Why Can’t My Grandad Play For Athletic Bilbao?

My Grandad would love to play for Bilbao, especially as my grandmother loves the shirt, unchanged since creation all the way back in 1903. But when someone asks you to name a Spanish football club you almost instantly think of one of the ‘big three’, being Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid. But I’m about to introduce you to one of the most unique football clubs in not just Spain, but the world!

Athletic Club, or more commonly known as Athletic Bilbao were officially founded 1903 but the history of this club goes further back than that. The game of football was introduced to the city of Bilbao by two separate groups of people, Basque students returning from Britain, and British shipyard workers. This is also the reason that the club have the English sounding Athletic name as opposed to the Spanish sounding Atlético. Each of these groups founded their own football club in 1898 but it wasn’t until five years later in 1903 where the two groups merged and founded the club we know now as Athletic Club.

The Club are one of only three teams to have never been relegated from the Spanish top flight. With the others being Barcelona and Real Madrid, which is even more impressive when you start to understand their long-standing transfer traditions. Bilbao have one of the most unique transfer policies in Europe. Since 1912 the Basque outfit have a strict policy of only signing players that were born or raised in Bilbao area, it wasn’t until 1980s where they expanded to the greater Basque Country. To expand on that, in the first decade of their existence the club would sign and players from England but since 1912 they have kept to their policy of only allowing players born in the Basque Country or players learned their trade at Basque clubs to play for them. Although not officially written into the clubs’ rulebook, the policy has been followed, not only in the first team, but also their youth teams and women’s team. They call this their ‘cantera’ policy. However, this policy is not followed when it comes to the coaching staff, as they have had managers like the Argentine Marcelo Bielsa who managed the club from 2011 to 2013 despite not having any links to the Basque Country.

Playing for Bilbao was for a long time all about the honour and desire, a representation for the identity of the team and what it stood for. Like all clubs, money becomes an issue, and in the austere hard-up industrial landscape of 1980’s Bilbao and Basque Region, Athletic Club Bilbao struggled. Players were sold to raise money, as the club paid some of the lowest wages in the league. Luckily, the area continued to produce enough quality players to replace those sold on, and still bring more success to the club and area. In recent times, the mind boggling transfer fees raised by the sale of players has helped fund higher wages so as to attract qualifying players, as well as small transfer fees to pay other clubs. However, the policy of Basque only was changed in the 1980’s when the club ended the long established tradition of ‘Buena vecindad’ (good neighbourliness) by poaching players from other clubs in the Basque Country, rather than from the Bilbao area only. But players were still expected to play for the honour and tradition, rather than a big salary; Athletic players were paid only a quarter of that earned by similar players at other clubs. This has long been part of the Athletic Club attitude and culture and is very much in the mind of the supporters. In a survey of 394 affiliated supporters’ clubs (socios) in 1992, during a period of poor results and lack of success for the club, a survey was completed for the newspaper El Mundo. The responses showed that 83% of respondents said they opposed foreign players at the club (who they believed would only be there for the money, not the culture or ethos that the club stood for), they did not want a ‘foreign legion’ in their front line. This policy has also been difficult to maintain in the light of EU membership for Spain and Employment Law, and the common movement of workers. A further 76% said that they would rather see Athletic Club relegated, which is even more shocking considering that in the 90 year history of La Liga they are one of only 3 clubs to have not been relegated, than allow the club to give up their tradition of ‘la cantera’!


Bilbao are not the only Basque club to follow this policy, as from the late 1960s Real Sociedad, based in San Sebastian, also followed this Basque only policy, some success did come from this for Sociedad as they won back to back La Liga titles in the 1980s. But the club subsequently abandoned this policy in 1989 when they signed Liverpool born John Aldridge.

I spoke to Spanish football expert, journalist, writer and La Liga TV commentator Andy West to ask him why he thought Bilbao have continued with this tradition.

AW: “The Basque region in general has an exceptionally strong local identity, and when you visit Bilbao on a matchday you can really feel that sense of cultural belonging being expressed through supporting the football team. It feels more like you are watching a national team than an ordinary domestic league game.”

Andy then goes on to talk about how the people of Bilbao have made the game of football a key part of their identity as a city and as people.

AW: “Local people truly identify with the club on a meaningful level to their day to day lives, and this is a part of the world where football is inherently interwoven with identity. That can be said about a lot of cities, of course, but something unusual about Bilbao is that there is only one professional team, so there’s no dilution of that passion in the way that happens in many other large industrial cities – Real Betis/Sevilla, Real/Atletico, Liverpool/Everton, Inter/AC Milan for example. However, within the Basque country as a whole that isn’t the case, and some other clubs – especially Real Sociedad – to an extent resent Athletic Club for presuming that they can be seen to represent Basque culture in its entirety (many Espanyol fans feel the same about Barcelona and Catalan culture).”

I did also ask him about why he thinks that other teams in the Basque country have since abandoned their own Basque only policies.

