In the words of Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle: “Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient.”
There is no club more self-sufficient in world football than Athletic Club and after another season fighting for European qualification in La Liga supporters once again have reason to be cheerful.
The club, founded in 1898, has played in La Liga since its inception in 1929 and is one of three teams never relegated, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid. In a world governed by exorbitant transfer fees and headstrong super-agents Athletic’s story is one of refreshing innovation and an almost complete reliance on the youth academy, or Cantera.
To put it in a Premier League context it would force Liverpool to only pick people born in the area, and you couldn’t imagine Stephen Warnock, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly avoiding relegation for too long.
The saying that defines the philosophy – “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” – translates as “With home-grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners.”
With 32 national and international titles in their history Athletic rank third among Spain’s most successful clubs, last winning honours in the 1983-84 season when Los Leones won the league and cup double.
Yet all the success, past and present, has been carried out with a sole reliance on players native to the Basque Country and without signing “foreigners”. Therefore players are drawn from the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain and the Northern Basque Country in France.
With a specific remit of players allowed to play for the club, Athletic are able to focus on scouting rather than trawl the globe in hope of finding the next superstar.
This often has spectacular results, as was the case with Javi Martínez who was signed from Osasuna as a 17-year-old for €6 million despite never featuring for the first-team. Martínez went on to play over 200 games for Athletic, breaking into the Spain national squad, before moving to Bayern Munich for €40 million.
Ander Herrera is another case in point. Having graduated through Real Zaragoza’s youth academy Los Leones were sufficiently impressed to sign the Bilbao-born midfielder for €7.5 million in 2011. Three years later Manchester United activated the 25-year-old’s buyout clause of around €36 million
Athletic have a carefully structured plan for progressing cantera products through to the first-team, although there is a constant emphasis on togetherness built at the Lezama complex where all Athletic’s sides train.
Athletic’s feeder club CD Basconia play in the Tercera División in Spain and are often the first point of call for first-team hopefuls. The club has played host to Aymeric Laporte, Fernando Llorente, Beñat and Fernando Amorabieta to name a few and continue to be a valuable tool in Athletic’s armoury.
The next step on the ladder is the B team, who play in the Segunda División B. Of the current Athletic squad only five players haven’t featured for the B team before representing the senior side.
Every season brings through another Iker Muniain for the San Mamés crowd to get excited about, and this year was no exception with Iñaki Williams breaking into the first-team after prolific spells with both Basconia and the B team.
Goals against Elche, the 21-year-old’s first league goal, and against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, will undoubtedly be sources of pride for Williams but it was his first goal for the club – against Torino in the Europa League – which made history.
When Williams netted in the ninth minute of the game he became the first black goalscorer in the clubs 117-year history. His mother is from Liberia and his father from Ghana, although they moved to Spain resulting in Williams being born in Bilbao.
Williams’ watershed moment came six years after right-back Jonas Ramalho became Athletic’s first black player, which came at a time when some were questioning whether the clubs Basque-only policy breached racial discrimination laws. Ramalho, an athletic defender who has represented Spain from under-16 level through to the under-19s , has yet to establish himself in the first-team, spending two years on loan at Girona, but he will forever be remembered as a key part of Athletic’s history.
Producing and signing Basque talent is not a problem for Athletic, however keeping hold of them in the face of other clubs who are able to offer higher transfer fees and wages has held the club back somewhat in the last twenty years.
Recent success such as reaching the Europa League final in 2012 and qualifying for last year’s Champions League have come at a cost with Athletic’s best players becoming prey for bigger sides in light of consistently impressive showings.
Herrera, Martínez and Llorente all left the club in the last three years, although Los Leones have been shrewd in reinvesting the money. Aritz Aduriz was signed from Valencia for around €3 million and continues to get better with age while the club recently persuaded Laporte to sign a new contract despite Manchester City and Barcelona pursuing the French under-21 international.
Faced with the financial muscle of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Athletic will always struggle to compete at the very top end of La Liga. However the club have a synergy between the supporters and players that cannot be replicated in world football. They are all fighting for the same Basque cause and this motivation cannot be measured in terms of the extra yard it gives the team.
Athletic are the utopian model that time hasn’t decayed beyond recognition, with state-of-the-art training facilities and a new stadium. While the honours have dropped off Athletic still remain one of Spain’s top clubs, refusing to spend above their means at a time when the financial situation among Spain’s clubs remains a cause for concern.
With players such as Muniain, Laporte, Markel Susaeta and Mikel San José Athletic remain in rude health on the pitch, although as always the concern will be that a successful season will lead to the vultures swooping.
People will always argue that Athletic represent somewhat of a glass ceiling, held back by the very identity that defines the club and those affiliated with it. The very best players that come through their academy will be sold to bigger clubs, but this is the way football works and not unique to Athletic; nor should it be used as a way of knocking the philosophy.
What the club loses in not allowing foreign players to sign they make up for with a focussed model and approach to not only surviving but thriving at all levels of running a football club, be it sporting success, supporter satisfaction or financial stability.
Next season the same process will be in place as the last, scouting for the best Basque talent and progressing youngsters through from the Cantera into the first-team squad to supplement those that have already made the same journey.
With everyone pushing in the same direction there is no lack of identity or confusion around the sporting model that has been the downfall of so many clubs. Long may it continue because, although Athletic may not be a sporting miracle, they are about as close as it comes to being the perfect example of self-sufficiency.
By James Robinson. Follow @JamesRobJourno