Monday, September 01, 2008

Lesson From Athletic Bilbao

This article comes to us via Bleacher Report:

Athletic Bilbao's Recruitment Policy an Example to Every Club in Europe

by Anthony Sanchez

Athletic Bilbao’s “cantera” policy is the bravest statement any club could make in today’s climate of greed and hunger for success and money no matter what the cost.

Bilbao is located in the Basque country of which there are seven provinces. Four in Spain and three in France. Bilbao’s cantera policy, (cantera translates as "quarry") dictates that Bilbao will only field players from the Basque region or of Basque descent.

This policy has served Bilbao and Spain well. Bilbao are the fourth most successful club in Spain behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid with eight La Liga titles and twenty-three Copa Del Reys and they have provided more players for the Spanish national team than anyone else (somewhat ironic when Basque politics are taken into account).

Athletic Bilbao are similar to Barcelona in that the club is about something more than football. They both represent the identity of a region.

Like Catalonia, the Basque region’s culture suffered under Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco. In a bid to promote nationalism Franco banned the Basque language, the cantera policy, the Basque flag, and they even had to temporarily change their name from Athletic to Atletico to adhere to Spanish language laws.

Real Madrid and Barcelona, along with other Spanish clubs, have had similar recruitment policies to Bilbao but have never stuck to them with the same conviction.

Even way back when Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano, Real’s greatest player was playing, Real bent their own rules by getting him dual nationality. Barcelona’s lack of faith in their own youth policy is evident when you see their home-grown players like Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal and Gerard Pique signing for Manchester United (though he has now returned for a fee).

While Real Madrid and Barcelona, in fact come to mention it every other top flight club in Europe, spent the summer searching the world for suitable talent, Bilbao have calmly gone into the new season without a single foreign player in their squad.

Although the cantera policy has been changed in recent years so any player can be considered Basque as long as he acquired his skills in the Basque country, this rule has been rarely used and there is still only a small number of non-Basques who have ever played for the club.

Unfortunately, the club’s form has begun to suffer as a result. Mid-table finishes over the last decade have gradually descended to the 2006-2007 seasons relegation battle when survival was only guaranteed on the last day.

Though last season they performed better with an eleventh place finish in La Liga, and many people are optimistic of their chances this season, it remains to be seen if the club can move forward using their current policies.

The club’s finances have also taken a hammering in recent years, though they are attempting to correct this issue. Amazingly, for the first time ever, Bilbao will carry the name of a sponsor on the front of their shirt this season. A two million euro deal was reached with Petronor refining company recently.

The rise of Osasuna and Real Sociedad have also seen them competing for the attention of the best Basque players which have become a somewhat dwindling resource. According to Spanish daily AS in 1928, 56 percent of Spanish footballers were Basques compared with 8 percent today.

This downturn in form shows no signs of changing Bilbao’s recruitment techniques though. “El Mundo-” Spain’s second largest newspaper reported in the mid nineties that 76 percent of the club’s fans would rather see the club relegated than give up the cantera policy. The fans see the clubs identity as being more important than trophies.

This policy of retaining a link with the region which gave birth to the club may be seen as borderline racism by some, but to me it is an amazingly admirable thing.

It would be so easy for Bilbao to try and recruit some big name players, push for a Champions League place and try to sell a million replica shirts in Asia but they don’t. The board of the club show amazing integrity by always making sure the supporters are the first priority, not money.

Now I’m not stupid enough to think this kind of policy could work everywhere neither would I want it to but I would be happy to see it employed in every club to a certain extent.

My club, Manchester United for instance, have always done well getting local talent in the team and I think most of the teams they have produced have had Mancunian players. Players such as Jack Crompton, Roger Byrne, Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd, Remi Moses all the way up to Wes Brown, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs are examples of local players who have achieved success with the club.

But without players from other countries like George Best, Dennis Law, Eric Cantona, Carlos Tevez, and Cristiano Ronaldo and players from other regions, Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson, and David Beckham, the success the club has had would probably not have been possible.

The ambitious clubs are going to continue hunting the best players, that is inevitable, and I wouldn’t want it any other way but I believe rules should be brought in to force clubs to include a small collection local players in their squad.

Otherwise what is the point of the clubs adopting the names of the areas they come from? Surely it is about more than where the team plays their home games?

I have heard it said that bringing in laws to limit the number of foreign players is against European law but I have also heard it said that bringing in laws to make a minimum number of home-grown native players compulsary would not be. Maybe this is the way forward.

I understand my thoughts maybe uncomprehensible to all the supporters from around the world who will never visit the city of the club they support or for the players who dream of playing for a club in another country or continent.

But in a game where clubs are fast losing any connection with the people that built them, where super clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid fight over a Portuguese player who couldn’t care less about either of them and a Russian billionaire in West London collects footballers like he’s trying to complete his Panini sticker album, maybe European clubs could learn a lesson from Athletic Bilbao and bring a little bit of much needed integrity to their clubs.

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