Athletic Bilbao’s Basque-only Policy: old school Romanticism or sheer Discrimination?

The year is 2021. Spain is entirely occupied by super clubs. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Basques still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Spanish legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Santiago Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Wanda Metropolitano, because the brave Basques are in possession of a unique magic potion…

That’s probably how the proud people of Bilbao see themselves. Whether you want to call it Asterix against the Romans, David against Goliath or simply the Basque Region against the rest of Spain, this is clearly a mismatched battle.

Because Athletic Club, the Basque Country’s biggest team, have imposed themselves a distinctive rule which over the years has been both their strength and their handicap. If you don’t know which rule I’m talking about, let me explain.

A unique philosophy

The Basque Country has always been one of the more rebellious autonomous communities in Spain. Just like in Catalonia, its citizens feel more Basque than Spanish. It’s not a solely Spanish region either, as the Northern Basque Country is actually located in France. What unites them all is a common language (Euskara) and a strong regional identity.

Enter Athletic Club, the region’s biggest sports team from its biggest city, Bilbao. Just like their neighbours and friends, the people at the club feel extremely passionate about the Basque identity, to such an extent that in 1912, they imposed themselves an unwritten rule. It states Athletic Club can only recruit players who were either born in or learned their football skills in the Greater Basque Region.

This wasn’t much of an impediment for the first 50 years, since their Spanish rivals didn’t have much of a foreign recruiting policy either. For example, Barcelona and Real Madrid had only signed a handful of non-native players before the seventies. Local arch rivals Real Sociedad even waited till 1989 to sign their first non-Basque player. In the early years of Spanish football, Athletic was the nation’s most successful club, clinching four league titles and thirteen Copa del Reys.

But in the globalised business that modern football has become by 2021, Athletic’s signing policy is as unusual as it gets. The Greater Basque region is estimated to have a population of a little over 3 million people. Every year, Athletic Bilbao has to take on the struggle of finding the 27 most talented individuals, minus the ones who choose to play for other Basque clubs, such as Real Sociedad. And when players are performing well at the San Mamés, they attract the interest of European super clubs, such as Bayern Munich (Javi Martinez), Paris Saint-Germain (Ander Herrera), Chelsea (Kepa Arrizabalaga) and Manchester City (Aymeric Laporte).

Magic potion

You’d think the rule would give them a major disadvantage compared to their competitors, but nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Every disadvantage has his advantage,’ late Johan Cruyff would say. Well, that’s exactly the case here. Despite having a talent pool which is around 0.04% of what other clubs can choose from, Bilbao are beating the odds season after season.

Together with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, they are one of the only three clubs to never get relegated from La Liga. Moreover, in the last decade, they have transcended their status as Sleeping Giant and have reached the final of the Copa del Rey three times, while also winning the Supercopa twice and reaching the UEFA Champions League in 2014.

But the formula of their magic potion is simple: it’s identity. By assembling a squad of players who have everything in common with one another, you create a blood bond among players and supporters which is unrivalled. All together. Brothers in arms. An ‘over my dead body’-mentality. On the pitch, 11 friends who have known each other for years. Take a glance at the stands, and you see your family and neighbours. This team resembles a region which is proud to be Basque. And that pride makes everyone that bit more determined to give it their all.

Discrimination

It all sounds like a feel-good story, but Bilbao’s signing policy has been a controversial talking point among pundits and journalists.

Because of low immigration population in the region, Athletic remained the last club in La Liga to have never fielded a black player.

Furthermore, only allowing a certain group (in this case, people of Basque descent) to work for an organisation sounds contradictory to the basic employee right to be free of from discrimination of all types.

But the people at Athletic are taking action to oppose these allegations of racism and discrimination. They have stated on multiple occasions that their policy is not *against* other groups, but in favour of their identity, of a vision and a set of values that is opposing the result-driven business football has become.

In 2011, Jonas Ramalho became the first black player to feature in Athletic’s first team, and in 2015, Inaki Williams (of Ghanaian decent) became the first black goalscorer. Today, a small number of players of an ethnic minority are playing in the club’s academy.

To emphasise their focus on values and not discrimination, they have instigated their very own ‘One Club Award’. Its nominees are praised for having shown Athletic’s values of loyalty and identity, not for Athletic but for another team. Some of the award’s earliest recipients include Milan’s Paolo Maldini, Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier and Barcelona’s Carles Puyol.

What’s next?

Love it or hate it, but Athletic Club are unique in football. I’m sure many fans wouldn’t mind having a couple more value-driven clubs in the money-driven business that European football has become. Other clubs do it their own way, like Ajax, St Pauli and even the Red Bull clubs, but none of them are as dedicated to their philosophy as Athletic are.

It makes you wonder whether Athletic Bilbao will always stay like this. Over the years, people outside the club have raised the call for adapting the much-discussed policy to the globalised world we live in, but that scenario is highly unlikely. Surveys among fans have shown that fans would prefer relegation over changing the policy, and president Aitor Elizegi is a Basque nationalist himself.

Because of the pandemic, Athletic Club will be playing both the 2020 and 2021 Copa del Rey finals in only two weeks’ time. They will be looking to win their first major trophy since 1984. Their opponents? Basque Country Rivals Real Sociedad and football behemoth FC Barcelona. Time for that magic potion to spark the team at least one more time…

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Jürn De Baets

Writing about Football / Travel / Culture / Sports / Psychology and how they all connect