AW: “The fact is that Bilbao is the biggest city [in the Basque Country], Athletic have the longest and strongest traditions and the biggest fanbase, so clubs like La Real [Sociedad] can only compete in modern football by abandoning their Basque-only policy – although they also remain very much committed to their local community, shown by the fact that 16 players in the current La Real first team squad came through the youth system to supplement a sprinkling of ‘outsiders’.”


I also spoke to and asked journalist and football fan Rob Kershaw on his opinion on the clubs’ policy and why they’ve kept up the tradition for so long where clubs around them have not.

JF: Why do you think that Bilbao have continued with their over 100-year tradition of only signing Basque players when teams around them who have also had similar traditions, like Real Sociedad, have since abandoned those traditions and will allow players who were not raised/Born in the Basque Country to play for them?

RK: I think Spanish clubs are very proud of their identity. All clubs are in a way, but I feel that Spanish culture, in terms of football, is something that they have always tried to stay loyal to. How many platers can you say have played for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, or for Both Madrid clubs etc, as opposed to the number of players that have played for both Liverpool and Manchester United? So, they take their football very seriously in Spain, but more than that, Spanish clubs all feel that there is a right way to do things and a philosophy to follow. Bilbao clearly have a way that they want to win things, and a way that they want to succeed, and they take a lot of pride in that.

The club have a motto of “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación”, which translates to “with home grown talent and local support, there’s no need for imports”. And this motto stands as strong and holds as much importance today as it did all the way back in 1912.

The history of this policy goes deeper than just football. The history of the Basque people and country go much further back. Is the ‘Basque only’ a reflection of the idea -social and political – of ‘Basque separation!? Basques have for centuries seen themselves as different, or separate. Historically, unlike much of the rest of Spain, they are Celts descended from the Visigoths (originally from Germany and parts of Eastern Europe) in the period of 7th and 8th century AD. Consequently, they developed a very different language and culture, which was continued in to the first almost five centuries of the second millennium during the Muslim domination of Spain, and the domination by French dynasties. As this culture continued and developed through time, the Basque region maintained its difference, with an identity and culture very different to the country it was now within as Spain united and developed economically.

However, the Basque region became different again as the iron ore and other minerals were developed, leading to an industrial landscape very different from the agricultural rest of Spain. Football developed in the shipyards and factories of Bilbao and inland Basque territory, part of an ethos and expression of Basque culture and identity, based on an expression of their desire for competition, as well as maintaining their different language, which was very different from the rest of Spain. Football proved to be an expression different to the more social and sporting pursuits of a predominantly agricultural Spain. This was re-affirmed in the 20th century, when Spain -and especially the Basque region entered the bitter industrial and political period of the 1930’s. Just as La Liga was being formed, Spain entered the turbulent period of the lead up to the Civil War. The Basque region suffered brutality on a large scale, and the Nationalists under Franco sought to almost eradicate the Basque identity and culture, as well as language. Politically the region found itself in opposition to the ruling political structure of Franco and his Generals. The football ground was almost a ‘safe haven’ for opposition supporters to organise and discuss, as well as communicate in the Basque language, without the discovery or discrimination or retribution from Government and Authorities (as well as brutal opposition political groups) that they may suffer at home, in the factory, or on the street. Often it was the only place where the Basque flag could be seen or shown without fear. Football became very much the identity of the Basque people, and at the heart of their culture. Their sense of separateness, difference and identity, was expressed in their style on the pitch as well as their organisation, membership and support of the club off it. By maintaining a selection of ‘Basque Only’, they were establishing a ‘positive’ discrimination’ of Basque identity and culture deemed to be provocative, pro-active and quirky but aimed at and promoting the clubs perceived Basque identity and culture, putting football clearly at the centre of this.

When talking about the success of this historic club they’re up there with the best and are the third most successful football club in Spain. As of the 2020/2021 season they have won 36 major trophies, including:

  • 8 La Liga titles
  • 24 Spanish Cups (Copa Del Rey), however one of these titles is disputed as they were competing as Bizcaya in 1903 and the Spanish Football Federation do not recognise this as an official Athletic Club title.
  • 3 Super Copa de Espana (Super Cup)
  • 1 Copa Eva Duarte (Tournament that ran for seven years and was an official predecessor to the Super Copa)

Although they have had some recent success by winning two Super Copa’s in 2016 and 2021, their last Copa Del Rey and La Liga titles came as long ago as the 1983/84 season when they won a domestic treble (La Liga, Copa Del Rey, Super Copa.) Although, the Super Copa was awarded due to them winning the domestic double.

They did, however reach the Copa Del Rey final in the 2019/20 season but the game was postponed until the 4th of April, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, when the game will be played, and title will be decided. The club haven’t had too much success in recent years, but they are still regarded as a team that can compete for domestic titles, and still may win a Copa Del Rey this season, and could even become the first team to win two Copa Del Reys in one Season!

When talking about success Andy West has a different view on what he defines success for Athletic. I asked him if he thought that their Cantera policy hindered their success.

AW: “No doubt they could have won more trophies if they had allowed themselves to sign non-Basques. But it depends how you measure ‘success’. For Athletic and their fans, success is about much more than silverware. If the club can be competitive in the top flight and challenge for the occasion title but retain their unique identity and exceptionally close ties with the local community, that is a bigger ‘success’, in their eyes, than winning the Champions League with a group of outsiders who have no real attachment to the city or the region.

