This season, all the talk around La Liga has been about the outstanding performances of Atlético Madrid. And rightly so, they have been excellent all year. Unfortunately, people have not been highlighting the absolutely fantastic achievement by Athletic Club from Bilbao who have managed to qualify for next season’s Champions League play-offs by finishing fourth in the league.
In a time when football is increasingly becoming a game for the richest clubs at the very top, it is extremely enjoyable to see the results Athletic have produced over the last few years. In 2012, they reached the Europa League final and, although they lost to Atlético, they impressed a lot of people on their way to the final. In the last-sixteen they knocked out Manchester United after beating the English champions 3-2 at Old Trafford and 2-1 at the San Mamés. The performance at Old Trafford was maybe the best performance I have seen against United by a visiting side because, in fairness, Athletic were unlucky to only win 3-2. They could easily have scored six goals were it not for the incredible performance by United goalkeeper David De Gea. That season under the guidance of the talismanic manager Marcelo Bielsa, they performed his ultra-pressing system to a brilliant effect but couldn’t really combine both the domestic league as well as their Europa League football, their league form suffered and they finished 10th. The following season they didn’t manage to fulfil their ambitions in the league either, finished 12th and Bielsa left the club in the summer. In came Ernesto Valverde and he has now taken the club to the Champions League. What is so impressive is that they have a philosophy that is unique in Europe, they only use home-grown players.
Athletic are a very proud club, located in the Basque city of Bilbao. They operate after a philosophy that mean they only use players born and bred in the Basque country, both the French and the Spanish side of it. This is why it is so easy to be happy for the club when they’re doing well. Every fan loves it when a young player come through the ranks and make their debut before cementing a place in the first-team for a long time. These players are the ones fans can identify themselves with, rather than a multi-million superstar who comes in for a few years before moving on. Most clubs have a couple of academy graduates in their side, some have a few more and some doesn’t even have one. Athletic have a squad full of players who are all Basque. In their squad for the 2013/14 season, Athletic have 12 players that have spent their entire career at the club, a further nine who have all come through the ranks before leaving and then coming back, and four who have all grown up in the Basque country but never played for Athletic before being signed. So, 21 out of their 25 players have come through their own academy. That is nothing short of fantastic for a Champions League club. Every other week these home-grown players are being cheered on by a fanatic home crowd of more than 50,000 supporters.
The Athletic fans are known for their fanatic support of the team
In order to produce such high-quality academy players, you need very good coaches. While Athletic never sign a player who isn’t Basque, they don’t mind appointing foreigners to educate and coach their local talent. Even though the Bielsa project didn’t work out as planned, the development of some players were one of the success-stories of his time at the club. Players like Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain, Ander Iturraspe, Oscar de Marcos and Javi Martinez developed immensely under the guidance of Bielsa. The story of Martinez is very describing of the way Athletic work. He was signed as a 17-year-old from fellow Basque club Osasuna and went on to play 240 matches for the club before being sold to FC Bayern München for a massive 40 million euros in the summer of 2012. Sign local talent, integrate them into the first team and keep them for a long time or sell them for big money. The fee paid by Bayern represented Martinez buy-out clause, a sum the Germans had to pay because Athletic don’t negotiate about selling their best players. If someone wants to sign them, then pay their buy-out clause. This relentless approach by the club was something Manchester United became aware of last summer when they wanted to buy Athletic midfielder Ander Herrera. They thought the clause of 36 million euros to be excessive and tried to negotiate, but found out that there was no way Athletic would lower the price.
Some of the best teams we have seen through the years have had a very strong local presence in the side. When Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 under Louis van Gaal they fielded a team including academy graduates Michael Reiziger, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and substitute Patrick Kluivert who scored the winning goal. Seven academy graduates playing in a final as well as nine Dutch players in the starting line-up. Four years later, Manchester United won the treble with a squad where youth team players Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Wes Brown all played their part. Of course, football has changed since the 1990’s. However, that didn’t stop Barcelona winning the Champions League in 2009 with seven academy graduates starting (Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi) as well as Pedro coming off the bench and then again in 2011 also with seven starting (Valdes, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Pedro). That Barcelona side is by many considered as maybe the best team of all time and they had so many home-grown players playing important roles.
Xavi, Messi and Iniesta
Of course, there are teams who have been successful without a lot of youth team players making the step up to the first team, but these three clubs’ success show that it is also possible to succeed with a strong core of home-grown players rather than just players brought in from all over the world. These three clubs all had players from abroad providing quality to elevate the team to the very top, something Athletic don’t have.
That just makes their performances this season even more impressive and while I’m not saying every club should just have players from their own region in their squad, it would be welcome with more clubs who would focus on their own academy and invest there rather than just in buying players and paying their wages. A squad full of both academy graduates and players born and bred in the region without any players coming from abroad or even born in the other parts of Spain and France, Athletic Club is the benchmark for clubs in terms of youth development and their rise up the league from 12th to 4th and subsequent qualification for the Champions League just goes to show that you can achieve success with a strong squad of youth team products.