The completely bizarre, ‘unwritten rule’ that makes Athletic Club Bilbao the most unique team in world football


As the season comes to a close, no matter whether your team has won the championship, is preparing to see their fortunes rise in the next season or have been relegated, we all crave the date of the approaching transfer window to see who our clubs are linked to.

I mean just think of the big clubs out there. Take Real Madrid and their ‘galacticos’ policy where if they need a forward, they will sign the best available player in the world at any cost to fill that void.

It’s not just Real either, I mean the same logic could be applied to most of the big and rich European clubs like Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain – the list could go on.

A big family.#GetafeAthletic #AthleticClub ????

— Athletic Club (@Athletic_en) May 3, 2024

However currently nestled in between Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad in fifth and holding the Europa League spot is Athletic Club, more commonly known as Athletic Bilbao.

While they look like any other top side in LaLiga, if you take a further look into their squad, their academy and their overall identity, you’ll appreciate not just the story but also how they continue to be a regular fixture in the Spanish top flight despite the unique circumstances they place on themselves.

What are these unique circumstances you may ask?

To explain this, let’s use my local professional team Perth Glory. If you look at their starting XI for their final game of the season last week, you will see that six of the players were from Perth, one was from New Zealand, and the rest were made up of players from Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

As you can see, the majority of the squad is made of homegrown players from Western Australia and have been a part of the Perth Glory system at some point. But there is nothing restricting players from other parts of Australia or the world from joining the club.

Whereas if you look to the most recent starting XI of Athletic Club when they took on Atlético Madrid, who funnily enough were founded in 1903 as a youth branch of the club by Basque students living in Madrid, a pattern is revealed through the personnel and the club.

All the players involved from the first team to the under tens of their academy system are either from the Basque region, trained in the region or have strong Basque ancestry in their family and it’s not by some case of crazy coincidence, rather it is a pillar of the club’s foundation.

It wasn’t always like this though. When the club was founded in 1898, the team was made up of locals from in and around Bilbao but also English players who had migrated to the Basque region around that time to work in the docks.

The English influence can also be seen in their iconic red and white striped kit, which is believed to have been inspired from fellow port city Southampton.

That all changed in the 1910s after they adopted an unwritten policy that only Basque players were eligible to play for Athletic, regardless of whether they had gone through every stage of their famed academy ‘Lezama’, or if they brought someone in from outside the club on a transfer.

Some would see this as a detrimental condition to place on your club, especially in the modern game where spending money on the best players available to you regardless of nationality or culture closely aligns with a team’s success. Athletic, however, do not subscribe to that notion and remarkably it seems to work for them.

To start, they have something that Atlético Madrid and Valencia can’t even boast about which is, along with fellow founding members Barcelona and Real Madrid, that they have never been relegated from LaLiga in their entire 125-year history. Not bad company to sit alongside, right?

Inaki Williams of Athletic Club Bilbao celebrates his goal against Getafe.

As mentioned earlier, the rule doesn’t just restrict their player base to people born in the Basque Country autonomous community, but it also allows them to sign players from the greater Basque region, which stretches from Bilbao along the Bay of Biscay, inland to the depths of the Navarre province and ending just north of Bayonne in the south-west of France.

However, that doesn’t explain all of the players in their squad over the years.

Someone who doesn’t conform to the traditional Basque image includes former squad member Cristian Ganea, who was born in Romania with no family ties to the Basque Country.

As with most things, it all comes back to those unwritten rules that allow special circumstances for players to be signed under the criteria of ‘being trained in the region.’

This is all due to his time growing up in the Basque Country playing for Athletic’s farm team Baskonia.

Another player breaking the mold is Iñaki Williams, a Bilbao native having successfully graduated from the club’s academy. In 2015, Williams became their first black goalscorer and is currently the only member of the squad whose nominated FIFA nationality isn’t Spanish but rather Ghanaian due to his parents migrating from there to the Basque Country.

He loves our colors. Leader.#AthleticClub ????

— Athletic Club (@Athletic_en) May 4, 2024

It seems shocking that it took this long but when looking at the ethnic breakdown of the region, people of African descent are more scarce than other ethnicities in Spain; this is partially associated to the Basque ‘race’ or identity being often reflected as white.

While you will probably never see the club crowned as the kings of Europe or ever in the depths of a dynasty, especially with the likes of Real, Barça and Atlético dominating the Spanish top flight, the supporters don’t really care for this to be perfectly honest.

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As long as the club makes sure that they uphold the Basque identity that is so famously associated with the team, the fans will continue to proudly support them. Athletic wholeheartedly represents not only them, but a whole region, a way of life for those who consider themselves Basque.

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