“Bilbao’s” the way to do it!

After Athletic Bilbao defeated 3rd Division Club Deportivo Mirandes and reached their 35th Copa Del Rey Final (more then any other side in Spain bar FC Barcelona who have appeared the same amount) they will face either Valencia CF or FC Barcelona. Athletic currently sit in 6th spot in La Liga (2 points off 3rd & Automatic Champions League Football), are in the later stages of the Europa league and as mentioned will play in Spain’s Spanish Cup Final. For most clubs across the top leagues in Europe these are just the minimums of their expectations…but Athletic Bilbao are not MOST clubs, and I thought there would be no better time then now in their 113 year history to highlight in my mind one of the greatest clubs in world football.

The Club

 

Athletic Club Bilbao

Athletic Club Bilbao was founded 113 years ago in 1898 and boasts the proud record of being only one of three clubs that has never been relegated from Spain’s La Liga and Top Flight (the others being Real Madrid & FC Barcelona). Nestled in the heart of Spain’s Basque region, Bilbao play there home games at the “Estadio San Mames” which opened in 1913 and is Spain’s oldest built stadium. Nick named “The Cathedral” it has always been a daunting place for away teams big and small to travel, with its tradiontally loud and boisterous home fans or ‘socios’ as they are called in Spain. Athletic Bilbao is one of only four professional clubs in Spain (the others being Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Osasuna) that is not a sports corporation; thus the club is owned and operated by its aforementioned boisterous socios.

The Philosophy

Athletic Club has a very proud tradition of promoting young Basque players through its ranks (current Spain U21 star Iker Muniain), as well as being active in the transfer market to recruit top Basque players from other clubs (current Spain midfielder/defender Javi Martinez). The clubs official policy is to sign professional players who are native only to the greater basque region – and although this policy has been relaxed in recent years with players with direct Basque ancestry or with no Basque ancestry but formed in Basque clubs having played for the team it is one that must be admired.

Imagine Manchester City or Arsenal fielding a team solely with players who were born and formed in the greater Manchester and London boroughs and still achieve European Football and Domestic Cup Finals on a regular basis??

Titles vs Tradition

What makes the existence and achievements of Athletic Bilbao even more remarkable is the unified understanding of the clubs proud tradition, a tradition which only up until the 2008-09 season finally caved into the economic demands of modern day football and emblazoned a sponsor across their jersey for the first time in its 113 year history. The general consensus would be that having such “limitations” financially to develop the club, it would be just as stunting when it came to developing players of a standard to compete domestically let alone internationally…however this is not the case.

We only have to look at Marcelo Bielsa’s current breed of Bilbao players that are gracing La Liga week in week out that in this department the club more then punches above its weight, and with a youth system that can rival that of FC Barcelona’s famous “Masia” many of Bilbao’s class of 2011/12 are on now on the radar of Europes “Elite”.

Fernando Llorente (R) tussles with FCB's Leo Messi (L)

Mikel San José, Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez are not only essential regular members of the senior setup, but they were all important cogs in the Spanish U21 machine that swept all aside in last years 2011 UEFA European U-21 Championships. Javi Martinez at the tender age of 23 was 12 months earlier part of the Spain side that won the FIFA World Cup in South Africa along with Athletic Bilbao team mate and striker Fernando Llorente.

26 year old Fernando Llorente or ‘El Rey Leon’ (The Lion King) as he is also known by is a classic example of the “Bilbao Tradition”. Playing for the club at all levels from Youth, Bilbao Athletic (B Team) and the senior team he has amassed a total of 117 goals in 287 games for the senior club. Llorente has quickly developed into one of Europe’s top strikers and over the past seasons has had his fair share of admirers from top clubs in England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A.

Unfortunately this proud tradition of producing/investing in “basque based” players does not bring titles…Yes the club has won the Spanish Super Cup on one occasion, Spain’s La Liga 8 times and the Copa Del Rey 23 times but these crowns were last lifted over 25 years ago in the 1983-84 season…however Marcelo Bielsa’s class of 2011-12 could be changing that very shortly.

The Bielsa Factor

In the 25+ years which Athletic Bilbao have not lifted a major domestic or european honor they have not changed their player policy of Basque only players, so why now are they all of a sudden fighting on domestic and european fronts for titles once again…? The answer…Marcelo Bielsa.

The 56 year old former Argentina and Chile National Team Coach made a somewhat surprise move to take over the reigns at Athletic Bilbao at the start of the 2010-11 La Liga season. Off the back of a very successful 2010 FIFA World Cup with the Chilean National Team that was praised for its eye catching, high pressing attacking football the Argentine master tactician is now working his magic at the Basque club…only after some resistance from fans who were not happy/used to/understand the possession based, creative confidence he loves to instill in his teams and players.

Athletic Bilbao are now bearing the fruits of Bielsa’s labor and are one of La Liga most attractive footballing sides (ahead of Real Madrid who they more then matched at the Bernabeu for 60mins a matter of weeks ago) and form sides. A team that only a couple of seasons ago was solely based around getting the ball forward to “big man” Fernando Llorente as quickly and closely to the oppositions box as possible is now playing some of La Liga most exciting attacking football. Perhaps what had been missing was for someone to give Athletic’s abundance of talented players the confidence, discipline and organization it turns out they have been craving all along…which the likes of Muniain, Herrera, Javi Martinez and the reinvented Llorente have taken with open arms.

Identity…A final thought

I want you to imagine for a moment the club you love, follow, watch, study and defend to the death was built upon the principles of Athletic Bilbao…? Wouldn’t those deep feelings and unbreakable ties you have been even stronger if the players who wear the shirt out on the pitch week in week out were from the same city/town/village as you?

Forget the modern world where the only way to develop ties and bonds to your clubs stars is through twitter, facebook and other social media outlets…thats not a true way to grow a bond? thats not something you can feel? watch or fully understand? For me social media platforms have put todays footballers on even bigger pedestals…

Despite their lack of economic power, domestic and european titles, and “world superstars” what Athletic Bilbao represents to its players, staff, region and boisterous ‘socios’ (fans) is an identity…an identity every single person tied to the club can understand… now that is something money or titles can’t buy.

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