ⓘ Athletic Bilbao signing policy. Since 1912, Spain-based association football club Athletic Bilbao have had an unwritten rule whereby the club will only sign pla ..


ⓘ Athletic Bilbao signing policy

Since 1912, Spain-based association football club Athletic Bilbao have had an unwritten rule whereby the club will only sign players who were born in the Basque Country, or who learned their football skills at a Basque club.

The policy is related to Basque nationalism and has been praised as a way to promote local talent, although it has been criticised as being discriminatory.


1. History

In the first decade of their existence Athletic selected English players for the team, but since 1912 they have adhered to a policy of allowing only players born in the Basque Country or who learned their football skills at a Basque club to play for them. The motto used to describe the reasoning behind it is "Con cantera y aficion, no hace falta importacion" English: "with home-grown talent and local support, theres no need for imports".

The policy is not written into the Athletic Bilbao rulebook but specific criteria were added to the clubs upgraded website in 2008; the approach has become a philosophy of the club in order to promote local players under the cantera homegrown system. The policy also extends to Athletics reserves, their farm team CD Basconia, their youth teams and their womens football department. It does not apply to the coaching staff, with managers from England, Hungary, Germany, France and Argentina among those to have led the team at various times.

They were not the only club to adhere to this approach; fellow Basque club Real Sociedad had a similar policy from the late 1960s and won two consecutive league titles in the early 1980s adhering to the self-imposed restriction as did Athletic, but it was dropped for foreign imports in 1989 when they signed the Republic of Ireland forward John Aldridge, and for non-Basque Spanish players in 2002 with the transfer of Boris from Real Oviedo. However, the San Sebastian-based club still places a high importance on producing their own local players, and a high percentage of their squad in the 2010s were home-grown.

Back in 1911, a dispute occurred between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao regarding the latter fielding ineligible English players in the 1911 Copa del Rey; they had also employed the services of several non-Basque players from Atletico Madrid which was then a branch of the Bilbao club. This led to the Royal Spanish Football Federation introducing a rule for the next years competition that all players must be Spanish citizens. As a large proportion of the players in that early era were Basque, relying on locals was no impediment to Athletic and they chose to maintain that approach even when the regulations were relaxed some years later.

The policy has been praised as a symbol of localised football being successful at the highest level, as well as preserving a strong regional identity and being a way for Basque nationalism to be moderately expressed. It has been described as discriminatory for only allowing Basque players to play for Athletic Bilbao, although it has been suggested that the policy is working for them since Athletic are one of only three clubs along with Real Madrid and Barcelona never to have been relegated from La Liga.


2.1. Origins of players Ethnic minorities

Due to a relatively low immigrant population in the region, the policy also had the consequence of Athletic Bilbao being the last club in La Liga to have never fielded a black player. That was ended in 2011 when Jonas Ramalho, whose father is Angolan, made his debut. In 2015 Iñaki Williams born in Bilbao to Ghanaian immigrant parents became Athletics first black goalscorer. Prior to Ramalho, in 2000 the first African-born player in the clubs youth system was Blanchard Moussayou whose promising career was curtailed by injury; some years later, he stated his belief that it was twice as hard for a black player to make an impact at the club. Gorka Luariz, a forward of mixed ethnicity capped by Equatorial Guinea in 2018, spent time in Athletics youth system despite being born in Zaragoza as his upbringing was almost entirely in the Basque region. Another international player, Yaser Hamed of Palestine, spent five years with the club as a child before moving around several local semi-professional teams.

Former academy trainee Yuri Berchiche, who rejoined Athletic in the summer of 2018 as one of the clubs most expensive signings, has an Algerian father but showed no interest in playing for their national team when the matter was put to him.

As of 2019, Athletics academy teams include a small number of players of an ethnic minority mostly Afro-Spaniard background, including Cameroon-born goalkeeper Chris Atangana, forward Nico Williams the younger brother of Iñaki, and defender Loic Boum, also of Cameroonian origin, who having been orphaned as a child was a ward of the Government of Navarre when he moved to the club in 2014.


