How the resurgent and youthful Lions of Bilbao also share one of the league’s most heartwarming stories…
In Part 3, we examined the struggles of Barcelona and Atlético Madrid which took them from expected league title contenders for merely fighting for their right to be in European competition next season. But now, we will look at one of the teams involved in the very crowded fight for the European places this season.
There is likely a sentiment regarding LaLiga that, if you have followed the league or even just European football for really any length of time, you have likely heard repeated over and over again…
…Athletic Club de Bilbao are a very unique and special team.
In a global footballing landscape dictated by massive money transfers involving global brand players and brokered by powerful super-agents, a world where it is all about spend, spend, spend, Athletic Club are notably different in a way I am sure most readers know about. For those who are unaware, allow me to explain.
Since 1911, Athletic Club have operated with a transfer policy that is very strict relative to almost every other team in the world, despite the room for flexibility that the rule has had over the years. The essence of it is this: Athletic will only sign players that are either born and/or raised in the Basque Country (the cultural community made up of half a dozen provinces within northern Spain and southern France), have direct ancestral links to the Basque Country, or were developed in the academy of a Basque club. That is it. Since this is not an actual written rule, rather one that has lived on in spirit for a century, it has allowed some club leaders to use some flexibility and exceptions to sign certain players that may not have been used by previous leadership, but ultimately they still do operate by this very restrictive, self-imposed rule.
The spirit behind this rule prioritizes youth and development, especially within their now famous academy Lezama. A large amount of Athletic’s talent does come from their academy, including a significant number of their current first team players and a few famous exports. It is a policy that can be easily defined by its motto, which says “with home-grown talent and local support, there is no need for imports.”
Athletic are not the only club in the world that have a self-imposed transfer restriction centering around nationality or identity, and even local rivals Real Sociedad operated under a Basque-only player policy until they signed Ireland international John Aldridge in 1989. Athletic’s success under this restriction and given their circumstances, however, is incredible. Athletic are eight-time champions of Spain, with the fourth-most amount of top flight league titles among any Spanish team. They are also 23-time winners of the Copa del Rey, more than any other team except Barcelona, and three-time winners of the Supercopa de España, more than any team except Barcelona and Real Madrid. They are also one of three teams to never be relegated from the Spanish First Division, joining the original Primera División as a founding member in 1929 and remaining throughout the competition’s history (the other two teams never to be relegated are, obviously, Barcelona and Real Madrid). Athletic are a big, institutional club within Spanish football, and the fact that they have been able to maintain that status along with their player philosophies is quite remarkable.
It is not just a sporting policy, it is a cultural staple. It is what allows Athletic to be the club that it is: a club of strong community and identity, a club that represents Basque culture and, in many ways, Basque nationalism, and a club that places significant priority on its culture and community. Athletic are a club where there is genuine and tangible connection between the supporters and the players as well as a near-religious reverence toward the club among its supporters and within Spain as a whole.
And it has also given us one of the most unique stories of the season.
Any watchers of LaLiga or people who have played a fair amount of FIFA Ultimate Team over the years might recognize the name Iñaki Williams. A player known for his searing pace and tenacious desire, he has become a FIFA staple as well as a bit of a cult hero at Athletic in recent years. His story itself is incredible and could be hours of discussion on its own, but I will instead point you to Sid Lowe’s phenomenal profile piece on Iñaki and his family story for The Guardian, which you can read here. Born in Bilbao and raised in nearby Pamplona, Iñaki came through the Athletic youth system in 2014, and despite never quite living up to the hype around him, the 27-year-old forward has been a loyal servant to the club, a symbol and source of pride in the diversity of the modern Basque Country, and holds a place in history as Athletic Club’s first black goalscorer and the LaLiga record holder for consecutive appearances (a record he set this season).
He also has a younger brother named Nico, someone who had similar aspirations to be a professional footballer when he was younger. Those aspirations also took Nico through Lezama and now, as a 19-year-old, into the Athletic first team, where he has bloomed into a truly promising talent and an exciting player to watch, one who might even be better than his older brother.
And this is a wonderful story, first and foremost, because it is a family thing. These are two brothers living their dream together, and you can tell the chemistry that they have together on the pitch. While Nico was not fully incorporated into the first team until very recently, the moments that they have shared the pitch together so far have been fun to watch. Both are exciting players, particularly Nico with his youthful ambition and trickery on the ball, and they are two players that can make something happen. Iñaki’s ability to stay within the team for so long despite not being the best goalscorer at times attests to just how dangerous of a player he can be with and without the ball, and Nico’s ability to get into the first team so quickly shows how his directness and ability on the ball and sheer talent at such a young age is a problem for defenders to handle and makes him impossible to not play.
And they just look like they’re having fun. Obviously, they are serious and focused, as professional footballers are, especially with Athletic in the hunt for the European places, but you can tell that extra hint of joy is there, a slight sense of this still being them playing in the street together as kids. At the end of the day, these are two kids, two brothers, living their dream together playing for the club they support. You cannot help but cheer for this.
But like many things in and around Athletic Club, this moment represents something more. Not only is this, as with Iñaki’s emergence, further representation of the growing diversity within the Basque Country, but Nico’s emergence in the first team acts as a symbol of the youth revolution currently happening at Marcelino’s Athletic Club. With young talents like Oihan Sancet, Unai Vencedor, Nico Serrano, Dani Vivian, and Julen Agirrezabala taking up more significant roles in the first team alongside Nico Williams, Athletic are being boosted by a refreshing (and maybe needed) injection of youthful flair and confidence into the team, and they are reaping the rewards that Lezama and their youth development philosophies continuously provide. Athletic have rode this combination of youthful exuberance and mature experience to a third consecutive Copa del Rey semifinal, having knocked out Barcelona and Real Madrid in the process, and they are currently well within the race for a European place and, improbably, are only five points off the top four. It is very much within the realm of possibility that Athletic end the season guaranteeing a return to European competition for the first time in five years as well as potentially winning the Copa del Rey for the first time in 38 years.
And at the end of the day, the story of Athletic Club can be represented simply by the images of two loving brothers from Pamplona living their childhood dreams together with a club that certainly feels like a family.
Athletic Club are certainly one of the stories of the season outside of the major clubs, but what about elsewhere? Is there a potential underdog punching well above their weight this season? Find out in Part 5.
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