Clubs around the world claim to have a ‘policy’ when it comes to acquiring players. Still, for many, it tends to be forgotten when certain opportunities present themselves during the transfer window.
Athletic Bilbao, on the other hand, takes their cantera (homegrown) policy a step further. The club’s recruitment policy is to bring through young Basque players, the region of Spain in which Bilbao is situated, as well as signing players native to or trained in the Greater Basque Country.
Since 1912, Los Leones has played exclusively with players meeting its own criteria. In a world of football that is increasingly ruled by globalisation, extortionate transfer fees, and money, Athletic’s policy is one of unique innovation.
Formative years and policy development
Bilbao formed a love for football from two groups with British connections – British workers and Basque students returning from their studies in Britain. Before the 20th century, Bilbao was a leading industrial town which attracted migrant workers. Amongst those attracted to the region included miners from the North East of England and shipyard workers from Southampton and Portsmouth, amongst others.
The English brought the game of football to the Basque Country and in-turn they formed the Bilbao Football Club.
Those students returning from Britain had developed an interest in football while overseas and began to arrange games with the British workers. In 1898, many of these students founded the Athletic Club, using the English spelling. The club itself declares this year as its formation date.
During the first decade of The Lion’s existence, they only selected English players for the team, perhaps owing to the fact they helped found the club.
But since 1912 they have adhered to the Cantera policy – an unwritten rule.
Although not in the Athletic Bilbao rulebook, the approach has become the club’s primary philosophy. The policy also extends across all branches of Athletic, including their reserves, their feeder team CD Basconia, the youth teams, and the women’s side.
Such a policy doesn’t apply when it comes to managers and backroom staff, boasting a fine collection of varying nationalities including English, Hungarian, German, French, and Argentinian, to name a few.
Fellow Basque club Real Sociedad also adopted a similar approach during the late 1960s, but later dropped the policy on foreign imports in 1989 when they signed the Republic of Ireland forward, John Aldridge.
In 1911, however, the two clubs became embroiled in a dispute of Athletic Club’s use of ineligible English players during the Copa Del Rey that season.
The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) decided to introduce a rule for the competition the following year that all players must be Spanish citizens. Due to a large proportion of the players in that era being Basque, relying on locals didn’t impede Los Leones one bit, with the club choosing to maintain the approach when the regulations imposed by the RFEF were relaxed years later.
Before the formation of La Liga, Bilbao featured prominently in the Copa Del Rey, winning their first in 1903 followed by a second triumph in 1904. The club would go on to win seven more up to 1923, becoming one of the most successful at the time. In 1928, Athletic were to be one of the ten clubs to form La Liga, known back then as the Primera División.
Five of the ten founding members were from the Basque Country, with the first season being 1929/30. Bilbao, by the start of the first season, were managed by British coach Fred Pentland who had previously taken charge in 1921, winning the 1923 Copa Del Rey.
In 1927, Pentland left but returned in two years later leading the club to unprecedented success. In his first stint as manager, he had revolutionised the way that Athletic played, favouring a short passing game which was implemented on his return. He led the club to the inaugural La Liga title in 1930 undefeated, coupled with another Copa Del Rey success, before claiming another double in 1931.
Between 1930 and 1933, the club won the Copa Del Rey in four successive seasons, as well as runners up in the league in 1932 and 1933. Athletic inflicted Barcelona’s worst ever defeat during this period, beating them 12-1.
Affectionately known in Bilbao as El Bombin (The Bowler Hat), Fred Pentland’s nickname is still heard as fans walk past his statue into the San Mames on a matchday.
Pentland moved on in 1933 and was succeeded by another British coach in William Garbutt. The latter enjoyed instant success as Athletic won La Liga in 1933/34, and then again in the 1935/36 season before football halted due to the Spanish Civil War in July 1936.
Following the Civil War, the club enjoyed further success, achieving another double in 1942/43 under manager Juan Urkizu, and retaining the Copa in 1944 and 1945. Success continued in the 1950s under coach Ferdinand Daučík, who led them to even more success.
Fast forward to 1981, Javier Clemente was appointed manager, and he put together one of the most successful sides in the club’s history.
In 1982/83, Athletic claimed another league success – their first in 27 years. Clemente’s Bilbao then won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in 1983/84 to claim another double, with the club achieving third and fourth-place finishes in 1985 and 1986, respectively.
The successes of 1983/84 would be their last league and cup success for Los Leones – winning only the Supercopa de España in 2015 to back up their previous silverware-clinching exploits.
Although success has been limited for the Basque team in the past 36 years in terms of trophies, the club can boast how they have avoided relegation since the league’s inception. The only other clubs who can match that accolade is Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The club has consistently defied the odds given the resources they limit themselves to, and that in itself constitutes success.
Player origins and what the future holds
Athletic Bilbao’s cantera policy is often praised as a symbol of localised football being successful at the highest level, while also preserving a strong regional identity and paving the way for Basque nationalism to be expressed.
However, it has also been described as discriminatory for only allowing Basque players to play for the club. Due to a relatively low immigrant population in the Basque region, the policy also had the consequence of Athletic being the last club in La Liga to have never field a black player. – This unfortunate record changed in 2011 when Jonás Ramalho, whose father is Angolan, made his debut.
More recently, there was the emergence Iñaki Williams, who in 1994 was born in Bilbao, but to a Ghanaian father and Liberian mother. Both emigrated to Spain after meeting in a refugee camp in Ghana, so inherited a rare birth-right of being eligible to play for Athletic.
The club has also recruited players from the French Northern Basque Country, with Bixente Lizarazu the first to play for Athletic in 1996.
However, the signing of Aymeric Laporte did prompt debate amongst the supporters regarding the definitions of the policy when he graduated from the club’s youth system in 2012. The now Manchester City defender had no link to the Basque region through birth or residency, but a blood link via his great-grandparents was enough. Albeit distantly, Laporte was deemed to be of Basque descent.
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.
The fans take great pride in the idea that the players are representing the Basque culture on not just a national stage, but a continental one too.
The club will continue with its policy, they show no intention of changing it, and why should they?
Athletic have shown success is possible when believing in local talents, and club’s do not necessarily have to scour the globe in the hope that success will follow them on the plane.
The future does appear bright for the Basque club, with money they received from selling prized assets pumped back into youth development.
The club’s motto, ‘Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación,’ meaning ‘with homegrown talent and local support, there is no need for imports,’ holds as much importance as it did 108 years ago.
Words by Alex McNulty – @AlexMcnultyJourno