Athletic Bilbao & Barcelona – much more than just clubs

Barcelona is a team that are known the world over. Over their history some of the greatest players in the game have appeared for Barça from Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona to Gary Lineker and Rivaldo. Their current squad, inspired by Leo Messi, could be considered the greatest club side ever.

What separates Barcelona from the other biggest clubs in the world is their tradition, identity, style of play and academy.  Founded by a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers in 1899 the football club is a symbol of the local Catalan culture, signified by the clubs’s motto, “Més que un club” meaning More than a club. However, there is another club in Spain which has a lot in common with the Catalan giants but is far less celebrated.

Athletic Bilbao, from the Basque area of Spain, represents the region in a similar way Barcelona do for Catalonia. Both have links in their past to England, both are owned and operated by club members and both clubs are ever present in the Spanish top flight. This is the tale of two sides that are much more than just clubs.

The city of Bilbao was an important industrial location in Northern Spain with lots of trade with the British. As such there were a lot of British workers in Bilbao at the end of the 19th century. These shipyard workers mainly from Southampton, Sunderland and Portsmouth bought their passion for football with them and formed Bilbao Football Club in the early 1890s.

At the same time affluent Basque students were completing their educations in Britain where they picked up a love of the national sport. When they finished studying they returned to their homeland to form Athletic Club. The name they chose for the team, opting for the English spelling shows the influence their time in Britain had on them. Basque students also formed a second football team, Athletic Club Madrid, which would go on to become Atletico Madrid.

Bilbao Football Club, formed by the British shipyard workers and Athletic Club, the team of the Basque students merged at the start of the 20th century creating Athletic Club. The club’s colours was also influenced in Britain, Basque student Juan Elorduy was returning to Spain and brought back 50 Southampton kits, as they matched the colours of the city of Bilbao. The club decided to change from blue and white to red and white and have remained as such ever since.

Athletic Bilbao have gone on to become one of the most successful teams in Spain. They have won La Liga 8 time and the Copa del Rey 23 times, second only to Barcelona. They haven’t been able to recreate that success in Europe but have reached the UEFA Cup/Europa League final on 2 occasions in 1977 and 2012. Notable former players include Andoni Zubizarreta, Joseba Etxeberria, Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez.

Since 1912 Athletic Bilbao has operated a Cantera policy which means that their team consists solely of players that have come through the club’s youth academy or Basque players recruited from other clubs. The club’s motto explaining the thought behind this ideology is “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” which translates as “With home-grown players and supporters, there is no need for imports.” Real Sociedad also employed a similar system to Athletic until they relaxed they policy to allow foreign players into their team from 1989. The policy has been criticised in the past but Athletic’s own rules have adapted over time and players from other areas can play for the first team as long as they’ve developed in the Basque area. Players with Basque heritage but not born in the region are also allowed to play for Athletic, similar to the grandparent rule in international football. Athletic Bilbao current training ground was opened in 1971 and the board have plans to expand and modernise the club’s Lezama training complex. Recognising the importance of the academy this will help consolidate the Cantera structure and continue the development of youth players for the first team.

Cantera is Spanish for querry and in football terms refers to the academies and feeder teams. At Real Madrid the youth team is called “La Fabrica” and their second team is Real Madrid Castilla. In his first spell at the club Florentino Perez said he wished to form a team of “Zindane y Pavon” meaning creating a squad composing of superstars and home grown talents. This didn’t work and of the “Galacticos” only Iker Casillas, Raul and Guti came through the academy. In recent times academy products have been pushed out by expensive foreign imports and forced to seek opportunities elsewhere. Notable alumni of the Real Madrid academy include Alvaro Arbeloa, Jose Callejon, Juan Mata, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado. Real Madrid are the only team to provide more players for the Spanish national team than Athletic Bilbao.

In a similar way to Athletic’s policy of home grown players Barcelona have a strong desire to produce their own players from the Catalan region. La Masia (The Farmhouse) is Barcelona’s famed academy where the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi have developed. Originally used to house players from outside the city youngsters are taught the Barcelona way. Since it opened in 1979 it has trained over 500 youngsters, half coming from Catalonia and 10% making it into the first team, Lionel Messi was recruited by Barcelona from Rosario Central in Argentina at the age of 11. The running costs for the academy is £5m a year, making it one of the most expensive academies in Europe.  Echoing Athletic’s ideology, and embracing his own club’s motto former technical director, Pep Segura explained “It is about creating one philosophy, one mentality, from the bottom of the club to the top”. The team which won the Champions League in 2009 was made up of 8 home grown players and the following year 7 graduates from La Masia were part of the Spainish World Cup winning squad.

