Athletic Bilbao and the Basque Identity

In many parts of the world, football is used as an instrument to promote nationalism.  During World Cups and continental championships, entire nations come together to watch their national team and cheer for their country.  The Spanish are no different when it comes to supporting their national team, known as La Roja.  However, when it comes to club football Spain is much more divided.  Fans of certain teams based in Catalunya and Basque Country express an anti-Spanish sentiment.  In the football stadiums, fans fly the flag of their region and not the Spanish flag while singing songs in their own language rather than in Spanish.  No club has become as politically extreme as Athletic Bilbao.

Playing in the birthplace of the Basque Nationalist Movement, Athletic Bilbao have become a symbol of Basque independence from Spain.  After 40 years of oppression under the Francisco Franco dictatorship, Athletic Bilbao continue to be a bastion of Basque pride.  Despite the globalization of football in recent decades, Athletic Bilbao have always maintained their core principals and Basque identity in every aspect of the club, however controversial they may be.  The most controversial and arguably racist aspect of the club is their Basque-only signing policy.  To play for Bilbao, you must have a Basque parent or must have been raised/educated in the Basque Country.  For Athletic Bilbao, non-Basques need not apply.  To understand why Athletic Bilbao have such an extreme signing policy, we must understand Basque history.

basque map
Basque Country, or País Vasco, one of 17 autonomous communities(Spanish states) that Spain is comprised of.  Culturally and historically speaking, the Basque Country extends into parts of La Rioja and Navarra, as well as extending into the southwest corner of France.

Athletic Bilbao were created by English factory workers in 1898 during the years of Bilbao’s booming manufacturing economy.  This was the same time that the Basque Nationalist Movement started gaining traction.  The Basque Nationalist Party was a political party whose goal was to promote the Basque language and Basque cultural values among other things.  Today members of the Basque Nationalist Party seek independence from Spain.  Every club president since the founding of Athletic Bilbao has been a member of the Basque National Party.

The anti-Spanish sentiment that Athletic Bilbao and their supporters share today comes from the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.  Rising to power in 1939, Francisco Franco was a right-wing Spanish nationalist who sought to unify Spain.  One of the ways he did this was by eliminating all aspects of the country’s culture which he saw as not “purely Spanish” such as illegalizing non-Spanish dialects, the public display of non-Spanish flags and naming children non-Spanish names.  These laws mostly affected the Basque Country and Catalunya where regional dialects and naming practices are the norm.  It became illegal for teachers to teach in Basque and for priests to give their sermons in Basque.  During the dictatorship, Athletic Bilbao were forced to become “Atlético” Bilbao since it was illegal for businesses to have non-Spanish names.  They were also forced to sign Spanish players who were not Basque.

Country During the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco forged an alliance with Adolph Hitler where he allowed Nazi pilots to practice their blitzkrieg tactics by dropping bombs in Basque Country to overthrow the Basque government.  On April 26, 1937, the Nazis dropped bombs on the city of Guernica, historically the seat of the parliament of the province of Biscay.  The Nazis needed a place to practice dropping bombs and Franco needed to stun opposition in order to rise to power.  It was a match made in hell.

guernica bombing
The aftermath of the Guernica bombing.  The number of victims is highly disputed, with the Basque government reporting over 1,500 victims while local historians reported 126 victims.

From 1939 until the end of the dictatorship in 1979, football matches were one of the few places that the Basque people could celebrate Basque pride.  In 1976, one football match, in particular became a historic display of Basque defiance.  Athletic Bilbao were playing in the home of Real Sociedad, their Basque rivals from San Sebastián who also had a Basque-only signing policy until 1989.  Both teams walked onto the field at the same time, something that is common today but very unusual at that time.  Both captains held the Basque flag together and ceremoniously laid the flag down at midfield.  The entire event had to be organized very carefully and in secret.  It was the first time that the Basque flag had been shown in public in almost 40 years.  Despite Francisco Franco’s death only a year earlier, the dictatorship had not ended and the act of showing the flag in public was still completely illegal.

Athletic Bilbao captain Jose Angel Iribar (left) and Real Sociedad captain Inaxio Kortabarria (right) defiantly carry out the Basque flag known as the ikurrina before the Basque Derby.

Today, football has become more international than ever, yet Athletic Bilbao remain purely Basque.  As mentioned before, Athletic Bilbao have maintained a strict Basque-only signing policy since 1912, which only allows them to sign players who have progressed through their academy, an academy of another Basque club, or by having Basque parents.  The irony, however, is that their players are still Spanish and several players play for the Spanish national team.  While the Basque national team plays a ceremonial friendly match on occasion, they are not recognized by FIFA or UEFA and do not play official matches.

Despite a strict signing policy that only allows Athletic Bilbao to sign players from a region of 3 million people making up only 6% of Spain’s population, they are one of the most successful clubs in the history of Spanish football.  They have won La Liga 8 times and the Copa del Rey on 23 occasions, however, their greatest achievement is their historic run of never being relegated to the second division.  Since La Liga began in 1929, only Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Athletic Bilbao have avoided relegation.  It is an incredible feat for a club with such a small pool of talent to choose from.  Much of this is attributed to their youth academy.  Any club that invests heavily in developing youth players in their academy will always have a strong foundation.  By signing mostly academy players, Athletic Bilbao ensure that all of their players share the same values, team mentality, and style of play.  A Basque-only signing policy promotes Basque unity, as well as develops players from their own community.  Without this policy many of these players would be overlooked in favor of better foreign or non-Basque players, so Athletic Bilbao sap all of the talent they can out of their players and make sure they reach their true potential.

Due to a very low Black population in Basque Country, only two Black players have ever played for Athletic Bilbao in their history dating back to 1898.  The first was in 2011 when Jonás Ramalho was promoted to the first team from Athletic Bilbao’s academy.  The son of an Angolan father and Basque mother, Ramalho only made 8 appearances for Athletic Bilbao before being loaned out and subsequently sold to Catalan side Girona.  The second Black player to play for the club is currently their star forward, Iñaki Williams.  Williams was born in Bilbao to African parents and is the only Black player to ever score for the club.

Often, Athletic Bilbao fall victim to their own success.  Players like Javi Martínez (sold for $48 million to Bayern Munich in 2012), Ander Herrera (sold for $43 million to Manchester United in 2014) and Aymeric Laporte (sold for $69 million to Manchester City in 2018) are hard to replace, especially when you can only replace them with reserve payers or Basque players from other teams.  In 2018, Athletic Bilbao sold goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea for $94 million, a record transfer fee for a goalkeeper.

More than 100 years on, and Athletic Bilbao are still using their club as a political platform by promoting Basque nationalism.  Rising from the ashes of the Spanish Civil War and an oppressive dictatorship lasting 40 years, Athletic Bilbao still represent the Basque resistance.ikurrina_11

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