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Athletic Club Bilbao: The Spirit Of The People

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Andoni Zubizarreta, Athletic Club Bilbao's Sports Director, and former Spanish goalkeeping hero spoke to about the club, its ambitions and its policy of using Basque-only players.
Athletic Club Bilbao, one of Spain’s oldest and most successful teams, are currently mid-table in the Spanish Primera Division. Being a top-flight side is remarkable due to their unique policy of recruiting players only from their local region.
"Like all teams, we'd like to win everything," said a smiling Zubizarreta, "but the problem with ambition is that it focuses people on always coming first. The real ambition for this club is to reach a good competitive level. Things are very tight in the Spanish League, and in Europe in general, so it' about focussing on producing a good competitive team and taking it from there."
The interesting thing about Athletic is that they aim to achieve this good competitive level by using Basque players only. The 2.5 million people of the Basque region, in Northern Spain are proud of their culture and language (spoken by over 30% of the people). They also enjoy a certain degree of political autonomy from the rest of Spain.
Athletic maintain their policy of only using Basque players. Though as Zubizarreta is keen to point out "there is some flexibility in how you define a Basque."
"If an English family settled in the region and then brought up their children within the Basque culture, then the club would certainly consider them Basque, and provided they were good enough, they could play for Athletic."
Most famously, the club signed the France and current Bayern Munich defender, Bixente Lizarazu, from Bordeaux, in 1996. People thought this signing of the first foreign-national Basque signalled a relaxation of the policy. Though further relaxation has not followed.
"It would be easy for us to sign a 15-year old talent from somewhere else in order to try and improve the team, much like the other big clubs, but it is important to us that our players have a passion for Basque culture," maintains Zubizarreta.
Athletic's policy is in marked contrast to that of some of their Spanish rivals.
Real Madrid President, Florentino Perez, recently said, "I have heard a lot recently about signing David Beckham. He is a great player but we will not sign everyone on the market." Though denying links with Beckham the current Real side already boasts many of the world's most famous players, Ronaldo, Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, and Zidane, among others.
Like most top European clubs, Real Madrid's side is full of players from many different nations.
But Zubizarreta shows no jealousy of his famous rivals. "Athletic remain committed to developing grassroots football in the region and have been doing so for over 40 years. We will continue to develop local players."
The club goes back a lot farther than 40 years, being founded in 1898 by local traders and engineers from northern England. The English influence is still very much evident today with Athletic maintaining the English spelling (rather than the Spanish name, Atletico) and wearing a strip very much like Premiership side Sunderland.
When asked if there is pressure on the club from fans to bring in foreign players Zubizarreta says, "That they want the club to continue to try and represent the spirit of the Basque people."
This is born out by a major project currently being carried about by Athletic Bilbao, which brings together people from all sectors of Basque society – cultural, business and political – in order to strengthen and improve the club.
The underlying philosophy is that the club's future will still be based on representing Basque culture and spirit, rather than influenced by match results.
The project hopes to identify how this can be best achieved, and focuses on developing the grassroots game. It's not only about developing young players but improving all the living conditions for people in the Basque region.
As Zubizarreta sums up "we hope this project will support and reinforce our existing philosophy, and further strengthen the club."


 Jon Wilkinson, March 2003

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