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Basque soccer club would say 'no' to Beckham, Ronaldo or Zidane

Alberto Letona
Canadian Press

Friday, October 22, 2004

BILBAO, Spain (AP) - Most soccer clubs would give anything to sign superstars such as David Beckham, Ronaldo or Zinedine Zidane.

Not Athletic Bilbao. Fans would consider it a betrayal. The oldest club in the Spanish first division, the Basque team has a century-old tradition of not employing "foreigners" - not even players from other parts of Spain unless they've been schooled in the club's youth system.

At a time when clubs in Spain and the rest of Europe are stocked with players from all over the world, Athletic sticks to it roots.

"We can win titles with our own players," said club president Fernando Lamikiz. "We could sign players from outside the region if we wanted, but we won't betray the club's history. Modern-day soccer is too reliant on marketing."

Athletic draws its players from the four southern Basque provinces in Spain, and the neighbouring three northern Basque provinces in France The area supplies 25 of the 27 first-team members, with two others coming from other parts of Spain.

The club is a reflection of Basque nationalism - an expression of cultural, historic and linguistic differences that separate this northern region from other parts of Spain. Although every player speaks Spanish, 30 per cent also speak Basque, an old tongue undergoing a rebirth.

"We're a unique case in the world," said Athletic fan Alfredo Urrutia. "If Athletic changed this philosophy and accepted players from outside the Basque region, people would stop going to the stadium every Sunday."

Founded in 1898, the club developed when the Basque region was the steel and shipbuilding heart of Spain. English and Welsh settlers immigrated to the area, and some with names like Evans and Jones played for the club in the early years.

The British influence is gone, except for the club's English name - Athletic - rather than the Spanish - Atletico.

Winning is also a tradition.

Only Real Madrid and Barcelona have won more trophies, though it's been 20 years since Athletic won the Spanish league. Last season, Athletic finished fifth and earned a berth in Europe's No. 2 club tournament - the UEFA Cup.

Athletic players say they are comfortable with the team's philosophy, and the trophy room still draws 15,000 visitors a year - many from England and Italy.

"We identify more with the club," said forward Joseba Etxeberria, who rejected an offer from Barcelona. "We're not mercenaries who play for one team one year and another the next."

"We have known our teammates since we were little, we speak the same language and we get on very well," said goalie Dani Aranzubia, one of the players from outside the Basque region. He joined Athletic at 14.

But some fans hint at change.

"Our team can't compete with players from all over the world," Jose Antonio Berasaluze said. "We need to get rid of this romantic vision and adapt to the modern age."

Anyone who agrees with the last paragraph and the fan who would like the Basque-player only policy changed?
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