April 11, 2008

Basqueing in Glory:: Athletic Bilbao is Europe's most exotic football club. For 80 years, the legendary club has managed to keep itself in Spain's top division, fielding players recruited exclusively from the Basque region. But how long can the fiercely independent club continue to resist the trends of globalization?

posted by rumple to soccer at 02:35 PM - 13 comments

Good article. Some traditions are worth keeping even if the result is not always the best. From my long distance perspective, that Athletico Bilbao should have this tradition resonates strongly with the persistence of their region's lengthy campaign for independence. Maybe they will go down, maybe not; either way they are still the club of the Basques.

posted by billsaysthis at 02:51 PM on April 11, 2008

Great stuff, Thanks rumple.

posted by Folkways at 03:43 PM on April 11, 2008

Fantastic, thanks.

posted by yerfatma at 04:09 PM on April 11, 2008

Thanks from me, too. Anyone else read "The Basque History of the World"? It's terrific. And whenever I play FIFA Year Zero against one of my kids on Playstation, I always insist on being Athletic Bilbao.

posted by owlhouse at 05:09 PM on April 11, 2008

Reminds me quite a bit of the University of Minnesota hockey team, where during Doug Woog's tenure, he only recruited players from Minnesota. Always made the NCAAs until the last couple of years, and came close to winning a few times, but toward the end, the strategy started backfiring. More Minnesota schools and more Minnesota recruiting by other schools took its toll, and the Gophers started getting weaker. Don Lucia took over, promptly recruited a kid from North Dakota -- Grant Potulny -- and watched him score the overtime game-winner in the NCAA championship game three years later. Then Lucia brought in a player from Europe -- Thomas Vanek -- who pretty much single-handedly won the Gophers another championship the next year. Moral of the story: Sometimes you have to adapt to the times to be successful, no matter how much you love the traditions.

posted by TheQatarian at 07:31 PM on April 11, 2008

I heard Becky Hammon is learning Basque...

posted by bobfoot at 09:00 PM on April 11, 2008

Since when did xenophobia become a value?

posted by Chargdres at 09:35 AM on April 14, 2008

Since when does tradition equal Xenophobia?

posted by yerfatma at 11:33 AM on April 14, 2008

Thanks for this rumple. As my user name suggests, I grew up an Athletic fan. Having been to a game at San Mames, I can tell you that there really is nothing like it in sports. It's about as non-corporate an atmosphere you can have in major sports. There are very few billboards, not even many snack bars. People bring their own sandwiches and wine. If you don't bring you own wine, the guy sitting next to you will give you some of his. As mentioned in the article, Athletic are known to be some of the most polite and respectful in the game. They're just about the only fans in Spain that will applaud an opposing player for a nice bit of play. Racist taunts against foreign players that have plagued other Spanish clubs are virtually non-existent at Bilbao. Talking to fans, they'll simply tell you that they'd rather lose with Basque players than win with non-Basques. It's got nothing to do with xenophobia and more to do with believing that a sports team should truly represent the region that supports it.

posted by aupa_athletic at 01:18 PM on April 14, 2008

Good article. I watch a lot of La Liga and I'm always pulling for Athletic to do well due to their basque only policy. Aren't they in 10th now? That's hardly relegation threatened.

posted by squealy at 01:36 PM on April 14, 2008

Traditions can be both good and bad. The tradition of excluding people based on race, religion or nationality does not seem like a good tradition to me. Athletic's decision not to employ non-Basques, smells more than a little suspiciously of xenophobia. Athletic was not the only Basque team to do this, either; Osasuna and Real Sociedad both used to employ similar methods of Basque-only exclusion. However, neither Osasuna nor Sociedad have the following that Athletic has, nor do the others have the political history that Athletic does. Like Barša was the team of anti-centralism for Catalu˝a during Franco, similarly, Bilbao was a bastion for Herri Batasuna in the Pais Vasco. Barša moved forward, and now has a healthy but heated rivalry with Real Madrid, but Athletic has held on to its "traditions" more as a political/nationalist statement (ie., we don't want to have our team filthied with those Francoist Spaniards) than a sporting one. When Chivas USA tried to be an all Mexican team in the US, it was roundly criticized, and fortunately saw no success in its first few seasons, so it made the decision to just have a Hispanic image, rather then being an exculsionary employer. Similarly, Athletic could give up being discriminatory and still be THE Basque team, but xenophobia (especially as it pertains to Spaniards) is so firmly rooted in both the administration and fans at Athletic that this clearly is unlikely to happen unless Athletic finally get their comeuppance and are relegated.

posted by Chargdres at 01:44 PM on April 14, 2008

Hi aupa-athletic. It sounds fabulous, I would love to go to one of their home games sometime. I'm only 7,000 miles away though. I don't see this as xenophobic at all, remember that the history of soccer is one of local clubs, often workingmen's clubs, and not one of the more "franchise" (fuck I hate that term applied to teams) type of origin we associate with such sports in North America. So a club that is true to its roots is not necessarily xenophobic, anymore than the old Montreal Canadiens were when they got the first two picks out of Quebec every year. I do think they will have an uphill battle though, as the article notes. On preview: Chargres, you make good comparisons, thanks, very interesting. For Montreal, it was a big deal when they had their first non-francophone Captain, and it still is a big deal if their players don't speak French, even though now most of them are Russians, and the Captain is a Finn. But the fans above all wanted to win. I think that transition was made easier when Quebec City had a team (emblazoned with the fleur-de-lis) because now they had an in-house rival, so to speak, and the need to project Nationalism declined.

posted by rumple at 01:51 PM on April 14, 2008

The tradition of excluding people based on race, religion or nationality does not seem like a good tradition to me. Athletic's decision not to employ non-Basques, smells more than a little suspiciously of xenophobia. Of course, this begs the question what is a Basque? It's far too complicated to get into here, but what seems to be happening now is that Basques are trying to re-define what a Basque is. As the article mentions, there is a player born in Mali who is coming up through the Athletic farm system. He has lived in the Basque Country and plans on learning the language. He is, essentially, a Basque. I have a friend who was born in Seville--one of those Spaniards that Basques allegedly detest so much--who grew up in Bilbao, is a devout Athletic fan, and considers himself Basque. I'm not sure of the details, but I remember him telling me something that if you live in the Basque Country long enough, you have the right to self-identify as Basque regardless of where you were born. Equally, someone who was born elsewhere, say Latin America, but had Basque ancestors can also be considered Basque, which is why the team is searching throughout the world for players. Essentially, Basques are expanding the definition of what being a Basque is and the team is trying to reflect that. You mention that Barca has moved forward. Well, Athletic is trying to do that, but in a different way, one that ensures that players are closely tied to their community. As the article mentions, Athletic is forced to invest a tremendous amount of resources to develop local players, something that has benefited the region, including people who have emigrated there from other parts of the world. This may seem a bit silly or xenophobic, but it's just a different way of going about constructing a team and a culture.

posted by aupa_athletic at 03:27 PM on April 14, 2008

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