2.2. Origins of players French players

The club has also recruited players from the French Northern Basque Country a region of 300.000 where rugby union is the most popular sport with Bixente Lizarazu being the first French-Basque to play for the senior team in 1996.

The signing of Aymeric Laporte prompted debate among supporters and columnists regarding the definitions of the policy when he became the first Frenchman to successfully graduate from the clubs youth system in 2012, as he had no link to the Basque region through birth or residency, and a blood link only via great-grandparents. He did play for a team in the territory, Aviron Bayonnais, but only by arrangement after the initial approach from Athletic in 2009, as he was too young to move to a club outside France at the time – he arrived formally in 2010.

Yanis Rahmani, a Frenchman of Algerian origin raised in Sestao, progressed as far as Basconia at the same time as Laporte but did not turn professional with the club. Others have progressed no further than youth level.


2.3. Origins of players Griezmann debate

Antoine Griezmann, the French forward developed by Real Sociedad, was the subject of debate regarding his eligibility for a theoretical move to Athletic as he emerged as an elite player in 2012. Hailing from Burgundy, he arrived at the San Sebastian club aged 14 but only to play football for their academy teams rather than for some other non-sporting reason, and has no connection to the French Basque Country other than attending school there after signing for Real.

The opinions of some including Athletics academy director Jose Maria Amorrortu were that his training at a Basque club from a young age adhered to the policy, while others insisted that he had the same ineligible status as any adult player transferred in by Real and the other local professional clubs.

In any event, Griezmann showed little interest in joining Athletic, subsequently moved on to Atletico Madrid and was voted the worlds third best player in 2016, making any move to Bilbao unlikely in the medium term. In respect of any future players of a similar trajectory, Athletics position on recruitment remains unconfirmed.


2.4. Origins of players Players of Basque descent

In 1980 the club was believed to have given serious consideration to signing Iker Zubizarreta, a young Venezuelan of Basque heritage his grandfather Felix played for Athletic in the 1910s who had impressed at the football tournament at the 1980 Summer Olympics, but decided not to pursue it.

In 2011, media sources claimed that Athletic had shown interest in young Mexican midfielder Jonathan Espericueta but no such move materialised, and the player himself who did later play in Spain with Villarreal B stated that his Basque connection was as distant as a great-great-grandfather.

The Uruguayan international Diego Forlan, whose paternal grandmother was from Hondarribia, claimed he had talks over a potential transfer to the club in 2004 but this signing would have been incompatible with the clubs stated policy as Forlan was not born in a Basque region, nor did he play football as a youth or at any point in his career at a club in the territory. That is also true of Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuain, and Spaniards Benjamin Zarandona, Kepa Blanco and Jorge Lopez, all players with tenuous Basque links who were also said to have been considered as potential signings by the clubs presidential candidates when Athletic were struggling on the field under the restrictions of the policy. In 2015 the Australian winger Tommy Oar with Basque-born grandparents was the subject of similar speculation. Multiple UEFA Champions League winner Marco Asensios Basque father, a former footballer, suggested his son to Athletic as a potential signing early in his career, only to be informed that Mallorca-born Marco did not fit the philosophy. But despite these examples of the rule being applied consistently, Mario Bermejo, a Cantabrian also with a Basque father but trained at Racing Santander, did sign for the club as a promising young player in 1996, which he later stated was smoothed by an Athletic director being an acquaintance of his uncle.

