The dangers of doing things differently

Odhrán McDonnell asks if Athletic Bilbao’s Basque-backing principles are sustainable in the modern game.

Athletic Bilbao have always prided themselves upon their sustained success despite only fielding players of Basque origin, but can the relegation-threatened football giants sustain their model in a world of increased globalisation?

The football world has become accustomed to the concept of collapsing former powerhouses, with the likes of AC Milan, Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa suffering dramatic declines in recent years. The common denominator in these demises is generally money related – new owners who do not understand how to invest their millions, a drying up of funds, or even flirtations with administration.

However, none of these scenarios can be attributed to the struggles of Athletic Bilbao this season. They are a club with a proud history of relative success in Spain and even on the European stage, with six appearances in the last eight seasons of the Europa League. Unfortunately, this season has seen Athletic fighting at the opposite end of the table, with only four points separating them and the relegation zone at the time of writing. The thought of relegation is unimaginable for the supporters of this unique club – they are one of the only three sides to have never been relegated from the Spanish First Division (along with Real Madrid and Barcelona).

For most clubs in a similar situation, January’s transfer window would have provided an opportunity to bolster the squad with a new striker to fire them up the table, or a defender to steady a leaky back line, but Athletic are no ordinary club. Their long-standing tradition of only buying players of Basque origin prevents them from shopping on the world market for talent. Instead, they must continue to rely on the talent of their academy and the Basque regions of Spain and southern France for inspiration.

While many clubs would feel obliged to reshape their club policies in order to maintain their league status in the modern era of inflation and global markets, Athletic have always prided themselves on doing things differently. This sentiment is evident among former players and presidents alike, who are strongly opposed to breaking from club tradition by signing foreign players. Unai Bustinza, a former Athletic player who now plies his trade with Leganes, said that he would rather see Athletic “in the second division than to see them change the philosophy.” Former President Jose Julian Lertxundi went even further when questioned about reshaping the club philosophy, responding that “there are sweeter ways of committing suicide.”

Athletic have continued to insist upon their unique principles despite the changing climate of Spanish football. The influx of money from TV rights has been shared more evenly among Spanish teams than previously, and this has increased the financial muscle of Athletic’s smaller competitors. As a result, Spanish sides have been able to spend more money on importing foreign talent to compete with Athletic’s Basque players. This strengthening of the opposition coupled with the shortage of Basque options available has left Bilbao living dangerously while lesser known teams such as Alaves chase Champions League qualification. Athletic’s insistence on being different instils an incredible loyalty into its past and present players. Ibai Gomez, a former Athletic player, felt obliged to abandon high flying Alaves half way through the season to return to play his part in Athletic’s fight against the drop.

Another strange aspect of Athletic’s situation is that unlike many teams battling against relegation, they are unbelievably wealthy. This financial power is a result of the expensive buyout clauses which they insert into the contracts of their players. They are notorious for not budging from the terms of their buyout clauses in transfer negotiations. In 2012, Bayern Munich paid £30 million for midfielder Javi Martinez. Bayern made a lower initial offer but were ignored by Athletic until they agreed to pay the full amount of Martinez’s buyout clause. Manchester United were similarly frustrated in 2013 when they could not reach a deal for Ander Herrera. They eventually finalised the transfer a year later, but not until Herrera had paid his own compensation fee for breaking his contract.

In recent years, the trend has continued; Aymeric Laporte and Kepa Arrizabalaga have departed Bilbao for Manchester City and Chelsea for eye-watering figures of £57.2million and £71 million respectively. The problem facing Athletic is that they have nobody to spend their vast sums of money on. Buying direct replacements is nigh on impossible – there are no Basque players at a similar level who would be willing to move to Athletic. Instead, each departed star is replaced by the most promising player of the same position in the Athletic academy. This model has been effective for them thus far, but the last two seasons have seen Bilbao usurped from their position of relative comfort, by former minnows who now have the financial means with which to vastly improve their squads.

Unfortunately for Athletic, it seems naive to believe that they will be able to maintain their status as heavyweights in the Spanish league while the rest of the league continues to improve around them. The warning signs are there – they enjoyed four consecutive top seven finishes between 2014 and 2017 before a worrying 16th place finish last season. There is time to salvage the current season, but any prospect of challenging at their recent levels appear to be remote at best.

They may have to delve into their vast financial coffers to bring past stars back to stave off relegation – former players Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente were identified as January targets (although neither were subsequently signed). In addition, they must find a way to instil enough loyalty into their current crop to retain them in the long term. Winger Iker Muniain has set the tone on this by signing a contract with no buyout clause, pledging his future to the club. The immediate future of Athletic Bilbao as a Spanish footballing power may be uncertain, but this proud club will never exchange their identity for results, something which cements their status as a truly unique institution.