Pitchside Europe

Athletic Bilbao’s wantaway stars


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Barcelona fans are happy with their 100 per cent winning start to the season, more so because Real Madrid fans are bewildered why their side has managed just a draw and two defeats from their first three games. The champions hope that new signing Luca Modric will add an incisive touch and speed of thought absent in their performances so far.

Other talking points in Spain concern the dreadful crowds (the derby game between Getafe and Real Madrid was watched by just 8,000), ridiculous kick-off times and high ticket prices, but in Bilbao there's a different agenda — and not only because Athletic have started the season with two heavy losses.

The transfer deadline ends on Friday and Athletic fans are concerned one of their many coveted stars will leaving the club. Club captain Javi Martinez, 23, a classy defensive midfielder/central defender, spent the summer being wanted by Barça. He wanted to go, but Athletic asked £32 million and are under no pressure to sell. Barça don't have £32m (plus taxes), with Bayern Munich a more likely suitor. Martinez travelled to Bavaria on Tuesday and agreed terms for a player who will become the most expensive ever for a German club. Athletic responded by issuing a statement that he travelled without permission.

Star striker Fernando Llorente wants away too. Short of sticking a 'For Sale' sign on his head, his agent brother spoke to several prospective buyers in the summer, but no move has been forthcoming.

I interviewed Llorente in June and it was obvious that he wanted to leave. Barely featuring for Spain in Euro 2012 didn't help his cause or profile, but he wanted to play in England.

Like Martinez, he was reluctant to voice his desire publicly for fear of upsetting those fans who adore him, but the fans are not stupid and they don't think that either are showing sufficient respect.

Rejection isn't easy to take and furious fans last week held a banner up at Athletic's training ground saying "Mercenarios kampora" ("Mercenaries Out"). They abused their best two players too. Fans feel that they are already very well paid and that playing for Athletic should be sacred, but is it an argument about the lure of money or the glory of success?

Llorente has been earning £2.37m a year at Athletic, £1.58m less than Sevilla's Alvaro Negredo, a player of similar status. Athletic have offered Llorente £3.56m a season, still short of the £4.35m demanded when he was party to negotiation. As acrimony developed and trust receded on both sides, Llorente approached the club president Josu Urrutia and threatened to leave for free in a year's time at the end of his contract.

Athletic are angry and Basque politicians have waded in. Inaki Azkuna, the mayor of Bilbao, called Llorente's demands "obscene in these (economic) times". Other politicians, some from groups who give financial support to Athletic, are equally outraged. They would be.

If Llorente's motives are to win more trophies or play in the Champions League then his move is more understandable. He's served his time at Athletic in his nine seasons at the club, but rather than being linked with the English giants he so desired, he's now linked with Juventus.

Llorente will point out that he's also turned down several moves in the past and stayed loyal to Athletic, including a £30m offer from Liverpool before Andy Carroll moved to Anfield for even more.

Although younger and with a couple less seasons in the team, Martinez could say the same — that he wants more money and more chance of success. It's just a shame that he would leave Athletic's best side in years, a side who reached two cup finals last season.

Fans really do expect more of Athletic players, expect them to stay loyal to the club, just as Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi snubbed bigger offers to stay with their hometown club of Roma, even if that means fewer trophies.

"I think if a player has been brought up in Lezama (the youth system) then he should stay as long as Athletic needs him," says Iñigo Olmos. "That applies to Llorente. He has been playing around with his contract negotiations. He is an international player because of Athletic, where he's been since he was 11. He is ungrateful and hasn't even explained himself to supporters.  We deserve better than such arrogance. We should put him in the stands for a season.

"Martinez is different," adds Olmos. "He was bought from Osasuna. Somebody came with £32m and will take him away, like we did with him from Osasuna. He should stay though. He plays for the most special club in the world."

It should be noted that Llorente and Martinez are from Navarre rather than the adjoining Basque Country proper, both from areas where Basque isn't widely spoken as it is in northern Navarre.

Athletic don't want either to go and despite the predicted plundering of talents, not one of their stars actually left San Mames this summer.

Older stalwarts have been allowed to move on with Pablo Orbaiz, 33, joining Rubin Kazan. Igor Gabilondo, 33, who played for both Real Sociedad and Athletic, has joined the burgeoning number of Spaniards playing in Cyprus. Aitor Ocio, 35 and still the heartthrob of many a Basque girl, retired.

It should be no surprise. It's very hard to prise a player from Athletic. They're already a big, rich club with no pressure to sell. Only Barcelona or Real Madrid can claim to be significantly bigger in Spain. Athletic are similar in size to Valencia or Atletico Madrid, but neither of those clubs have the stable finances of Athletic.

The current Athletic can point to having a side good enough to beat Manchester United home and away last season. They pay wages on time which is far from a given in Spain and they play in front of sell-out 40,000 crowds in one of the most atmospheric stadiums in football. That will soon be 55,300 when they move into their new home in the adjacent San Mames Barria in 2014.

Those players have come through the system together. Many are genuinely close friends. It takes a lot to walk away from that, but Martinez and Llorente are ready to go — Martinez has actually gone without permission - in pursuit of trophies and more money.

The players have to be careful though, for Athletic is unlike any other club. I once interviewed Bolton's Basque midfielder Ivan Campo. He was friendly and sociable until I asked: "What's it like for a Basque to play for Real Madrid?"

Suddenly sounding fearful, Campo said: "Please, I don't want to talk about that. My family still live in the Basque Country."

Campo did join Madrid, a team perceived to represent the Spanish establishment which so many in the Basque Country loathe, but it shows how playing for Athletic is different.

Any Athletic player is held in the highest regard by the community who see their club as 'us against the world'. At Athletic, the players are often closer to fans than any club of a similar size, they feel united as one. If you leave then the reasons need to be strong, especially if you want to return and have a peaceful life.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us on all matters in La Liga throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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