Apart from the occasional anomalies, the typical stance to reject players from the Basque diaspora contrasts with players born in Latin America who were signed by the club such as Marcelino Galatas, Higinio Ortuzar, Vicente Biurrun, Javier Iturriaga and Fernando Amorebieta who all did have Basque parentage, but as with the small number of players born in other parts of Spain such as Carlos Petreñas, Isaac Oceja, Makala, Armando Merodio, Patxi Ferreira, Luis Fernando, Andoni Ayarza, Teo Rastrojo, Manu Nuñez and Ernesto Valverde, it was primarily their residency in the territory from a young age rather than their ancestry which made them eligible for Athletic. But that was not always the case, as in the 1950s some talented players raised locally but with birthplaces elsewhere were not signed as would have been expected in later eras. It has been suggested that the inconsistent rejection of some of these foreign-born players by the clubs hierarchy may have been influenced by the ruling regime which emphasised pride in all things Spanish considering the Basques as part of this single identity, or conversely by some board members views as Basque nationalists, opposed to Franco in their ultimate aims for their homeland but also involved in judgements on the worthiness of individuals based on their ethnic background.


2.5. Origins of players Born in the Basque Country

Conversely, players born in the Basque Country but raised elsewhere are considered eligible. In the years prior to the Spanish Civil War, Athletic undertook a project named Operation Return, seeking players born in the Basque region who had emigrated to other countries. One of the few who actually made a competitive appearance for the club was Nemesio Tamayo who had begun his career in his adopted homeland of Chile and also played in Mexico before a brief spell in his birthplace. The arrival of Bilbao-born Emilio Aldecoa in 1947 was unusual as he had spent the past decade of his life in England, having been evacuated as a teenage refugee of the Civil War. Another member of that refugee group was the clubs star goalkeeper of the era Raimundo Perez Lezama, although he had returned home much sooner on the outbreak of World War II; a third Basque refugee Sabino Barinaga turned down an offer from Athletic and joined Real Madrid.

Fernando Llorente was born in Pamplona but lived his whole childhood in Rincon de Soto close to Basque territory but outside it before he was recruited as an 11-year-old. Two of Athletics most expensive signings, the Bilbao-born Spain internationals Roberto Rios and Ander Herrera learned their skills in the cities where their footballing fathers were based professionally Eusebio at Real Betis of Seville, and Pedro at Real Zaragoza respectively; Gaizka Mendieta son of Andres Mendieta of CD Castellon had similar origins but turned down a move, albeit he remained a proud Basque who played for the unofficial representative team. In 2019, Athletic were reported as enquiring into the availability of young players Gonzalo Desio the son of former Deportivo Alaves midfielder Hermes Desio, born in Vitoria-Gasteiz but raised in his parents homeland of Argentina and Sergio Moreno born in Pamplona but raised in the Canary Islands and in Madrid, where he made a senior debut with Rayo Vallecano due to their birthplaces, with no other links tying them to the clubs recruitment philosophy.


2.6. Origins of players Players from Biscay

It was once the case that Athletic would usually recruit from the Biscay province surrounding Bilbao while the other leading clubs Real Sociedad and Osasuna would focus on players from their respective provinces Gipuzkoa and Navarre. In recent decades with the pool of potential players declining due to a low birth rate in the area, Athletic expanded their recruitment in these other areas in their efforts to accommodate the best players with any Basque links. This saw many talented players from San Sebastian and Pamplona join the club, and also caused Real Sociedad to abandon their own Basque policy in the face of the competition for signings.

Transfers between the clubs increased tensions with Osasuna and with Real; Athletic paid over the odds for players from those rivals on several occasions, including breaking the national record for a native player for Loren in 1989, setting further records for purchasing a teenager with Joseba Etxeberria in 1995 followed by the €6 million outlay on the untested Javi Martinez in 2006, being ordered by courts to pay €5 million for Iban Zubiaurre in 2008 after his signing was found to be a breach of contract, and meeting Iñigo Martinezs €32 million release clause in 2018 offset by losing Aymeric Laporte the same day in a similar deal worth double that amount.

That change of focus also led to fewer players from the home province being selected; in a 2011 fixture, none of the Athletic starters or used substitutes were from Biscay. However, in subsequent years more local players made the grade, and the situation appears unlikely to occur again in the near future – 12 of the 25 players in the 2016–17 squad were born in Biscay and 14 for the 2019–20 squad, and in November 2017 a study showed that 77% of players in the academy teams hailed from the province.


