La Liga: Athletic Bilbao-Homegrown Footballers at Their Finest

From a foreigner’s perspective, Spain is truly an interesting county. For those of you that don’t remember my previous post on Spanish Football and Basque Nationalism Spain has a ‘central’ culture, but most Spainards feel more of a cultural tie to the region where they are from. Ask someone from Barcelona where they are from and they will tell you they are Spanish simply because you don’t know where Catalonia is or what the Catalan language sounds like. But, ask them again where they are ‘really’ from and they will tell you they are Catalan. The same goes for the Basques who live in the north. Many Basques consider themselves to be ‘Basque’ and not ‘Spanish’.

Spain has a very long, historical tradition of ‘home-growing’ their footballers and bringing them up through the ranks. I mentioned this policy briefly in the Athletic Bilbao season preview, but it is really something that I would like to shine a bit of light on for everyone to see.

Cantera is a Spanish word meaning ‘quarry’, but more importantly for us, it refers to Spanish youth sides, or the process of the bringing a player up through the youth ranks. No where else is the cantera policy more prevalent then in Athletic Bilbao, and no where else is a side more homegrown than in the Basque capital.

Athletic Bilbao have a simple ‘policy’ when summed up says ‘If you aren’t basque, you don’t play for us.’ The actual saying used is

Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación.
With home-grown support and a fan base, you don’t need foreigners’,

This policy is more of a ‘practice’ than a ‘law’ per se, since there is nothing written in stone on this subject. However, most Athletic fans feel this policy gives them identity, something minorities in Spain love to express and feel.


You may be asking how successful is the cantera system at Athletic. Well, they are one of only three teams not to be relegated from the top flight in Spain. I’ll give you two guesses who the other two teams are. Real Madrid and Barcelona. The cantera has also produced some of the best players in La Liga history, such as Telmo Zarraonaindía, who is the all time leading scorer in La Liga history, and Andoni Zubizarreta Urreta, who is the most capped player in Spanish history and is best known for his netminding exploits in Barcelona.

How ridged is the system? Chus Pereda, who was a well known player in the 1960’s in Spain, was turned down by Athletic even though he was captain of the Basque’s under-16 side. Why the refusal? Pereda was born in Burgos, which is not a Basque town. Therefore he wasn’t Basque enough to play for the team. Pereda thanked them by scoring a hat-trick years later at San Mames playing for his new teams, Barcelona.

Recently, the cantera policy has come under increasing scrutiny in Bilbao. Athletic were saved from relegation in 2006 in the final game when a Deportivo loss saved them from the first relegation in team history. Some less than nationalistic fans feel the time has come to get rid of this ‘stale’ policy, but with many of the old time players voicing their support for the policy, it appears as if it won’t be gone anytime soon.

I don’t understand a few things about the policy. First off, Athletic do not allow foreign players into their ranks. But as this article clearly states, the club was formed by a bunch of Brits who were in Spain working in steel and shipyards. (Much of Spain started out playing football thanks to the British). If you read Phil Ball’s book Morbo the chapter on Athletic Bilbao will tell you more about it’s history.

On the same topic, just look at the club’s name. Athletic Bilbao, not Atlético Bilbao (which it was called until Franco’s death in 1975 and the original name was replaced). The club’s roots go so far as to invade the essence of the club, it’s own name.

Foreigners are not completely banned from Athletic. There have been three English managers at the club, Fred Pentland, Ronnie Allen and most recently, Howard Kendall from 87-89. One of the reason’s for Kendall’s departure from the club was the restrictions on players he could bring aboard.

The most difficult part of all this may just be that no matter how you slice it, there are only around 3 million Basques to choose from. Narrow that down to how many play football, how many play it well, how many are actually Basque,and that list grows very small very quick.

This year sees Athletic hanging on 29 points, only 2 points clear of the relegation zone. A trip to the BBVA Segunda División in Spain this season just may turn the tide on the cantera system once and for all.

I guess this comes down to the question of, When does someone eventually just say ‘screw it all’?- and then go and change the system.  At what point does history and tradition no longer matter, or better yet, become obsolete?  Will the Basques change their ways?

Or will the Basques echo the proud band on the Titanic, and keep playing amidst chaos as the boat slowly sinks into the wayer.

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8 Responses

  1. brilliant

  2. Tradition, pride!?
    I’d say fascism!

  3. Crazy club the la liga is too copetetive this season i see them goin down

  4. In football, success requires more than money and/or being able to pick a player regardless of his passport. Uruguay has only 3 million people, they won 2 WC and they keep a very competitive national team.
    I believe that getting rid of the policy will not guarantee anything to Bilbao. Furthermore, they could become one of these “elevator teams” that go up and down every year. Or worse.

    What I think is that their policy is not the problem with their last years results. But realizing that that policy is your only source of players, and taking the most out of it should be the answer.

  5. athletic has always been in la liga’s premier division. it is the only team that keep this record along with real madrid and barcelona, so you probably should have more respect for this institution. It is not fascism, there are foreigners in the youth teams…you should see this team do something much harder than being barcelona or madrid and winning the Champions. For me, they are simply the best, just because they are there

  6. Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner,I found that to be more helpful well let me know how it turns out. This is good…thanks for sharing

  7. […] If you want to know a bit more about Athletic Bilbao’s cantera policy click here for a better … […]

  8. […] If you want to know a bit more about Athletic Bilbao’s cantera policy click here for a better … […]

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