By Elizabeth Hanchett, writing from Toronto
Athletic Bilbao is famous among football circles for being the only club in the world that insists on signing only local players to their team. Athletic was formed in 1898 in Lamiako (now part of the town/municipality of Leioa, about eight kilometers north of Bilbao), Bizkaia by British industrial workers living in the area. Athletic is also the oldest football club currently in the Spanish First Division, being one year older than FC Barcelona, and being the only club, aside from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, to have never spent a season in Second Division. It is a club with a cult of personality; in Bilbao, it is very difficult to support any club other than Athletic, as Bilbao has no other major professional side, and no one would dare support Real Sociedad, based in San Sebastián (or, as the Basques call it, “Donosti”, short for Donostia, the Basque name for the city), Bilbao’s major rival. Athletic is the one thing residents of Bilbao, in fact all of Bizkaia —Vizcaya in Spanish—, have in common.
One question that always seems to be asked of this seemingly small club is why it only signs Basque players. Another is how. With the why, it’s a national pride issue. Aside from the first squad in 1898 where more than half of the starters were of English nationality, Athletic has prided itself on never signing a “foreign” player to its club. And by foreign, of course, I mean non-Basque. This is an interesting concept because, despite (or, as some fans would argue because of) this little caveat, Athletic has been one of the Spanish league’s most successful sides. As I mentioned earlier, Athletic is one of three clubs that has never dropped to second division, though they have come extremely close a few times. But what exactly is a Basque? Or at least, what constitutes a Basque as far as Athletic Bilbao signing their football talent is concerned?