With media coverage in Spain dominated by La Liga giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it often goes unnoticed that Athletic Bilbao are the only other Spanish club never to have been relegated.
This fact from their 119-year history is even more astonishing because Bilbao are dependent on producing players from the Basque region. Unlike other La Liga teams, Los Leones will not sanction transfers of non-Basque players. With this limitation, Bilbao still achieve success year-on-year, challenging the leading La Liga sides for trophies and competing with them for Europe.
How Athletic Bilbao’s Academy Leads the Way in La Liga
Athletic Bilbao’s Basque Policy
Bilbao rely on producing players native to or developed in the Basque country and the Northern Basque country in France. In addition to Spanish players, French players from the Basque country, such as Bixente Lizarazu and Aymeric Laporte, have been able to play for Bilbao. This sustainability has been achieved due to outstanding youth development and experience at progressing players towards first team football. The majority of their squad players have come from their own academy. Bilbao are one of four Basque sides currently in La Liga. Others include Real Sociedad, Eibar and Alaves, but Bilbao’s eye for players and networking is unequalled.
Sociedad abandoned this policy in 1989 when they signed John Aldridge from Liverpool. Eibar and Alaves have now ended this restriction too. To gain first team football, once players reach their late teens they are loaned out to feeder club Basconia. They are located in the fourth tier where they can gain valuable experience. Once they have gained this progression and development they move onto Bilbao Athletic; into the reserve team who play in the regionalised third division. Players are then assessed by coaches as to whether they are ready for first-team football.
Recent Successes for Bilbao
Despite this restriction, Athletic Bilbao have won the La Liga titles eight times and the Copa Del Rey 23 times. They managed to reach four cup finals in in the last five years and they won the 2015 Super Cup by thrashing Barcelona 5-1 over two legs to win their first trophy since 1984. For the 2013/14 season, Bilbao finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. They went out in the group stage, finishing below two times European Cup winners FC Porto and Ukrainian Champions, Shakhtar Donetsk. Two seasons later they managed to reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Here they were knocked out by nine times Ligue 1 Champions Marseille and two times Champions League runners-up, Valencia.
They eventually bowed out to eventual winners, Sevilla. Their successes stem from their togetherness, as by having players from the same region installs a closeness that others can’t match. Players find a spiritual home in Bilbao and there is a devotion to the club that goes back generations.
Athletic Bilbao Managers
Los Leone’s restriction doesn’t extend to managers though as Argentinian coach, Bielsa has managed them successfully in recent years. Ernesto Valverde, who has recently moved onto five-time European Cup winners, Barcelona, did play for Bilbao though. “It’s very different from any other job,” he tells Sky Sports. “It’s very different in the sense that in other teams, whenever you have a problem in the squad you can go to a very broad market to find players. You have scouts looking all over the place. Here, it’s the opposite. You have to adapt to the style of players you have, because you know it’s very difficult to find anyone else.
“For example, if you want to find a left-footed left winger, or any left-footed player, which we don’t have many of at the moment, you know there’s a chance you won’t be able to. This season, in fact, we haven’t signed a single player. It’s something that comes with the job. Once you decide to become the Athletic manager, you accept that.”
The club are unable to withstand the interest of more established teams in many of their highly regarded players. Ander Herrera moved to the Premier League with Manchester United and Javi Martinez to German champions, Bayern Munich. Fernando Llorente recently signed for Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of around £12m. These fees help the club reinvest back into their academy to find new stars of the future. Players such as Iñaki Williams and Aymeric Laporte are current Bilbao players attracting interest from clubs around Europe. Athletic constantly bring youth players through to replace departed players and this is a very efficient and effective system.
Positive Signs for the Future
Bilbao are a very innovative model in a world of inflated transfer fees, ineffective academies and poor youth development. Their focus on local scouting and bringing players through the youth system has not held them back. Eight La Liga titles is an impressive total for a side without the transfer budget of other La Liga sides. There is no official rule to keep their Basque-only restriction. Although their current model is successful and should keep them challenging for years to come.
Embed from Getty Images