Athletic Club are one of Spain’s most storied sides, one of only three along with Barcelona and Real Madrid that can claim to have never been relegated from LaLiga. Located in Bilbao, the Nuevo San Mamés is an impressive technological wonder that can host more than 50,000 fans. Nicknamed La Catedral, it is the home to an impressive and strict system focused on the development of local players in the Basque Country, and has been producing quality footballers for more than a century.
Forged by groups of British immigrants and Basque students, Athletic dates back to 1898. The club featured a true goalscoring star during the 1910s and 1920s in Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, better known as Pichichi. The skillful forward led Los Leones to multiple Copa del Rey triumphs and was a crucial part of the Spanish national team that captured a silver medal at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Belgium. Since 1953, the Pichichi Trophy is awarded to the top scorers in both LaLiga and the Segunda División.
Athletic were incredibly successful in the early years of LaLiga, winning consecutive top-flight titles in 1929-30 and 1930-31 (two more would follow in 1934 and 1936). They knew how to find and develop talent, and much of it was due to the policy that has come to define them in many ways. For better or for worse.
The club utilise a cantera system in terms of the squad, and the priority is finding some type of link to the Basque Country. Nestled along the border of Spain and France, the region features a language and culture all its own, with history dating back hundreds of years. It is where football first became popular in the country, as the sport reached Spanish shores from overseas. This also helped to make Athletic a powerful force through the 1930s and 1940s. They are second only to Barcelona with 23 Copa del Rey trophies, the last one arriving in 1984.
The successes of those years were possible in many ways thanks to the surreal attacking exploits of Telmo Zarra, a once-in-a-generation talent who is Athletic’s all-time leading goalscorer (335). Until a supremely gifted man by the name of Lionel Messi came along, Zarra’s record for the most LaLiga goals stood unmatched for many decades.
The club have their own criteria for how a player is considered “Basque”, and that will often see them make moves for players from other Basque sides (such as Real Sociedad or Osasuna). Recent stars like Javi Martínez and Ander Herrera may have begun their journeys elsewhere, but they ended up making a true statement at the San Mamés. Owned and operated by their club members, the cantera policy is at the very heart of Athletic Club.
However, there are critics of the system, and understandably so in some respects. While Barcelona and Real Madrid have famously nurtured local talent, they have also achieved great success through adding various international players. The monumental talents of Messi, Kaká or Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps would never have been seen in Spain if their clubs did not adapt to their current recruitment policies, and there are fans who believe this should take place at Athletic. But those beliefs are often from those on the outside looking in, and their style helps to give and identity an a voice to their region.
One of the sayings for supporters is “con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación”. This phrase translates to “with homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need imports”, and it is an efficient summary of how their philosophy is structured and viewed. There was concern in the 1950s, as Madrid added the likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Barcelona signed László Kubala, that the changing world around Athletic could be a problem, though triumphs were still managed to be found.
During this time, they were known as Atlético Bilbao, as General Francisco Franco’s nationalist views on language looked to eliminate any non-Spanish usage (they would eventually return to their original name in the late 1970s following the end of the Franco regime). Through all the changes, both in terms of Spain and within LaLiga, Athletic have not turned away from their ethos of local development. As modern football has rumbled forward, into an uncertain and likely further elitist territory for the more resourceful sides, Los Rojiblancos have shown there is another path that can be taken.
Their system has a clear direction, as important as anything when it comes to talent making an impression from the academy to the first team. Roles are played in the lower divisions as well. From feeder club CD Basconia to reserve side Athletic Club B, there is representation and opportunity for players at various levels of the Spanish footballing pyramid. This is how club president Josu Urrutia wants to see things also, creating an environment that can make Basque footballers better.
Urrutia has been in the position since 2011, re-elected for a second term in 2015. A former midfielder who made more than 300 LaLiga appearances with Athletic, his life has been and continues to be connected strongly with the club. During his time as club president, he has seen talented players and coaches drive them forward. Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde have been outstanding managers, and he will be hoping for more of the same from Eduardo Berizzo, following a disappointing 2017-18 campaign that produced a 16th-place finish in the league table.
