The Miracle of Athletic Bilbao

“Athletic is a religion” – Óscar de Marcos

False Nine editor Hugo Greenhalgh pays respect to Athletic Bilbao…

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which Leeds United only selected players born and bred in Yorkshire. Then imagine that they had remained in the top division for the past 73 years, a feat matched by only two other clubs. And then imagine that last season they reached the FA Cup and Europa League Finals. This is perhaps the closest comparison one can make to the achievement of Athletic Bilbao.

Remarkably in this modern era of football, Bilbao have stayed true to their principle of only selecting players born in the Basque region, or those who have come through their own academy. This means casting an eye over the male population of a catchment area of around 3 million people. Along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, they remain the only team to have played in every La Liga season since its formation in 1929. And they did indeed reach the finals of the Copa del Rey and Europa League, only to lose both to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid respectively. But as anyone who follows the team will proudly tell you, it was the bond that was created between the players and the fans over this past season that transcends any silverware.

Indeed, Bilbao is a city with immense pride for its football club. Take a walk around the Mercado de la Ribera (Europe’s largest indoor market) and almost every food stand has a copy of the club’s crest on their wall. Some go further with large posters, flags and even replica shirts. The city’s many bars are also a constant source of activity geared towards all things football. Barmen and customers converse about the team’s fortunes, while a similar array of memorabilia adorns the walls. It is not uncommon to see signed photos or shirts from the players who are known to frequent these bars- this is their city too.

The fans are also an unforgiving bunch. Star striker Fernando Llorente’s recent refusal to sign a new contract and his courting of Europe’s top clubs was met with a hostile reception from the rojiblancos supporters. Following Bilbao’s recent 5-3 loss to Real Betis, fans vented their frustration at the club’s official shop in the city’s Casco Viejo (Old Town). They painted slogans on the shop windows – Llorente bastardo (“Llorente you bastard”), and much more cuttingly Llorente muerete Española (“Die Llorente you Spaniard”). Accusations of being Spanish are of course the worst insults one can receive in the Basque country.

Bilbao already lost one of their best players earlier in the summer. Javi Martinez, who can operate as a defensive midfielder or centre back, was sold to Bayern Munich for €40 million, making him the most expensive player in Bundesliga history. Of course the irony is Bilbao’s options for spending this vast sum are very limited. Instead, the money is reinvested into the club and on their famous youth system. Bilbao train in Lezama, a municipality about 10 miles from the city. The club are keen to push on with their ‘Lezama Master Plan’ which will see extensive improvements to training facilities, with a focus on academy level.

The club also have a new stadium to think about funding. San Mamés Barria, just yards from the original San Mamés, is likely to be opened in 2015 and will be very much in keeping with the core values of the city itself: modern and forward-thinking but with an eye on the past. The infrastructure around the stadium remains constant – fans can continue to go drink in their favourite pre-match bars and eat pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, afterwards. The only difference is that they will soon watch the match in a state-of-the-art European stadium.

Given the transformation of the city over the past 20 years, it is not altogether surprising that Athletic are leaving San Mamés. Atmospheric and intimate certainly, it is not pretty and has the feel of a sizeable English ground – perhaps Elland Road would be another fitting comparison. This is of course another appropriate trait. Long considered ‘the English club’ for their preference for long-ball football in the past, Bilbao also stood apart from the pack for their boisterous and passionate atmosphere, reminiscent of English crowds.

Take a look at most clubs’ squad photos and you will see a generic backdrop of their stadium or training ground. Not Bilbao. Their squad photo is superimposed onto a view of the Guggenheim, the only symbol of the city perhaps more famous than its football club. This is exactly the image that Bilbao wants to export; not only have they competed on the same playing field as Madrid and Barcelona in footballing terms, they can also match their bigger rivals for culture and design.

Yet alongside this constant pursuit of modernity and relevance runs a long-standing respect for history and tradition. The club crest features the bridge and Church of San Antón, structures that are said to predate the city itself. You can also see the Gernika Arbola (tree of Guernica), the symbol of the freedom of Basque people but also an eternal reminder of their suffering. A small town just outside of Bilbao, Guernica was the site of an intense bombing raid by the Nazis that killed over 1,600 civilians in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Under the regime of General Franco that followed, the Basque people felt his suppression the worst until the arrival of democracy in 1975.

Last year, Bilbao also wore a green away kit with red and white stripes, a bold and significant display of the traditional Basque colours that make up the La Ikurriña, the region’s flag. That kit clearly brought results as well as it became synonymous with the club’s great cup runs. The world watched on in amazement and admiration as Marcelo Bielsa’s side dazzled at Old Trafford, beating a strong Manchester United side 3-2 in the Last 16 of the Europa League, Bilbao resplendent in their green shirts.

Can Bilbao last another 73 years in La Liga? With the club seemingly destined to lose their best players, it will always be a challenge. As for future successes, the club seem to capture beautifully the ‘taking part that counts’ element of football. As long as the players try their hardest and are proud to wear the rojiblanco, the fans cannot ask for much more.

There is a large photograph on the wall of Bilbao’s press room of a barge sailing down the Nervión River, surrounded by other boats and a packed bridge of delighted local fans. This was taken in 1984, the last time they won La Liga, with the team carrying out the club tradition of sailing along the river from San Mamés to the Church of San Antón. With the monopoly of Madrid and Barcelona seemingly impenetrable, Bilbao supporters know that such scenes are unlikely to repeat themselves. But if the club can keep on competing at the top level and stay true to its principles, they will be happy. That is the real miracle of Bilbao.

Follow Hugo Greenhalgh on Twitter: @HugoGreenhalgh