2.7. Origins of players Players from outside the region

On the other hand, the definitions of the philosophy are stretched occasionally to accommodate promising youngsters with little Basque connection, which does not always sit well with some of the clubs followers.

Enric Saborit, originally from Catalonia, who graduated through the youth and reserve levels to reach the first team, caused questions to be asked when he signed in 2008; he had no connection with the region by birth or blood, but while already 16 years old and playing in RCD Espanyols cantera teams, he moved to Vitoria-Gasteiz where his mother had relocated for work two years earlier. As soon as he became a resident of the territory, Saborit was deemed eligible by Athletic to play for the club.

In summer 2017, Athletic recruited Youssouf Diarra, an 18-year-old forward born in Mali who was raised in Catalonia and had spent the past two years playing for clubs in Navarre after moving these to continue his education, which the club deemed sufficient under the policy, but apparently decided the circumstances by which Ibrahima Deng, a teenage migrant from Senegal via Tenerife, came to play for Basque club SD Amorebieta did not fit the policy Deng later joined another local professional club, SD Eibar. The previous year, Athletic had signed 16-year-old Colombia-born defender Deiby Ochoa, who lived in La Rioja and had only ever played for clubs in that region. Like Diarra, he had attended trial matches at the Lezama training centre.

However, despite having invited Ochoa the spelling of whose name was changed to the Basque Otxoa in club records to join, in October 2017 it was announced that Athletics youth training camp in Oion – a village in Alava, but just a few miles from Logroño – would no longer accept players who did not fit the Athletic philosophy, effectively excluding around 150 Riojan youngsters of various ages from the system and leaving only around ten Basques across the squads. Past recruits born in that region, who were considered eligible due to their formative club being Osasuna or Real Sociedad, include Jose Mari Garcia, Santiago Ezquerro, David Lopez and Borja Viguera; however, the justifications for allowing Luis de la Fuente and later Daniel Aranzubia to join Athletics youth system directly from Riojan clubs were less clear.

In January 2018, Athletic announced a new signing who was more obviously non-Basque by ethnicity: 25-year-old Cristian Ganea, a Romanian international who was also born in that country and had only played for Romanian clubs for the past five years. But prior to that, he had spent his teenage years living in Basauri just outside Bilbao and had featured for local teams including Basconia, Athletics farm team at semi-professional level who have a separate amateur and juvenile structure, meaning he too was eligible under the learned skills at a Basque club aspect of the policy. A year later, the Bosnian international forward Kenan Kodro joined the club, but his Basque credentials beyond his name born and raised in San Sebastian and a Real Sociedad youth product were very robust.


3. Womens team

The Athletic Bilbao senior and reserve womens teams were established in 2002. The club won five Spanish championships in its first two decades while adhering to the Basque-only policy, benefitting from the less globalised and commercial nature of the womens game in that period – with less money available for imports, local players predominated across the leagues clubs and no Barcelona–Real Madrid duopoly existed, with Los Blancos not becoming involved in the sport until 2019. Due to the shorter history of the womens branch there are fewer examples of Athletic players with partial connections to the territory, examples being the internationals Damaris Egurrola born in Florida, raised in Gernika and Lucia Garcia born in Barakaldo, raised in Asturias as well as American goalkeeper Maite Zabala from the large Basque community in Boise, Idaho who did not make a competitive appearance.

In summer 2019, the club made a signing which many supporters felt was a breach of their code, bringing Germany-born 1.FFC Frankfurt player Bibiane Schulze to Bilbao. As well as marrying into Spanish minor nobility, her mothers family had strong Basque ties, including great-grandfather Patxo Belaustegigoitia who played for Athletic a century earlier. Bibianes personal connections to the region were frequent visits on holiday including informal football development playing on the beach at Lekeitio, and being an Athletic fan as a child. The club president Aitor Elizegi addressed the media to explain the rationale behind the signing, stating she was a player of "clear Basque origin".

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