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Athletic Bilbao live out the Basque ideal

By Tony Francis

Last Updated: 1:07am GMT 20/12/2007

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Arsene Wenger will need smelling salts if he reads this - one of Europe's more successful clubs won't accept foreign players at any price. It gets worse. They only recruit from their own parish and prefer footballers who can get their tongues around an unfathomable language spoken by a mere 650,000 people. Bixente Lizarazu and Andoni Goikoetxea sailed through the auditions, but they had the alphabet on their side.

Athletic Bilbao live out the Basque ideal

Family way: Bilbao's Basque-only policy has been a success

The club in question is Athletic Bilbao. The language is Euskera, or Basque. The model is unique. It's also unshakeable. I make no apologies for being 109 years late with the story because recent events at home demand that we take a closer look at alternative systems. Should our senior clubs be persuaded to produce more of their own players instead of raiding Africa's pantry? Would England benefit as a result? Italian officials studied the Bilbao example last season when Serie A was in a mess. Their conclusions are still under wraps.

Athletic are the most exclusive club in world football and proud of it. If you're not Basque, you can't join. Their favourite saying is: Con cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion. It translates as: With home-grown talent and local support, you don't need foreigners. Can you see Arsenal buying that? Or Sir Alex Ferguson, despite his talk of quotas? Howard Kendall felt a trifle strangulated by it when he was Athletic's coach in the 80s. Their Basque neighbours, Real Sociedad, matched them for half a century but officially abandoned the policy by signing John Aldridge in 1989. They reckoned the Basque Country was too small to sustain two top clubs.

The only sporting parallel was Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Much to many a Yorky's disgust, they relaxed their qualification rules when motorway verges became cluttered with the progeny of cricket nuts from Pontefract to Wensleydale racing home to deposit their wives over the county boundary before their waters broke.

Not once in more than a century have Athletic's 35,000 members even discussed the possibility of opening their doors to the rest of Spain, never mind the world at large. "Why should they?" asked Andoni Zubizarreta, the goalkeeper in Javier Clemente's league and cup-winning side of 1984. "Some think it's a limitation, but I see it as a strength. It unites us. It's our reference point."

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The club showed me an extraordinary photograph of the 'double' celebrations which occupied both banks and every bridge over the River Nervion as the players' barge led a fleet of vessels reminiscent of the Armada. It would never happen on the Manchester Ship Canal.

Athletic have been trophyless since that day. Even 'Zubi' concedes that it gets harder and harder to win things. Last season they were almost relegated for the first time in 109 years but survived on the final day. This season they are also too close to the bottom for comfort. I recently watched them surrender a 2-0 lead to their fellow strugglers, Deportivo La Coruna. In spite of that, the atmosphere in San Mames, their crumbling bowl of a stadium, was different from anything I'd experienced in the Bernabeu, the Maracana or the San Siro. Thirty-seven thousand Basques felt like a nation. To paraphrase C?S Lewis, the disappointment they suffered then was part of the joy they felt after beating Valencia 3-0 in the Mestalla a week later.

So why do Bilbao insist on home-grown talent when there are only about three million Basques to choose from and the French side of the Pyrenees prefers rugby anyway? More to the point, can they ever be truly competitive again? After all, there was no Bosman ruling when they won eight league titles and 24 Copas del Rey.

Their president, Fernando Garcia Macua, seemed surprised by the question. "It's not written into our constitution that the team has to be all-Basque. It's just a philosophy we've had from the start and we see no reason to change."

What if Athletic are in the second division next season? "We'd rather go down than change our habits," he said. "I know the supporters feel the same." Paradoxically, Athletic are a foreign creation, started by British workers who left Sunderland and Southampton to work in the steel and shipbuilding industries.

I was introduced to Jose Angel Iribar, the club's legendary goalkeeper in the Sixties and Seventies who achieved notoriety by carrying the illegal Basque flag on to the pitch as soon as General Franco died. He was bullish about the future: "Our cantera (youth academy) is still one of the strongest in Spain. The spirit among young men who grow up together playing for the club they supported as boys is something every club envies."

When Athletic are losing, their crowds grow bigger. It's almost biblical. Followers tell me they connect with the players in a way that Arsenal fans can't hope to connect with Emmanuel Adebayor or Liverpool fans with Fernando Torres. They've watched them come through the academy; been to their confirmations; bumped into them in the shopping mall. If it sounds parochial, it shouldn't. At my local club, Leicester City, we were delighted when Keith Weller and Frank Worthington joined us but it gave us the most pleasure when Graham Cross, David Nish, Peter Shilton and Gary Lineker came through the ranks.

On the broader question of whether Athletic Bilbao's no-foreigners policy benefits the national team, the answer is a resounding yes - in the past. However, there are few Basques in the present Spanish squad and when it comes to underperforming, Spain have consistently left England in the shade.

Wait till the Celtic fans get tore into them, NOT!

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brilliant a club can sign anyone and exclude anyone as long as its not rangers f.c.

Surely you're not implying we should only recruit protestants are you?

We reached 3 (three),yes i said THREE European Cup Winners Cup Finals whilst we adhered to "company policy". What price progress?

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brilliant a club can sign anyone and exclude anyone as long as its not rangers f.c.

Surely you're not implying we should only recruit protestants are you?

We reached 3 (three),yes i said THREE European Cup Winners Cup Finals whilst we adhered to "company policy". What price progress?

Thats nonsense, it was talent not faith. We achieved 9 in a row while just recruiting on talent and not adhering to "company policy".

As much as i love rangers, if we ever went back to to said policy, i'd have to question whether rangers was the team for me. Faith is alot of balls, and has no position in football, as much as some people may disagree.

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Sometimes you've just got to come straight out and say it, and i am firmly of the belief that we sold the family silver, in order to appease those who STILL hate us, no matter who we sign.

Yes, it was great fun when wee Mo stuck it to them, but that was 20 years ago & we've not had a sniff of a Euro trophy since (1993 notwithstanding). We signed 1, that should have been enough.

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It's not about a team full of Protestants, it's about Bilbao who are still using a Basque-only policy and getting praised for it, while Rangers were hammered for not singing Catholics.

According to that article it's a succesful policy, why ? Bilabo win sweet f*ck all.

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It's not about a team full of Protestants, it's about Bilbao who are still using a Basque-only policy and getting praised for it, while Rangers were hammered for not singing Catholics.

According to that article it's a succesful policy, why ? Bilabo win sweet f*ck all.

Ach I was just thinking out loud.

Anyway apart from whingers in the Press in what way did we get hammered?

I think if you go further back Athletic were successful, but to suggest it's currently successful? Not a Trophy since 1984 - I wonder how they measure success?

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Is this article not more about foreigners playing in the epl, and the writer basically saying that clubs should just have english players, after all people in the bilbao, sociedad etc consider that basque is a country.

As for bilbao being successfull, well they are very successfull at narrowly avoiding relegation every year

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It's not about a team full of Protestants, it's about Bilbao who are still using a Basque-only policy and getting praised for it, while Rangers were hammered for not singing Catholics.

According to that article it's a succesful policy, why ? Bilabo win sweet f*ck all.

Ach I was just thinking out loud.

Anyway apart from whingers in the Press in what way did we get hammered?

I think if you go further back Athletic were successful, but to suggest it's currently successful? Not a Trophy since 1984 - I wonder how they measure success?

We still do Manticore, there are still several deluded people out there who think sellik are the team that always signed people from every religion (Well, apart from their management, that is) and Rangers are the big bad team who hate kaffliks.

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