As I’m sure all football fans will agree, there is nothing quite as exciting or pleasing as seeing a local youngster make the breakthrough from age-grade football into the first team and then blossom into an integral part of the club. Time and time again such players have been reared and raised on the goodwill of the fans from timid and shy youngsters with raw talent into vital cogs of the club’s soul to earn the epithet “fan favourite” and “cult hero”. This is something that is not a modern phenomenon but something that has always been a part of the game, although one may argue it is less rare and thus more important in today’s multinational and global game.
Infamous local lad’s made good include Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher at Liverpool, two young lads who were watched by fans as they were 13 and 14 years old and still learning the game. Whispers of their talent and words of encouragement would have passed between fan and teenager as they graduated through the levels before making their debuts accompanied by a rapturous applause. The sad fact is that many a 19 year old debutant at higher clubs eventually drift out on loan before getting free transferred, but the ones who make it become part of the club’s fabric. Gary Neville at Manchester United is another, as was Tony Adams at Arsenal and Paolo Maldini at Milan. As a Swansea fan arguably my favourite player at the club is Joe Allen, a young player who grew up local and graduated through the club’s system to take his place in the squad. Whilst there have been more technically proficient and experienced players available for selection from a multitude of nations across the globe, nothing makes me prouder than seeing Joe continue to grow as a player and move from League 1 to the Premiership and International Football. He returns this mutual feeling by giving his all in action-man displays, none more evident than when he scored the winner in a South Wales derby and disappeared into a crowd of his fans, his people. There are of course many an outsider who have taken a club and a region to their heart but they are very much a minority. I don’t hide my dream of seeing a Swansea team with a full Welsh squad. Indeed, Celtic still hold their infamous 1967 Lisbon Lions in such exalted fashion it is near blasphemy to criticise them. It is not the mere European Cup winning exploits that make this team so special, it was the incredible and unmatched fact that the entire team was born and bred within 30 miles of Celtic Park.
The days of this are seemingly gone. Today’s game is a high pressured world that is slave to the money men, every game at the top level potentially worth untold millions and the patience of owners at an all time low. There is no longer the time available to carefully train and cultivate a youth team player into a top quality star, evident by the lack of English youngsters breaking through at the top clubs. A case in point would be Chelsea; Roman Ambramovich’s insatiable quench for success has repeatedly led to managers bringing in proven talent from abroad for instance results as opposed to planning for the long-term. The result is that in recent memory only perhaps Josh Mceachran appears to have a battling chance of making the breakthrough whilst other youngsters with untold potential such as Scott Sinclair and Daniel Sturridge are repeatedly farmed out on loan to other clubs before eventually leaving the training ground for the final time.
Yet there is one club that has consistently brought through youngsters from their youth academy and refused to succumb to the growing globalisation of the game. This club has many critics but the core policy of only picking their own is not xenophobic, racist or outdated but rather something to be commended. The club is ofcourse Athletic Club Bilbao and their infamous “Basque-only” policy is perhaps the most infamous constitution in World football. To understand the policy is to understand Spanish politics and delving into the background of Spanish history can take many books, thesis and dissertations just to get a grasp of the delicate situation within the Kingdom. Most fans will be aware of the El Clasico derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid whereby the Whites tend to represent the Crown and Spain itself whilst Barcelona are understood to be representing Catalonia, the autonomous region with a strong independent and nationalist mentality. The Catalan’s have an intense pride in their statehood and nationality and reject Spain as their country. Barcelona is their legitimate and popular medium for broadcasting their ideology to the wider world to the point whereby every sports fan is aware that Barca is “mes que un club”, or More Than a Club.
