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Athletic Bilbao feels at the within exactly as it seems that from the out of doors. To Aritz Aduriz, the striker who retired from the club this week, it always had the air of a “neighborhood team taking on the world.” It was a club in which the players shared a background and an outlook, in which the line between the squad and its public was blurred to the point of invisibility, a team that is of a place in a sport that knows no borders.
The roots of that identity are well documented. Athletic is the rare team in elite soccer that refuses to take advantage of the globalization that has transformed the game — mostly for better, occasionally for worse — in the last two decades or so; it adheres to a strict policy of fielding only players born or raised in the Basque regions of Spain and France.
It is, on the surface, a massive competitive disadvantage. Bilbao’s rivals, after all, can recruit from around the globe. Athletic is reliant on its own youth academy, and on its ability to pluck players from a handful of other teams in the region: Real Sociedad in San Sebastián, Osasuna in Pamplona and, in recent years, Eibar.
Occasionally, a player of Basque heritage will emerge elsewhere: Athletic signed Bixente Lizarazu, a French Basque, from Bordeaux in the 1990s, and added Ander Herrera, born in Bilbao, from Real Zaragoza in 2011. Cristian Ganea, a Romanian international, was able to join the club in 2018 because he had spent some of his teenage years in the region.
Not all such players, though, meet the criteria. The club reportedly felt Marcos Asensio did not quite fit the bill and turned down the chance to bring him into their ranks as a teenager. He now plays for Real Madrid.
That Athletic remains a force in Spanish soccer — it has never been relegated, and it was slated to feature in the final of the Copa del Rey before the postponement of this season — is something of a minor miracle, then. It helps that the Basque region has been, traditionally, a fertile breeding ground for players. It helps that the club has the financial strength to resist all but the most lucrative offers for its stars, enabling it to keep its squad together.
And it helps, of course, that players like Aduriz revel in the feeling the club generates, that they buy in to what it means, that they relish the chance to play for a team that feels as if it stands for something.
Something throughout Aduriz’s career drew him back remorselessly to Bilbao. He signed for the club three times, all told. He could never, really, say no, not even after he was sold for the second time, reduced to tears at the thought of having to leave yet again. Four years later, when Athletic asked him to come back, he could not resist. He wanted to retire there, to “close the circle,” as he put it, at the club of his heart.
Most of all, though, Athletic Bilbao works because of the fans.
Modern soccer conditions its fans to think in a very specific way. What matters, ultimately, are results. Success, for the elite, is weighed in the silver and gold of trophies and medals. For everyone else, it is measured in the league table, an annual review held every weekend. If your team’s position is too low, if it is not meeting expectations, then it is your right to demand immediate change.
Coaches must be fired, players sold — and others bought — and, if necessary, executives dismissed: whichever one applies, but there must be change, and change almost always looks like recruitment of one sort or another.
What is most compelling about Athletic’s model is that it deprives its fans of the chance to think like that. Of course, there are times when San Mamés, the club’s stadium, will roar its disapproval. There are seasons when the club will cycle through coaches, or when players will fall out of favor, or when the board will come under fire.
But written into the unspoken contract between Athletic and its fans is the tacit acceptance that there will be fallow years. There will be seasons when success is a comfortable midtable finish. There will be times when trophies are a distant prospect, and the best that can be hoped for is a single euphoric night against one of La Liga’s giants.
And that has to be tolerated, at least, because the model makes it inevitable. How could it not? Athletic cannot go and replace a player in the transfer market if there is not a Basque player who fits the profile. Athletic cannot spend hundreds of millions of euros on players if those players do not meet its criteria.
To some extent, Athletic has chosen to prioritize its model — still, more than a century on, not actually officially codified — over its ambitions. Success, at Athletic, is in doing as well as a neighborhood team that has to take on the world can do. Some years, that might mean reaching a major final. Many years it will not, and yet still, the overwhelming majority of fans support the policy. There is no yearning for change, big or small.
There is something in this that might, perhaps, be a useful example for clubs far from the Basque region as soccer comes to terms with its new, post-pandemic reality.
Many executives accept that soccer’s 30-year bull market is over, for the time being at least. Clubs will have to spend less, in the short term, and spend better to succeed. Change will not be so easy to effect in an altered marketplace, and problems will have to be solved, at times, by things other than cash.
For fans, too, it may be time to internalize a different idea of what success is, to accept that some years might be better than others, that building slowly and cautiously toward a pinnacle may not only be preferable, but necessary.
The idea that any other team might willingly limit its choices, as Athletic Bilbao has, is fanciful. Its model is not one that might be easily franchised. But the consequences of that model can be international, if we permit them to be. Change does not always have to be seen as a virtue. A team’s worth does not always have to be gauged exclusively by league position. Sometimes, success can just be having a team that is of a place, and has to take on the world.
