Eight La Ligas titles, the fourth-highest in Spain. 23 Copa del Reys, second only to Barcelona. Three Supercopa de Españas. And a shedload of home-grown players.
Welcome to Athletic Bilbao, a club which, for more than a century now, has boasted a playing squad who hail from their own Basque region – and stands as the area’s most successful football club in terms of cups and league titles.
But what’s the reasoning behind this unusual Athletic Bilbao signing policy? Exactly who can play for Athletic Bilbao? Let’s find out:
What is Athletic Bilbao’s Player Policy?
In 1912, just 14 years after the club formed, Athletic began adhering to a policy of only permitting players born in Spain’s Basque Country (found on the country’s northern border), or who came through the ranks at another Basque club, to play for them.
Indeed, there are two photos in the club’s museum showing the last red-and-white lineup including foreign players in April 1911, and the first to be comprised entirely of players from the own region in December of that year.
Prior to that, Athletic honoured that fact that, as they put it, “Football was brought to Bilbao by the English, and the English were brought to Bilbao by the area’s industrialisation,” so English players were often fielded in the club’s earliest, amateur years.
This has applied to not only their men’s first team, but also their reserve and youth teams, the women’s team (Athletic Club Femenino) and their farm team (CD Basconia).
Though, it has not yet extended to their coaching staff – though most have been Spanish, former Athletic managers include Argentian Marcelo Bielsa, German Jupp Heynckes and Englishman Howard Kendall.
Why Does Athletic Bilbao Only Have Basque Players?
They have their own motto which rather sums it up neatly: “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación.” In English, this translates to: “With home-grown talent and local support, there’s no need for imports.”
An article on the club’s website also speaks of an ‘unbridgeable gap’ between themselves and Real Madrid and Barcelona, but that “One might go as far as to say what has been lost in trophies has been gained in sporting merit, and the Club’s fans, and increasingly so the rest of the world, acknowledge this.”
Yet this has not always been the case. In Spanish football’s nascent period, almost half of the country’s registered footballers were Basques, but the more cosmopolitan the game has become since, the smaller a pool Athletic have had to pick from.
Put simply, Athletic can longer compete with Spain’s juggernauts, at least in terms of financial muscle, so to them, there is greater virtue in developing their own instead.
It was reported in October 2020 by Marca that Athletic’s budget for the 2020-21 season was €104 million, a fall from €132 million the previous year. But, as former Athletic midfielder Josu Urrutia said in December 2018, just before ending a seven-year spell as the club’s president, “We don’t really need the money.”
This especially rang true under Urrutia, a notoriously tough negotiator who would only let players leave if their buyout clause was met – hence why Kepa Arrizabalaga, for instance, only left for Chelsea the previous August when they met his €80 million release clause.
What Players Can Athletic Bilbao Sign?
Any player from the communities of the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain, or the Northern Basque Country in France. Though, it should be noted that this is not policy written into the club’s bylaws, and is an unwritten rule.
Yet no candidate for the club’s presidency has ran a campaign promising a move away from this rule, their fans seem to largely support it, and it seems to work, given only they, Real Madrid and Barcelona have never been relegated from Spain’s top tier.
A player being ‘from’ these communities does not have to be born there, though. For instance, Aymeric Laporte became the first Frenchman to graduate from Athletic’s youth system in 2012, but was not born in the French Basque region and his only connection is a blood link from his great-grandparents.
Another former Athletic centre-back, Fernando Amorebieta, was born in Venezuela, but joined the club aged 11 having been raised in the Basque town of Iurreta and having parents who both came from the region.
And former Athletic and Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera, depsite being brought up in Zaragoza and began his career with Real Zaragoza’s youth team, qualified to play for Athletic due to him being born in Vizcaya. So, their criteria perhaps isn’t quite as strict and rigid as it may first appear, or first was.
Do Athletic Bilbao Have Foreign Players?
At time of writing (February 2021), every player in Athletic’s senior men’s team is from the Basque region, while their entire coaching staff are Spaniards. Even Kenan Kodro, a forward currently on loan at Real Vallodolid was born in San Sebastian, despite representing Bosnia and Herzegovina on the international stage.
This same applies to Athletic’s reserve squad and women’s team – midfielder Sophie Istillart became the first female player from the French Basque country to play for the club in 2020, while Bibiane Schulze-Solano was the daughter of a Basque woman despite being raised in Germany.
Though, controversy surrounded the signing of Schulze-Solano in the summer of 2019, given she technically didn’t meet Athletic’s criteria, and she didn’t make her debut for the club until October 2020, becoming the 100th woman to play for their women’s team in doing so.
Pros + Cons of Bilbao’s Transfer Policy
The obvious advantage is that it saves money – Athletic’s biggest signing, for instance, is the €32 million paid for defender Inigo Martinez in January 2018; a fairly modest record in today’s climate.
That, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the healthy promotion of home-grown talent, club loyalty and moderate Basque nationalism by helping to uphold the region’s identity. Even if puts a lid on the club’s ambition in terms of tangible success, they would rather do it this way, and it seems that few supporters have any complaints with this.
Its longevity, coupled with the fact that Athletic remain one of Spain’s most successful clubs and have never been relegated, would certainly suggest it’s paying dividends.
Plus, given their parameters are much narrower in terms of signing players, they can charge higher prices from other clubs for their biggest assets. They also can focus more time and money on scouting locally and nurturing players through their own academies and reserve squads, rather than living with the rigmarole of a global network.
Though, there are some who see their attitude as discriminatory, or even racist. Defender Jonas Ramalho, born in Biscay to an Angolan father and Basque mother became Athletic’s first black senior player when he made his debut aged 18 in November 2011.
Meanwhile, forward Inaki Williams, still at the club today, became their first black goalscorer when he netted in a Europa League tie with Torino in February 2015 at the age of 20. Williams was born in Bilbao to Ghanaian immigrant parents.
Yet to label them so definitively as racist is unfair – Gorka Luariz, a forward of mixed ethnicity capped by Equatorial Guinea in 2018, represented Athletic’s youth system despite being born in Zaragoza as he was brought up in the Basque region, while Palestinian defender Yaser Hamed spent five years with the club as a child.
And as recently as 2019, Athletic’s academy teams included a number of players from ethnic minorities, such as Cameroon-born goalkeeper Chris Atangana and defender Loic Boum, and Inaki Williams’ brother Nico.
As Sid Lowe wrote in Sports Illustrated in November 2011, shortly after Ramalho’s debut: “In a country, in a region, where immigration is a recent phenomenon and not a particularly widespread one, at a club defending a unique, Basque identity in world football, none [black players] have ever qualified before.”
Do Any Other Clubs Only Sign Local Players?
Not as locally as Athletic do – probably the closest recent examples are Chivas de Guadalajara, who only field Mexicans, or fellow Basque club Real Sociedad.
Sociedad adopted a similar approach to Athletic from the late 1960s, and won consecutive league titles in the early 1980s under these rules, but it was abandoned in 1989 when they signed Ireland international John Aldridge from Liverpool to try to become more competitive.
Non-Basque Spanish players also returned for the first time in 35 years when, in 2002, Sociedad signed Sergio Boris from Real Sociedad. That said, the club still put their own at the heart of their squad; of their current playing staff, 23 are Spanish, two are French, one is Belgian and another Swedish.