Athletic Club: The Basque-Only Policy

Athletic Club Inaki Williams

Organisations 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 Club, on the other hand, takes its ‘Cantera’ (homegrown) policy a step further. The club’s recruitment policy is to bring through young Basque players, the region of Spain where Bilbao is situated, alongside signing players native to or trained in the Greater Basque Country.

Since 1912, Los Leones has played exclusively with players meeting this criterion. In a world of football increasingly ruled by globalisation, exorbitant 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, in turn forming the Bilbao Football Club.

Those students returning from Britain had developed an interest in football while overseas and began to arrange games with 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 per se, the approach has become the club’s primary philosophy. The approach extends across all branches of Athletic, including their reserves, the feeder team CD Basconia, the youth teams, and the women’s side.

Such a policy isn’t in place for 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 over Athletic Club’s use of ineligible English players during the Copa Del Rey that season.

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) introduced a rule for the competition the following year that all players must be Spanish citizens. However, 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.

Club success

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 was 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. By the start of the first season, Bilbao was managed by British coach Fred Pentland, who had previously taken charge in 1921, claiming the 1923 Copa Del Rey.

In 1927, Pentland left but returned two years later, leading the club to unprecedented success. In his first stint as manager, he had revolutionised the way Athletic played, favouring a short passing game implemented on his return. As a result, 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 and came runners-up in the league in 1932 and 1933. Furthermore, 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 arrives in conversation as fans walk past his statue into the San Mames on a matchday.

San Mames

Pentland vacated to pastures new in 1933 and was succeeded by another British coach, William Garbutt. The latter enjoyed instant success as Athletic won La Liga in 1933/34, 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 – the 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 triumphs 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, Athletic Club can boast how they have avoided relegation since the league’s inception. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only other clubs that can match that accolade.

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

The Cantera policy of the Athletic Club is often praised as a symbol of localised football being successful at the highest level while preserving a strong regional identity and paving the way for Basque nationalism to be expressed.

However, it has been labelled 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 fielded 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 of Iñaki Williams, who, in 1994, was born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and a Liberian mother. Both emigrated to Spain after meeting in a refugee camp in Ghana, so they inherited a rare birthright 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 prompted 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 decided to be of Basque descent.

Los Leones’ focus on having Basque-only players has meant that the players understand the importance of playing for the club and what every game means to the supporters. In addition, the club has a sense of nationalistic pride; wearing the shirt and representing the badge has a deeply engrained feel to these players.

The fans take great pride in the idea that the players are representing the Basque culture on a national stage and a continental one. 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 that teams can avoid scouring 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