There is a mistake in the headline of this column. Worse still, it is a mistake I am fully aware I have made. It is a mistake, essentially, that I have made on purpose. As at least some of you will be aware, Athletic Bilbao is not a thing. The soccer team that is based in Bilbao is called Athletic Club.
It is worth explaining the mistake, I think, because after we published this week’s interview with Aduriz, at least a couple of people got in touch to point it out. The same thing happens when you write about Sporting Lisbon — actually titled Sporting Clube de Portugal — and, occasionally, Inter Milan — properly called Internazionale — too.
In the last few years, it’s got to the stage where we could probably add using Red Star Belgrade instead of Crvena Zvezda to that list. The allegations range from ignorance (understandable) to some form of soccer-based cultural imperialism (a bit of a stretch, if I’m honest).
There is no argument over which of those names is correct. So why make the mistake? Well, my feeling has always been that the point of language is communication. To an English-speaking audience, Athletic Bilbao is much more instantly familiar than Athletic Club; Sporting Lisbon evokes a clearer image than just “Sporting.”
Some fans, I know, find that offensive, but it works the other way, too. Plenty of people talk about Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers (even in Britain). “Manchester” is used across the world as shorthand for United, which says a lot about City’s global impact until recent years. You will, very occasionally, see references to Arsenal London, too. They’re all wrong, of course. But what matters, deep down, is that people know what you’re talking about.
What Are We Watching For?
There are, as everyone knows, whole oceans between the soccer that is played in the Premier League and that which is offered by, for example, Serie A. Likewise La Liga and the Bundesliga: It is the same sport, of course, but the interpretations of each league are wildly, vastly different.
So different, in fact, that you would assume there would be a material impact on the data each country produces. There would be more crosses in England than in Spain, where delicate, intricate short passing is the thing. There would be more goals in Germany, where nobody can defend, than in Italy, where they are taught the offside trap as infants.
And yet, looked at purely statistically, the outputs across Europe’s four major leagues are startlingly similar. There are minor variations, of course, little points of inflection, but it would take a trained eye to identify each league correctly merely by its basic data.
It has always seemed odd, then, that so many fans — and players and coaches and pundits and journalists — regard themselves as devotees of one league in particular. It is especially prevalent among those who favor the Premier League (and is, in many ways, actively indulged by the Premier League itself). Italian soccer is dismissed as boring, Spain as predictable, Germany as try-hard and hipster. (France, as it happens, is dismissed entirely.)
The approaches are different, of course, but the outcomes are broadly the same. So on some level, logically, if you enjoy watching soccer, you should at least take some pleasure from a game, regardless of where it is being held.
The explanation is obvious: The league that seems most entertaining to a fan is the one that the fan is emotionally invested in. What elevates one competition over another is not its innate quality, but how much we care about it.
This same thought struck me last weekend, watching Borussia Dortmund dismantle Schalke, the first live soccer in any major league since the shutdown. The span of reactions was surprising: some enjoying sport, live and fresh and new; some struggling with the eeriness of the empty stadium; some so bored that they could not bear to watch more than a few minutes.
Was that, though, as it was assumed to be, because of the absence of fans? Or is it because most of those watching were doing so out of curiosity, and not out of any genuine emotional attachment? Would they have had the same reaction had the stadium been full? Would many of those people even have been watching at all?
The game, after all, is the same. The spectacle is not — the spectacle is, obviously, much worse — but then we do not only watch for the spectacle. If we did, Argentine soccer’s television deals would be through the roof. The crucial difference is not the quality on the field, or the noise off it, but how much any of it means to us.
The return of the Bundesliga, you will have noticed, did not bring about any mass gatherings of fans. Many, in fact, stayed away even from bars that had been permitted to open as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted. “I think the distrust of fans you speak of is the same generalized distrust of football players that has emerged during the current pandemic,” Lorraine Berry wrote.
“In both cases, I would argue that a certain strata in British society regards the working-class backgrounds of many players — and the increasing numbers of black and minority ethnic and immigrants among the player elites — as a convenient shorthand for well-worn class assumptions.
“We know that the nadir of that feeling was in the way that the dead at Hillsborough were written off as working-class yobs who got what they deserved. But despite the Premier League’s ownership comprising despots and oligarchs, it’s still the working-class lads whose talent commands £250,000 a week who make convenient targets.”
Charles Marro, meanwhile, points out “the irony that sports that are played for love have been canceled, while the sports trying to cobble together ways to resume playing seem to be populated by people more in love with the money than the sport itself.” This is true, I think, but perhaps unavoidable. The sports themselves will survive. The threat is economic, rather than conceptual, and therefore it applies largely to the sports businesses.
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