As Athletic stagger to the end of a disappointing season, the only real interest being created by whether they might lurch into a relegation battle and have to fight to preserve their proud record of never having dropped out of the top division, hard questions will be asked. The move from San Mames marks the end of an era, but should the changes stop there? Is it time for the club to think the unthinkable and consider selecting non-Basques?
It seems an odd question to ask when nationalist sentiment seems to be even more aroused than usual in Spain. As the question of Catalan independence forces itself onto the agenda you’d think the traditionally more fierce nationalists in the Basque Country would be keen not to lag behind.
Yet Basque symbols in sport are already beginning to erode. The Euskaltel-Euskadi cycling team took the decision to admit non-Basques this season. Admittedly, they had a rather vague definition of what a Basque actually is, but then it’s not as if Athletic were sticklers for the rules when a player’s ability outweighed his credentials! However, the doors really have been flung open now. When Alexander Serebryakov failed a drugs test last March, the team management might have wished they’d kept them shut!
There are parallels in other sports. In cricket Yorkshire were proud of their refusal of select a player from outside their borders. “A strong Yorkshire team means a strong England team” went the saying, and they certainly regularly provided the backbone of the national side. Being the largest county in England and a hotbed of the game didn’t hurt either, but eventually reality caught up with them too.
As with Athletic, the globalisation of the game shifted the goalposts considerably. Non-British players were rare in cricket, their numbers restricted by legislation, until a fashion for bringing in players from the Caribbean was sparked by a relaxation of those rules and a spectacular West Indian side. Everyone wanted one of their players as their designated foreigner, and those who chose well enjoyed spectacular rewards. Meanwhile, Yorkshire atrophied, suffering an uncharacteristically barren period, finishing bottom of the table 120 years after its first competitive match, and lurching from one internal crisis to another as the club tore itself apart over whether to keep up with the Joneses or maintain its proud tradition.
In the end they decided to recruit from outside the county and became the same as all their opponents. Their results improved and although many valued servants of the club were lost during the bitter civil war, it now seems like a distant, difficult to believe, memory.
Is it really feasible that in the 2030s we’ll look back at Athletic’s singular stance in the transfer market in the same way?
They’re certainly disadvantaged when it comes to recruitment, and not only because they’ve a much smaller pool of talent to choose from. Prices are inflated by clubs who know that Athletic’s hands are tied.
Let’s say they lack creativity and desperately need a midfielder who can provide a spark in the centre of the pitch. If Athletic had free rein to explore the market then they’d scour the world looking for a suitable candidate, but with the field limited by their own hand, there might be just one Basque that fits the bill. For sake of argument, let’s invent a name for this made-up player: Beñat will do.
His club will know Athletic are over a barrel and can demand a fee which is in excess of the player’s market value, because what can Athletic do? Walk away? If they do, they’ll leave a gaping hole in their squad. They also leave the cash from Javi Martinez’s transfer burning a hole in their pocket!
Bilbao might be in a position to enjoy a healthy financial situation as their transfer fees are banked rather than ploughed back into the side, they might even be able to plough that money back into Lezama and set themselves up as a model others ought to follow. But they surely do that at a price: they compromise their competitiveness.
In the old days when player imports were rarer many clubs operated on a similar basis, even if it wasn’t their stated policy. Foreign stars were less common, local heroes more prevalent, populations weren’t so mobile. But the world has moved on, and perhaps Athletic must too.
Having said all that, I hope the change isn’t made. It would be a terrible shame for one of the world’s truly emblematic football clubs, indeed, one of the most remarkable sporting institutions in the world, to lose the quality which makes it stand out from the others. Athletic matter to the people who live in their locale like few modern clubs do. Go t the Basque country and everywhere you’ll see the team photo, taken around a picture of the Tree of Gernika, the enduring symbol of the Basque nation. In an era when every other club aspires to reach outwards and leave its roots behind, when even clubs whose regional credentials seem impeccable are accused of failing their natural constituency, Athletic represent the people it always did. The devotion shown in the last days of San Mames tells us the feeling is mutual.
Others might claim to be more than a club; Athletic’s uniqueness means they achieve that status without even trying.