Although both cities are in Spain Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona represent the Basque and Catalonia regions where the respective clubs are based. Following the Spanish Civil War in 1936 both areas found themselves marginalised by the new regime headed by General Franco. Athletic Bilbao, named in homage to the origins of the club, were forced to rename as Atletico Bilbao as Franco had insisted upon the Castilianisation of all club names. In these years there was a strict limit on the number of foreign players allowed in each team; this didn’t have too much effect on either side due to the fact that both teams have strong beliefs on producing their own players from the local areas. Due to the oppression not just on the football field but in everyday life going to support Athletic Bilbao or Barcelona represented taking a stand against the regime. Fans were allowed to express themselves more freely when watching their respective teams in the San Mames or Nou Camp, both stadiums became symbols of regional pride. Supporters would be able to speak Basque or Catalan openly without fear of reprisals.

These expressions against the regime drew support not only from the Basque region but from working class Spaniards across the country. This growth in popularity wasn’t felt as much in Barcelona as they were the middle class team in Catalonia with Espanyol being the team of the working classes in the area. When Franco died the clubs and their fans were able to return to normal life. Athletic reverted to their original name and before the local derby with Real Sociedad the Ikurrina, the Basque flag, was displayed before the match, another rule which was put in place by Franco but subsequently overturned.

As everyone knows “El Clasico” is one of the most fiercely contested in world football. Regularly competing in both La Liga and the Champions League the rivalry between the two clubs has intensified in recent years. Although no longer direct adversaries for the title, matches between Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid are also hotly anticipated. The origins of both these rivalries can be linked to Franco’s regime. Real Madrid was seen as the club of the dictator with Franco maintaining his sphere of influence from the Spanish capital. As Franco’s centralisation was bitterly opposed in both Bilbao and Barcelona matches against Real Madrid was an opportunity to voice their discontent through football.

Now Spain has become a duopoly with Barcelona and Real Madrid dominating the league. When a player crosses the divide they usually know they will be in for a tough afternoon when they return to their old stomping ground. When Luis Figo crossed the divide in 2000 it was on another level. Lining up at the Nou Camp for Real Madrid the £37m man was bombarded with objects from the Catalan crowd, including the now infamous pig’s head.

In recent times football has become more of a business with the number of off field deals. Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona were two of the last major European teams to forgo extra revenue from shirt sponsors. Their principles are admirable and show the respect both clubs have to their traditions. When Athletic finally agreed to sponsorship in 2008 they received €2m a year. In 2011 Barcelona were able to negotiate a five-year €150m deal with Qatar Sports Investment. Prior to that Barcelona had displayed UNICEF’s logo on their shirts as well as donating €1.5m a year to the charity. The comparison between the two clubs sponsorship deals highlights the inequality in finances in Spain.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are the 2 biggest clubs in Spain in terms of success, history, size and money. The way income earned from TV rights is distributed is hugely beneficial to these two teams, as each club negotiates individually. They would argue that they are pulling in the audiences and are the most watched clubs but it has also allowed them to pull away from the rest of the league, only Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side have been able to keep up this season.

The figures of the 2012-13 season make interesting reading. Barcelona and Real Madrid received €140m EACH. The next teams on the list were Atletico Madrid and Valencia, both receiving €42m. The €17m Athletic Bilbao earned put them in 8th place. Between them Barcelona and Real Madrid made up also 50% of the total TV money earned by the 20 La Liga clubs collectively. With money like this it’s not hard to see other clubs get left behind, not even taking into account season ticket sales, income from replica shirts, sponsorship deals and the Champions League TV deals.

Barcelona’s Tiki Taki style of play was heavily influenced by Yohan Cruyff who was himself an advocate of Rinus Michels Total Football with Ajax in the 1970s. While a young midfielder at Barcelona Pep Guardiola developed under the tutelage of Cruyff. Heavy pressing and dominating possession are all qualities which have been ingrained in the Catalan’s style of play. Another influence in Guardiola’s managerial philosophy has been the legendary Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa. His teams are identifiable through a 3-4-3 formation, confidence in possession, high defensive line, heavy pressing and interchanging positions.

When Bielsa took over Athletic Bilbao these qualities where quickly found in the Basque outfit. During his time at the club he led them to a first European final since 1977. Although they were outclassed by a Radamel Falcao inspired Atletico Madrid team in the final there journey there bought many admirers with famous victories over Manchester City and Manchester United.

Barcelona’s have been hugely successful in the past decade and the praise they have received has been rightly deserved. The aim of this article is to highlight the similar philosophy employed by  Athletic Bilbao Football team.

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