Athletic Club Bilbao: The Basque Only Cantera Transfer Policy

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Athletic Club Bilbao: The Basque only Cantera Transfer Policy


Plenty of footballing institutions worldwide often claim to work within the confines of a ‘transfer policy or strategy’ when scouring the transfer market landscape to acquire players. Still, it tends to be an afterthought for many when specific opportunities arise and present themselves during a transfer window.

On the other hand, Athletic Club Bilbao takes its ‘Cantera’ (homegrown) transfer policy a step further. The club’s Basque-only recruitment policy focuses on bleeding young Basque players into the first team. The Basque Country is the region of Spain where Bilbao is situated, with the club signing players native to or trained in the area.

Athletic Club Bilbao: The Basque Only Cantera Transfer Policy

Formative Years And Athletic Club Bilbao Basque Only Transfer Policy Development

Since 1912, Los Leones has played exclusively with players meeting this criterion. Athletic Club’s transfer policy is one of unique innovation in a world of football increasingly ruled by globalisation, exorbitant transfer fees, and financial muscle.

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. As a result, among those attracted to the region were miners from northeast England and shipyard workers from Southampton and Portsmouth.

The English brought the beautiful game to the Basque Country, 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 Lions’ existence, they only selected English players for the team, perhaps because they helped found the club. But since 1912, they have adhered to the Cantera policy – the unwritten rule.

An Unwritten Rule: Athletic Club Bilbao’s Basque Only Transfer Policy Philosophy

Although not in the Athletic Bilbao rulebook per se, the approach has become the club’s primary philosophy. The policy extends across all branches of Athletic Club Bilbao. This includes 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. Athletic Club boasts 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, they later dropped the policy on foreign imports in 1989 when they signed Republic of Ireland forward John Aldridge.

In 1911, both clubs became embroiled in a dispute over Athletic Club’s use of ineligible players. The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) introduced a rule for the competition the following year that all players must be Spanish. Nevertheless, due to a large proportion of the players in that era being Basque, relying on locals didn’t impede Los Leones, with the club choosing to maintain the approach when the regulations imposed by the RFEF were relaxed years later.

Club Success at Athletic Bilbao

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 Club was to be one of the ten organisations 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, British coach Fred Pentland oversaw Athletic Club from the dugout. He had previously taken charge nine years earlier, claiming the 1923 Copa Del Rey.

Pentland left in 1927 but returned two years later, leading the club to unprecedented success. In his first stint as manager, he had revolutionised the way Athletic played. A favouring of a short passing game best explains his return. As a result, he led the club to the inaugural La Liga title undefeated. Their invincible season was coupled with another Copa Del Rey success, before claiming a double one year later.

El Bombin

Between 1930 and 1933, the club won the Copa Del Rey in four successive seasons. Furthermore, Athletic inflicted Barcelona’s worst-ever defeat during this period, beating them 12-1. Affectionately known as El Bombin (The Bowler Hat), Pentland’s nickname encourages conversation around San Mames on match day.

San Mames in Athletic Club Bilbao: The Cantera Transfer Policy
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 twice before football halted due to the Spanish Civil War (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.

The Clemente Era

Fast forward thirty-five years, and 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 just shy of 30 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 backed up their previous silverware-clinching exploits.

Although success has been limited for the Basque team since the Clemente era in terms of trophies, Athletic Club can brag about how they have avoided relegation since the league’s inception. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only other clubs to match that accolade.

The club has consistently defied the odds given the resources they limit themselves to, which in itself constitutes success.

Player Origins And What The Future Holds

The Cantera transfer policy of Athletic Club Bilbao is often praised as a symbol of localised football being successful at the highest level. Preserving a strong regional identity and prompting expressed Basque nationalism is a huge source of pride for the area.

However, some view it 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 resulted in 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, debuted.

More recently was the emergence of Iñaki Williams. He, 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, inheriting a rare birthright signalling eligibility.

The club has also recruited French Northern Basque Country players, with Bixente Lizarazu the first to play for Athletic in 1996. Furthermore, the signing of Aymeric Laporte prompted debate regarding the policy definitions graduating from youth system in 2012. The Manchester City defender had no link to the region through birth or residency. Instead, a blood link via his great-grandparents was enough. Albeit distantly, Laporte the decision was that the centre-back is of Basque descent.

Nationalistic Pride

Los Leones’ focus on having Basque-only players has meant that the players understand the importance of playing for the club. They know what every game means to the supporters. Additionally, 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 fulfilment in the idea that the players represent the Basque culture on a continental stage. Athletic Club Bilbao will continue with its transfer policy. They show no intention of changing, and why should they?

Athletic Club Bilbao have shown success is possible when believing in local talents. They are proof that teams can avoid scouring the globe in the hope that success will follow. The future does now appear bright for the Basque club. Money from selling prized assets are regularly 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.

Athletic Club Bilbao: The Basque only Cantera Transfer Policy

zicoball Words: Alex McNulty