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Team Spotlight: Athletic Bilbao and its Basque-only team

Recruitment can be a strain at the best of times, as managers and directors of football try to negotiate bringing in top-quality stars for as low a price they can get.

Then there is the possible chance to not spend £30m on someone from another country and stick with a rising talent in the club’s youth academy.

Yet for Athletic Bilbao, it is an excruciating process, but also a hugely satisfying job, as only players with a significant connection to the Basque Country can play for the side.

Small talent pool

They are one of the only teams in the world, and certainly the most prominent, to have such a stringent recruitment, as only people who were born in the region or had risen through the ranks at a Basque youth academy can turn out for Los Leones.

Their philosophy of “con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” [with homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need for imports] has been instilled into the club since 1912.

Yet, the Basque Country, which is divided across two countries and seven regions, has a population of just over three million, leaving a far smaller pool of players to choose from than other teams.

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This has not prevented them from unearthing world-class talent with two of Spain’s greatest ever strikers hailing from the region in Telmo Zarra and Pichichi. The former was the all-time league highest scorer with 251 goals, until Lionel Messi overtook him last year, while the latter gives his name to the trophy awarded to Spain’s best finisher each season.

Expansion but still stringent

The Basque-only rule has expanded over the years, having at one time only allowed players to ply their trade for Athletic if they came from Bilbao or its province Vizcaya.

This eventually grew to the neighbouring provinces of Gipuzkoa and Alava, before including Navarre and then the French part of the region.

Now, the policy has increased to allow players that have been brought through a youth academy in the Basque Country, with the likes of Venezuelan-born Fernando Amorebieta and more recently Aymeric Laporte, who grew up in Agen just outside the region.

An exclusive club and ideology

While this ruling has not been copied into their management, with English, German, Brazilian and even Austrian coaches taking over the helm at Athletic, they have stood by the policy and the fans’ insistence in keeping with tradition.

The Basque-only restriction is not written on any official club documents and while some may want to splash out on a foreigner who could propel them up the table, a barrage of criticism and a potential sacking would come swiftly after for managers.

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This ideology, policy and culture has been ingrained into Athletic and it is what makes them special, with it often believed that a majority of people within Bilbao know one of their players personally, whether it is their family member or an old school friend.

The Basque-only rule is about more than just football, and would continue to use it, even if they were battling relegation to the Segunda Division for the first time, which they are embroiled in that fight this season.

Although the talent pool size is a lot smaller and recruiting can be difficult at the best of times, the players understand the tradition and often are seen playing above and beyond what their talent would suggest as for many, Athletic is their boyhood club and relates to their own identity.

For the fans, they will stand by their local heroes and cheer the team on, no matter the scoreline, as long as there are only their Basque brothers sweating blood and tears for the colours.

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