Andy then goes on to explain what he thinks the Athletic fans would think if the club decided to abandon their policy.

AW: “Most Athletic fans would be horrified if the club attempted to follow, for example, the Manchester City model. Of course, this sentiment is very closely tied up with the history of Spain and the Basque independence movement, which is a very complex topic, but the passion for Athletic is a safe and non-violent way of expressing the strong sense of ‘Basque-ness’ felt by most people in the region.”

I spoke to Rob Kershaw and asked him some questions about Bilbao’s success:

JF: Do you think that Bilbao’s policy of signing Basque only players has hindered their Domestic and European success (Although they did win the Super Copa last night!)? With the likes of Barcelona, Real and Atlético Madrid spending whatever they want of whoever they want?

RK: Yes and No. It’s no secret that Bilbao have always been an underdog in Spanish football, and don’t get me wrong, they’re not doing too badly. They’re a healthy European club and they’ve just come of the back of beating Barcelona in the Super Copa. There’s clearly potential to be one of the biggest clubs in Spain, but wins like the recent one over Barcelona do make you think: What if they had more world class players in their squad? Maybe that would even be in more serious contention to win La Liga. Having said that, look what’s happened to the likes of Barcelona. They’ve ended up spending so much money on marquee players that don’t really fit, and it almost feels like they themselves have lost their identity. They too have a great deal of success and took out the base they had for that success. So, piling the squad with world class players can actually be more of a hinderance than an advantage. So overall, I would say that system they use right now is a good one, especially when you consider that local players actually feel like they have a chance to, not only break into the first team, but then keep their place and have a lasting career at the club they love, whilst sharing the pitch with some of the biggest names in football.

The club have had some very notable players in their history, but arguably more so in the recent years. This shows that Bilbao’s ‘cantera’ team has produced some quality talent with the likes of Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte, who both made big money moves from the club to the Premier League for £72m and £57m respectively. This money is crucial for the club as it allows to pay other players larger wages to entice players to stay at the club, the money is also used to upgrade facilities and support youth and women’s teams. Athletic Club consists of many other sports teams and also develops the ‘cultural’ aspect of club activity and identity.  So a big money transfer can do a lot for the club. But they have also had some players, who despite having the opportunity to make moves away from Bilbao they decide to stay loyal to the club that made their career, with the likes of Inaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz and Iker Munian. If they keep producing talent that stay loyal to the club then they can start to believe that they could challenge for titles with the best in Spain and possibly even Europe.

I asked Andy West if he thought that Bilbao could realistically challenge for titles in the future:

AW: Realistically it’s unlikely they will challenge for La Liga or the Champions League because of the self-imposed restrictions. But the club can certainly continue to compete in the top flight, occasionally qualify for Europe or win a cup and continue to produce world-class talent because football is such a fundamental part of Basque culture.

I also asked him if he thought the talent pool in the Basque region would dry up and cause the club to break tradition and sign non-Basque players.

AW: Realistically it’s unlikely they will challenge for La Liga or the Champions League because of the self-imposed restrictions. But the club can certainly continue to compete in the top flight, occasionally qualify for Europe or win a cup and continue to produce world-class talent because football is such a fundamental part of Basque culture.

I also asked Rob Kershaw about this to see if he thought that they can produce more talent and challenge for success.

JF: Do you think that in the future Bilbao will have any more success, either in Europe in Spain, and do you think that they will continue to produce talent like Kepa Arrizabalaga, Ander Herrera, or Inaki Williams?

RK: The potential issue that comes up with their philosophy is what if you run out of talent? It could be that the next generation doesn’t have an Inaki Williams, or a Kepa, or an Ander Herrera. Those three have all had solid careers and Williams’ longevity has been hugely impressive when he could have easily moved to a better club. With what they’ve been doing, sure they’ve got enough to compete in the Europa League, but when you notice that this team does actually have the ability to beat a Barcelona or a Real Madrid, you do wonder what more they could be achieving. With their current method, I can definitely see the odd Copa Del Rey success, maybe even La Liga one day, but unfortunately, they’re going to have to break tradition if they want to complete amongst the very best in Europe.

When the British first brought football to Bilbao, the game was seen as something strange and new. By adopting this game and developing their own style of play, the people of Bilbao were seen as very modern and very Basque. Whilst being one of the ancient peoples of Europe, they were now seen as modern and up to date. Football, Bilbao style, became one of the most popularly rooted traditions of the Basque Country – what Jeremy Clancy sees as “a traditional part of Basque modernity, a customary component of 20th century Nationalism”. a policy that says more than just playing a game!

My grandad might not have been born in the Basque Region, but he likes a glass of Rioja, has been to Bilbao, and is a Nationalist/Republican! Perhaps now he may have to finally accept that he can’t play for Athletic Club Bilbao simply because he is rubbish at football! Perhaps this policy of ‘Cantera’ has some merit to be admired!

Big thank you to Andy West and Rob Kershaw who’s input really helped me put this piece together!

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