Across the Kingdom is another autonomous region that has become more infamous for its violence as opposed to its sport. The Basque County (Euskal Herria in its native and unique tongue) is home to the equally fierce and nationalistic Basque people whom tend to take their patriotism a step further than the Catalans. A constant uprising amongst members of the Basque Community has caused havoc both in and outside the region for decades as ETA, denounces as terrorists by some but freedom fighters by others, have taken to violence to “force” their independence from the Kingdom which oppressed them under previous regimes. Whilst Barcelona have succeeded in exporting their Catalan culture to the world via their club, the Basque’s are by nature more insular and this is manifested itself in Athletic Bilbao’s extraordinary century-old policy of only picking Basque players. Barcelona may be more than a club, but the Basque take it a step further and have arguably shunned commercialism and success in an incredible show of dedication to the cause.
Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and with a nationalist mayor in charge of the city it has long been a bastion of Basque support. The city’s football club is no different. In keeping with the Spanish tradition of “Cantera”, the club is similar to Real Madrid and Barcelona in that the club’s youth policy is an integral part of ensuring continuity of ideology and ensuring the club continues to bring through quality youngsters. The amount of money that Barcelona have saved by developing Xavi, Iniesta and Messi for example must be over a hundred million pound in potential transfer fees. What separates Athletic’s “Cantera” from the others however is that as opposed to simply scouring the Globe to tie down any youngster who has the necessary talent regardless of passport they instead choose to keep their recruitment policy Basque only. The club’s own attitude to this can be summed up with the motto “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación”, translated as “With home-grown support and a fan base, you don’t need foreigners”, whereby the term foreigners even applies to Catalans, Castillians and other people whom come under the citizenship of the Kingdom of Spain. For example, Xavi or Cesc Fabregas are not eligible to represent the team that represents the Basque people because of the very reason, they are not Basque people themselves. Officially the club will only sign players from the greater Basque Country, including those from the areas of Biscay, Gúipuzcoa, Álava, Navarre, Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre. In a recent relaxing of the rules the club will now pick players who may not have been born in the region but whom have been trained and brought up in the region as youth players or of undoubted Basque heritage to battle the growing phenomenon of Basque emigration. The bottom line is “if your not Basque, you will not represent the Basque people”.
This has brought both criticism and commendation, ranging from claims of racism and xenophobia from the critics yet also admiration from supporters for their unwavering nationalism. Although trophy less since the League and Cup double of 1984, the club have been one of only three clubs to have never been relegated from the top tier of Spanish football (no prizes for guessing who the other two are) and have provided more players to the national Spain set-up than anyone else bar Real Madrid. They have won 8 La Liga titles in total and 23 Copa Del Reys. The system has worked incredibly when one considers that the selection pot for Basque-only players is very bare considering there are only 3m Basque nationals in all.
The youth facilities of Athletic are top of the range and are no doubt an important part of creating the next generation, vital for the club’s survival should they keep up their policy of not conforming to the capitalist agenda that is currently the norm across the sport. Lezama is the facility that has helped produce many great stars of the Spanish game, the latest potential superstar being the much-coveted and prodigious striking talent that is Iker Muniaiz, a first teamer by 16 and someone wanted by every major European club.
To select only players who are connected ethnically, linguistically and culturally with the fans ensures the club will always have a unique relationship with the terraces and one popular quote is that the vast majority of the Socio’s will happily accept relegation for the first time in history if it meant keeping the policy intact. This relationship is perhaps best exemplified in the way Bilbao legend Joseba Etxeberria played his final season for the club without accepting any wages, an incredible stance considering the way footballers are these days considered immoral, money-grabbing souls with no ounce of loyalty to any one club. As expected, Club Captain Etxeberria was eventually clapped off into retirement with the well wishes and gratitude of an entire Basque nation and has remained the prototype of loyalty and integrity.
Personally, as explored earlier, I would love for my club to implement a Welsh-only policy however I fear with the dearth of talent available it would be the end of Swansea City as a credible footballing force especially due to the lack of pride in nationality when compared to the ferocity with which Basque’s have for their homeland. Would Chelsea compete by adopting a West London only policy or Manchester United with a Manc-only selection criteria? I highly doubt either would be incredibly successful which once again highlights the achievements that Athletic Bilbao have attained throughout their history. A unique club in an ever-increasingly detached and money-driven game, Athletic are a club to be admired and revered.