There’s no football club more self-sufficient than Athletic Club Bilbao.
Bilbao, founded in 1898, is one of three founding members of the Spanish Primera División never to be relegated, alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid. Unlike their domestic counterparts, Bilbao isn’t subject to paying extortionate transfer fees or associating with super-agents, due to the clubs cantera policy.
The cantera policy limits players who are eligible to sport the famed red and white jersey. There’s sole reliance on those native to the Basque Country, where the club is based, or have graduated from the club’s cantera youth academy.
“Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” (English: “with home-grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners”).
Contrary to popular belief, the Basque ideal has not always been implemented at the club. Bilbao originally composed of two separate teams, Bilbao Football Club and Athletic Club, with the former composing of British workers while the latter was formed by Basque students. Competing together for the first time under the alias Club Bizcaya to win the Copa del Rey, later to be renamed Athletic Club Bilbao with the cantera policy soon following.
Success hasn’t stopped there for Bilbao. 32 titles rank the club third in Spain’s all-time honors list.
Outside perspectives regarding the club are mixed, with the club gaining both admirers and critics for their philosophy. Yet an ‘El Mundo’ poll in the 1990s revealed that an astonishing 75% of the fan base would rather the club be relegated than scrap the cantera policy. Some would be shocked to learn that the cantera policy is only an unwritten rule within the club, though there has never been an attempt to undermine it since its introduction.
“It’s not written into our constitution that the team has to be all-Basque. It’s just a philosophy we’ve had from the start and we see no reason to change. We would rather go down than change our habits, I know the supporters feel the same”. – Fernando Garcia Macua, former club president.
Bilbao’s success relies on cohesion between the cantera and the clubs lezama training facilities. The lezama training facilities are integral to the club’s success, as they host first-team training sessions and are home of the cantera. This results in many squad members experiencing the facilities as a youth prospect prior to as a first-team member. Several squad members also begin their transition to the first-team either via Bilbao’s Segunda División B side, Athletic Club B, or Bilbao’s affiliate club, Club Deportivo Basconia. Kepa Arrizabalaga is an infamous example.
Arrizabalaga epitomizes the successful nature of Bilbao’s facilities. Progression to the first-team came via CD Basconia, followed by the cantera and Athletic Club B before his opportunity in the first-team arose. Arrizabalaga raised international attention after first-team success, which resulted in Chelsea paying a world record fee of £71.6 million for the goalkeeper this summer. This progression certainly isn’t an anomaly at Bilbao. Javi Martínez, Ander Herrera and Aymeric Laporte are merely some whom have trodden similar passageways and have reaped the rewards of Bilbao’s facilities.
It’s a passageway that results in success for the players themselves while also allowing the club to profit. Javi Martínez, Ander Herrera and Aymeric Laporte were signed for a total fee of little over £12 million and have accumulated over £125 million in transfer fees for the club.
Albeit Bilbao are liable to selling their finer talents, provided they receive an adequate fee, they certainly can’t be regarded as a ‘selling club.’ Bilbao’s current first-team squad is a blend of both youthful talent and accomplished professionals. Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain represent talent previously touted for top-tier clubs across Europe, while Aritz Aduriz continues to improve with age.
Bilbao’s financial position is the envy of many Spanish based sides. Bilbao remains untroubled while clubs struggle with the leagues’ distribution of TV revenue. ‘Palco 23’ revealed that as recently as the 16/17 season, Athletic Bilbao was one of only three clubs avoiding net debt in the Spanish Primera División. In fact, the club posted profits of £28.2 million for that season.
The cantera and lezama have directly enabled profitability for the club as they ensure a continued fruitful production line. While these facilities receive large funding from the club, results both on and off the pitch ensure that these facilities continue to be beneficial.
Athletic Bilbao will remain a footballing anomaly based on modern football’s current trajectory, yet, they’re both thriving and eloquently balancing supporter satisfaction, financial stability, and competitiveness while remaining self-sufficient.