Urrutia has also led the club towards success in the financial sense, and this will definitely continue on thanks to an unbelievable pair of transfer fees in 2018. According to Sports Business Daily, Athletic enjoyed a strong profit of €21 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Their budget for this past season was set to include €102 million in expenses and a revenue of €116 million.
Spanish outlet Marca reported that Urrutia has “recorded positive financial results every year” since his start in 2011, the mark of any good leader at a club. These numbers are ready to reach spectacular new heights thanks to the sales of Aymeric Laporte and Kepa Arrizabalaga.
When combining the fees for Laporte at Manchester City and Kepa at Chelsea, Athletic netted a total sum in the region of €140 million. It is a truly remarkable amount, and one that will no doubt be used in an effort to keep producing talent. When looking at the players involved, there should be a confidence that more footballing skill will follow in their footsteps.
Born in France, Laporte was a controversial addition at the San Mamés. Only the second French player ever for Athletic, he was eligible for the squad due to his Basque heritage. The defender was ultimately a shrewd piece of recruitment, as Laporte blossomed into one of the best centre-backs in LaLiga.
He made more than 200 appearances for Athletic, and displayed impressive defensive skills against some of the world’s best attacking sides. Laporte’s work in central defence was critical during their victory in the 2015 Supercopa de España, as the club captured their first piece of silverware for 31 years. He made both matches difficult for Messi and Luis Suárez, and he would soon be on Pep Guardiola’s radar at Manchester City, eventually moving this past January.
Just like Laporte, Kepa’s path to the first team included two stops along the way that prepared him well for the big stage. A stint with both Basconia and the Athletic reserves helped to build his confidence and skills, as the young goalkeeper made a strong impression very quickly. Two promising seasons have made him Spain’s number two shot-stopper behind David de Gea, and brought a massive contract with Chelsea in the Premier League.
Chelsea were in a unique and uneasy situation, left stranded by Thibaut Courtois’ desire to join Real Madrid. Plenty of options were present, but a fast decision also needed to be the correct one as they look to battle for the top-flight title once again. An eye-catching €80 million release clause was necessary to land Kepa, and the Blues made it happen, only confirming the bright future for the player.
It will not be a simple task for Athletic to re-build, but also will not be impossible. With the likes of Iker Muniain, Artiz Aduriz, Raúl García and Iñaki Williams, Athletic have an excellent mixture of experience and quality. Berizzo has proven himself to be a competent manager in LaLiga, and fans should see an improved side this season.
Due to the selective nature of player criteria and the effectiveness of the academy to produce new names, part of what keeps the financial numbers growing is limiting the amount spent on incoming transfers. From the 2014-15 term through 2016-17, Athletic spent only €9 million on reinforcements (€8 million of that sum was used to land Garcia from Atlético Madrid). In the opposite direction, the club netted €36 million just from Herrera’s move to Manchester United in the summer of 2014. Going back further in the last decade shows only rare cases when they would eclipse €10 million in a season for additions.
The reinforcements find their way to the first team through their decades-old system, but there is a tough balance to find. Their Supercopa triumph three years ago was their first trophy since the 1980s, and supporters want more. It is a problem that many clubs throughout the world face, especially ones that seem to churn out promising young footballers with regularity. The profits are now higher than they ever have been, and that is no failure when considering the recent lack of silverware.
Athletic will surprisingly not feel the pressure to find more record-breaking transfer fees amongst their players, and the funds from Kepa and Laporte only give them more flexibility. Due to their policies in terms of making signings, other clubs around Europe know that they have a tremendous bargaining chip when it comes to discussing deals with Athletic. For example, a good Basque player may bring his side more than he’s worth if they come calling.
Now, they have more of a cushion in this department, and this freedom could allow business to be even smoother for the board. 2018 has already brought a windfall of cash, and a variety of areas will benefit. Infrastructure for the academy will continue to evolve, as will their sharp scouting network that has an amazing touch when it comes to identifying the future stars.
Athletic Club find themselves at odds with modern football, keeping the history of their club’s origin and region both alive and at the forefront of their growth. While there may be different avenues to find success in world football, they have shown that they have the ability to do things the same way since 1912, when an unwritten rule was put into effect.