Athletic Bilbao and the Basque Identity

In many parts of the world, football is used as an instrument to promote nationalism.  During the World Cup and European 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.  However, during the La Liga season, Spain is much more divided.  Fans of certain teams, mostly based in Catalunya and Basque Country, express anti-Spanish sentiment.  In the stadiums, they fly the flag of their region, not the Spanish flag, and sing 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 policy is their Basque-only signing policy.  To play for Bilbao, you must have a Basque parent or must have been raised/educated in Bilbao.  For Athletic Bilbao, Spaniards need not apply.  To understand why Athletic Bilbao have such an extreme signing policy, we must understand Basque history.

Athletic Bilbao were created in 1898 by English factory workers during the years of Bilbao’s booming manufacturing economy.  This was around the same time that the Basque Nationalist Movement was gaining traction.  At the time, the Basque Nationalist movement was a political party whose goal was to promote the Basque language and Basque cultural values, among other things.  Today they seek independence from Spain.  Since its founding, every president 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 Spanish nationalist who sought to unify Spain.  One of the ways he did this by illegalizing non-Spanish dialects, the public display of non-Spanish flags, and naming children non-Spanish names, which mostly affected Basque Country and Catalunya.  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 a business to have a non-Spanish name.  They were also forced to sign Spanish players who were not Basque.  Before he became the dictator, Francisco Franco had forged an alliance with the Nazis and during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and allowed the Nazis to practice their blitzkrieg tactics by dropping bombs on Guernica, an important city in Basque Country.  The Nazis needed a place to practice dropping bombs and Franco needed a people to oppress in order to rise to power.  It was a match made in hell.

From 1939 until the end of the dictatorship in 1979, football matches in were one of the few places that Basques could celebrate Basque pride.  In 1976, one football match in particular became a historic display of Basque resistance.  Athletic Bilbao were playing in the home of their Basque rivals, Real Sociedad (who had a Basque-only signing policy until 1989).  The captains of both teams walked onto the field holding the Basque flag and ceremoniously laid the flag down at midfield.  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 bringing the flag onto the field was completely illegal.

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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.  While a Basque-only signing policy promotes Basque unity, as well as developing players from their own community, certain things are sacrificed.  Due to a very low Black population in Basque Country, only two Black players have every played for Athletic Bilbao in their history.  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 and subsequently sold to Catalan side Girona.  The second Black player to play for the club is currently their star winger, Iñaki Williams.  Williams was born in Bilbao to African parents and is the only Black player to ever score for the club.

Despite a strict signing policy that only allows 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 the 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 the 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.

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.  Athletic Bilbao are already looking for replacements for 23-year-old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and 23-year-old winger Iñaki Williams, who are expected to sell for over $30 million each.

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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