Basque to the bone? Why Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad is more than a game

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The Basque policy

Initially, Athletic’s cantera policy suggested that only ethnic players born in the Basque Country should be allowed to play for the club, but the idea was dropped to include any player born in the region. Ironically, one of the main beneficiaries of the policy has been Spain, with Athletic having provided more players for the national team than any other club, Real Madrid and Barcelona included.

Athletic is more than a football club, it is a feeling. We see ourselves as unique in world football and that defines our identity

- Athletic president Jose Maria Arrate

Writing in the club’s centenary book, Athletic president Jose Maria Arrate summed up the cantera policy thus: “Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it is a feeling – and as such its ways of operating often escape rational analysis. We see ourselves as unique in world football and that defines our identity. We do not say that we are better or worse, merely different.

"We only wish for the sons of our soil to represent our club, and in so wishing we stand out as a sporting entity, not a business concept. We wish to mould our players into men, not just footballers, and each time that a player from the cantera makes his debut we feel we have realised an objective which is in harmony with the ideologies of our founders and forefathers.”

It’s like somebody saying the Irish team is racist because it only plays Irishmen!

- Athletic club historian Asier Arrate

Asier Arrate, the club historian, was disbelieving when his asked if his club’s policy could be construed as racist, saying, “It’s like somebody saying the Irish team is racist because it only plays Irishmen! The policy of playing solely Basques in the team is a tradition. It has absolutely nothing to do with racism.

"If someone comes from Ecuador tomorrow and signs their child up to our youth system, that child can play for Athletic. A player has to have been born in the Basque country or have been playing with a Basque club since their early teens. This is what the club adopted from its earliest years. So the definition of Basqueness is not a closed question.”

Athletic fans wrap themselves in the Basque flag

The point about Ireland is pertinent, for like international teams, Athletic has used the grandparent rule, allowing the recruitment of some players of ‘Basque descent’. Even so, the policy hasn’t been able to reverse the club’s fortunes. 

“We haven’t won a title in 20 years,” shrugs historian Arrate, “but what has been important is that the philosophy has been strengthened. People are patient. They know to accept it when we don’t win. It’s not like at Madrid where signings are made if the team is doing badly. Nobody has proposed signing foreigners [despite the lack of success].

"The policy is an obstacle"

“The policy is an obstacle, but the break in the relationship between the team and the fans would be very big. Here, everyone has a neighbour who played for Athletic. In small towns, there are former players, youth players, even managers of Athletic. They love the team.

Real Madrid fills the Bernabéu every Sunday, but thirty thousand of them are tourists

- Asier Arrate

“Real Madrid fills the Bernabéu every Sunday, but thirty thousand of them are tourists. They are at Real Madrid today and Chelsea tomorrow. They can’t identify with those who are playing, if they’re here today and at another team tomorrow.”

And did Sociedad lose a sense of identity by allowing foreigners? “That’s Real’s decision,” says Arrate diplomatically. “I could be wrong, but when they finished La Liga runners-up three years ago the fans were happy. When they win they are happy with the foreigners, and when they lose they want to return to the old policy.”

Many Athletic fans do not see it as a no-foreigners policy but as a pro-Basque policy. That definition of Basque is still open to interpretation, but they see the recruitment of players like French international Bixente Lizarazu from the French Basque country as evidence that the club isn’t xenophobic. They also cite the club's British origins, the use of Athletic in their name and the regular employment of foreign coaches, including Brits Frederick Pentland, William Garbutt and, more recently, Howard Kendall.

Indeed the former Everton manager was unsuccessful but popular after eschewing a penthouse apartment offered by the club for a spartan alternative overlooking the training ground. And the relationship remained strong – when Athletic played in Liverpool in a pre-season friendly, Kendall met the team at the airport.

Howard Kendall is one of many foreigners to take the reins at Athletic

Ultimately, though, it’s the fans who decide on the club’s selection policy, and Athletic’s 34,373 members appear supportive. “I’d rather be relegated than change. People are happy with the policy,” says Inigo. “Fans love to go to the Lezama [training ground] to watch the players of the future. We know that they have a realistic chance of making it. There is a lot of talent in the Basque country and we want Athletic to be a club represented by local people who appreciate what it means to the community. We don’t want a Brazilian to come here and score goals, then leave when he gets a better offer.” 

NEXT: “We had to change our whole policy because they took our best players”