Athletic Bilbao have produced some great footballing talent in the past. Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera to name just a few. The secret behind Bilbaos excellent young talent is through their Cantera policy. The club is unique in the way it only uses players from the Basque region of Spain. They recruit the hottest prospects that the Basque region has to offer and bring them through the ranks before they move on to bigger and better things.
This policy began back in 1912, however it has had to tackle opposition in order to still function today. During the reign of General Franco between 1939-1975, the Basque people suffered terrible oppression; their unique language, culture, customs and style were all banned because they didn’t fit in with the ideal of a one-nation Spain. Support for Bilbao from the Basque region was a vote against Franco.
The fans of the club adore the Cantera policy. A poll in the 1990s revealed 75% of the supporters would rather see the club relegated than abandon the policy. It brings the club its identity. The fans own Athletic, making that link between the team and the supporters that even more special. Los Leones has never been relegated from La Liga (one of only four teams in Spain to hold such a record). This must mean that the Cantera policy works and it makes the side more successful, surely? Top European clubs import foreign players in order to gain success- but somehow Bilbao still fight strong in arguably the best quality league in the world. They finished 2013-14 in fourth position and made it to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.
But as more plaudits come in to praise the system, it also has its critics. As the club only uses regional players, it is believed that this hijacks their chances of success. They haven’t won a league or cup competition since 1984 when they won both La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
Some of the players to have played for Athletic have caused a stir. The policy of using players that were born and raised in Basque country has seemingly loosened up on occasion. Former Centre back Fernando Amorebieta was born in Venezuela but was eligible to play for Athletic because he grew up in the Basque Country as well as his parents being from the area.
Enric Saborit, now 22 years old, was signed by Athletic in 2008. The unusual thing was that Saborit was born in Barcelona. However, his mother is Basque, and that seemingly gave Athletic the right to pursue the player.
Ander Herrera is another who raises doubts to whether Los Leones kept to their ‘strict’ policy. He grew up in Zaragoza and played in Real Zaragoza’s youth system before playing for the senior squad. He could be signed by Athletic because he was simply born in Bilbao.
What does this say about the club? Do they actually deserve the plaudits of sticking to a system that through this evidence has it’s own loopholes? The game is growing each year, meaning more foreign exports are being driven into the major European leagues, including Spain. Can Athletic therefore keep their policy going?
With Real Madrid and Barcelona splashing out ridiculous sums of money for players, (Madrid spent £85 million on Gareth Bale and Barcelona spent £75 million for Luis Suarez), it seems that the Cantera will not be able to provide Los Leones with a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge. Fans will therefore need to make a choice. Do they want a team that wins trophies? Or do they want a team that keeps to their tradition, their identity and their pride in sticking with the Cantera?
They haven’t been able to keep hold of their prized assets either. Big money moves have come in for star players. Yes, Athletic need the money as the economics surrounding La Liga means that the lesser teams need to bring in as much income as possible through transfers, merchandise and ticket prices. But this means they start each season back at square one. It’s like a cycle. Over three to four seasons they bring up the talent from the Basque country, finish strongly in the league, and then sell their best players.
Ernesto Valverde for me is an underrated coach. He has a clear philosophy and is taking Athletic forward with clear direction and ambition. Currently the side is on a five match-winning run in La Liga. However the club are eighth in the table, ten points behind Villarreal, who occupy the last European place. Had the players Athletic natured in the past stayed in Bilbao, Valverde would possibly have a competitive team up there with Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico Madrid. They would not just be in the fight for Champions League qualification, but genuine title contenders.
So lets look five maybe ten years down the line. Will Athletic start looking down the table rather than up? It’s hard to tell but personally I don’t think much will change regarding their status. They will still produce the class of players that can play at Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid etc. It’s a system that has worked for the club for over 100 years. Nobody can scrap a tradition that’s lasted as long as this. The Cantera has been the heart and soul of Athletic Bilbao. It has produced talents for decades and will continue to do so. Yes they will have a tougher battle with the economics and so called ‘globalisation’ of the game, but the supporters are behind the team and the club will fight to continue their excellent standard of bringing up the best from the Basque country. As I mentioned before they have never been relegated from La Liga. That record speaks for itself.
Could English clubs benefit from this? I believe so. Greg Dyke is always moaning not enough home grown players are playing in the Premier League. There are even talks of reducing the amount of foreign payers in a squad down to 13. If a team such as Southampton kept to a policy like the Cantera then they would be a force to reckon with. They have one of if not the best youth system in the country. Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw are all players to have come from the academy. Had they all been in the same team we would definitely have Champions League football at ST. Marys.
I for one would be proud to be a Los Leones supporter. I love the way the club goes about things and hope that the Cantera system remains to be successful. It for me is how football clubs should approach the game- with the addition of four maybe five foreign players to boost their chances for success in league and cup competitions.