I remember when [cycling team] Euskaltel joined the Tour De France [in 2001], the stages in the Pyrenees were packed with thousands and thousands of fans in their orange shirts. It wasn’t just about cycling: it was identity, nationhood. Back then they competed like Athletic do, with only Basque cyclists. Over 125 years we have built a structure and a story too. It is hard to find somewhere that has that degree of identification with its history and society. I have friends for example who are not football fans, have never kicked a ball, but are full-on Athletic fans. It’s not even about football, it’s history.
“The philosophy limits you in theory but while you lose in one way, you gain something greater. That idea of an academy that’s so much a part of its environment, those values, that society, the fact that you play with people from here means that you keep the talent you develop more than most clubs. Very few go and if they do it’s because Manchester City have paid the buy-out clause for Aymeric Laporte, Chelsea have paid it for Kepa Arrizabalaga or Manchester United have paid it for Ander Herrera. The few that go tend to go to clubs with the very highest aspirations. You don’t lose many to other ‘middle-class’ Spanish clubs. That sense of belonging is there.”
Is there an economic component too? Athletic, after all, also have the economic muscle to pay well. “With players of the highest level, obviously you need to be economically strong,” Gonzalez admits. “But there is also a personal component that makes the difference and helps keeps people at the club. Maybe you have a better financial offer elsewhere you still prioritise being at Athletic. There’s a commitment towards Athletic.”
In Athletic’s last game against Osasuna on Monday night, all 11 starters had been in the club’s academy. Former coach Marcelinho described Athletic’s dressing room as the easiest in the world: there is a shared culture, upbringing, ideals and commitment. An accusation over a hundred years ago made them stronger; it made them who they are.
“You can’t measure that but I think it’s impossible to find a dressing room quite like ours anywhere,” Gonzalez says, “and the identification with the club runs right through the staff, everyone there. I’m from Bilbao, I am a season ticket holder, I have been a fan for as long as a I can remember and you never have any doubts. I don’t see our philosophy as a limitation, not at all, but as a strength.”