Staying local: Athletic Bilbao eye Cup double to validate 'unique philosophy'

·4-min read

BILBAO, Spain (Reuters) - Athletic Bilbao are known around the world for only selecting players from their home region and they have the chance to prove their renowned philosophy can also deliver trophies when they play two Copa del Rey finals in April.

The Basque club used to be one of Spain's top sides, lifting the Copa 23 times plus eight La Liga titles, but they have not won a major trophy since 1984.

Clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia have tasted success instead, boosted by the foreign talents which Athletic have always shunned.

Athletic can end that drought on Saturday when they play Real Sociedad in last season's rescheduled Copa del Rey final before meeting Barcelona in a second showpiece on April 17.

Everyone involved at the club believes their unusual policy of selecting home-grown players is a virtue, not a handicap.

"This is a unique squad," said coach Marcelino in a briefing organised by La Liga TV.

"The players are united, they have great team spirit as many have known each other since they were children and their families know each other too. You can feel that sense of belonging, it really shines through.

"In other teams you have to establish cohesion because you have footballers from different countries, different cultures, different mentalities. Here everyone has the feeling of belonging to the club where they grew up."

Although Athletic's narrow selection policy has many admirers, it has been criticised in Spain for being provincial.

The club insist that their only requirement is for players to have come through the academy of a Basque side, while Marcelino dismisses the notion their policy is old fashioned.

"This club has been working the same way throughout its history. These ideas are not out-dated, they're advanced," he added.

"Having an authentic philosophy, a strong sense of belief in your principles is responsible and viable."

The team spirit Marcelino highlights was on display when Athletic beat Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final in January before coming from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 in the final.

Their sense of unity was also visible in their wild celebrations, orchestrated by striker Asier Villalibre playing the trumpet on the pitch.

"For everybody born in Bilbao or nearby the dream is to play for Athletic," said striker Inaki Williams, whose parents came to the city after fleeing war-torn Ghana and who became the first Black player to score for the club in 2014.

"Each match is a struggle but you're playing with your friends. This is like a family, you're taught at a very young age that you're here to support the club and that makes us very excited to wear this shirt.

"We know how difficult it is to compete with other teams with our philosophy but it's what makes us different and what makes us proud to belong to Athletic."

STAYING LOYAL YET COMPETITIVE

Staying loyal to Athletic's philosophy while keeping the team competitive is not easy, however.

"Our scouts go all over the territory to schools, to every town and village to find talent. It's the work of many people, many hours, many reports, that's why we get so many players," said sporting director Rafael Alkorta.

"We're a team where our market is in our own home, boys born here and educated here by us. Our transfer market is our youth team. It's a unique philosophy in the world, we carry it in our hearts and it's why we've spent so long in La Liga."

Loyalty may be a huge part of Athletic's soul but Alkorta also knows it is not enough to sustain the club, emphasising the importance of winning the upcoming finals.

"Trophies are important for us to believe in what we're doing and for youngsters to see that with this approach you can beat Real Madrid, Barcelona or any other team," added Alkorta.

"Playing in finals makes us enthusiastic to keep on believing in our policy."

Williams also relished the prospect of getting his hands on the Copa del Rey.

"You always dream about winning a trophy with this team. When you hear players talk about that it gives you goosebumps. It's what we all want," he said.

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)