The European Game by Dan Fieldsend

Daniel Fieldsend has written his first book penned ‘The European Game – An Adventure on the Continent and its Methods for Success. It will be an essential resource for fans and students of the game, offering unique insight into European football.

The following is an extract from the Chapter on Atlético Bilbao………


On the walls of the factories on the edge of the city, graffiti writes ‘3 + 4 = 1’, a sum proclaiming that the three regions in France (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea and Zuberoa) and the four in Spain (Bizakia, Gipuzkoa, Nafarroa Garaia and Araba) equal one Basque country. Not all fans who follow the club wish to politicise it to promote independence – with many wishing to remain a part of Spain – yet the image of Athletic Bilbao as a symbol of Basque separatism remains.
That idea stems from their ‘cantera’ (quarry) ruling, stating how: all players who represent the club must have family ties to a wider Basque region. After the First World War, during the 1920’s, nationalism grew in Spain and Athletic, in an effort to embed themselves with the local community, created the Basques only ruling. Footballers who play for the club nowadays are aware that they represent the politically attached historic identity of the region. Some argue that cantera helps foster insularity, a distrust of outside influence. However, cantera also protects Athletic from the emotionless face of the modern game; a merry-go-round of players and staff seeking betterment. “Other teams all seem like photocopies,” club president Josu Urrutia told the New York Times.

Ekain Rojo is a PHD Researcher in Social Sciences at the University of the Basque Country. ‘There were two major internal wars, and because of the outcome of these wars they [Baskonia] lost the right to be a country; a right that dated back to the middle ages,’ he explained to me as we walked beside Athletic’s waterside San Mamés stadium. ‘It was part of a centralisation process by Spain to build up a strong state.’ I asked Ekain why he felt Athletic Bilbao is sociologically cemented to its insularity, and how football promotes this mentality. He explained that the emergence of football at the start of the 20th century happened to coincide with a re-emergence of Basque nationalism. The game became a vehicle of expression for people in both Catalonia and the Basque region as Spain ‘aggressively promoted’ the nation state. Franco banned non-Spanish culture and changed the club’s name to Atlético Bilbao in 1941 by decree. To this day, Athletic and Barcelona are united by a common enemy in Real Madrid; Franco’s team (president Santiago Bernabéu was a Francoist who fought against the Catalans in the Civil War). Some tension still exists today, although the threat of violence is much less prevalent than in former years.

The idea that Athletic could be successful with only local players was consolidated in the 1950’s when, as other Spanish clubs began to recruit foreigners, they remained successful with locals. It is their self-imposed limitation that, by competing from an inferior position, gives them more strength. They are a David competing in a Liga of Goliaths, “or as the Asterix and Obelix of global football,” concludes Hungarian anthropologist Mariann Vaczi . She dedicated a year researching the culture of football inside the region. “Fans celebrate Athletic because it goes against the trends and laws of modern competition, and maintains continuity with the very beginnings of football.” They are the only club that could ever possibly replicate what Celtic did in 1967 with the Lisbon Lions by winning the European Cup with local players. Any European success would be hyper-significant in these times of de-localisation.

From an anthropologist’s point of view, Athletic was a unique avenue to study Basque culture. “It is quite intriguing that Athletic limits itself to a small territory in an expanding, globalizing football culture that thrives on athlete migration and commerce,” she wrote. “Why does an elite level club choose to maintain a recruitment philosophy that might harm its performance? What does this philosophy tell us about the definitions of Basque identity? What kind of social, cultural and political values are there behind this practice?”

Although using only local players can strangle potential avenues of success in Spain’s competitive championship, the majority of fans back the philosophy. In post-modern societies, identities have been deconstructed from original nationalistic or political expressions (such as being proud to come from a certain place and appreciating the values of the area) into newer, less poignant identities; more attachments to shared experiences: festivals, social media trends, favourite TV shows and cult popstars, for example. Football on the other hand has consistently offered itself as a firm vehicle of expression. People within a community are taken by their local sport club and see it as an extension of themselves. Athletic, unlike other clubs, reinforces that attachment. They are probably the most connected example of club and fans.

The head coach of the Basque national team is José María Amorrortu, a true son of the region who, in a forty-five-year career, has managed Real Sociedad, Athletic Club and SD Eibar. There is nobody more in tune with the demands of the game in this area than him, and it shows. He is an oracle of Basque football. Alongside coaching the autonomous national squad for one game each year, he is also director of football at Athletic. At Lezama, his name reverberates off the walls, though only ever his last name, like a storied legend. ‘You’re here for Amorrortu?’ enquired the receptionist. He arrived wearing a club tracksuit with his spectacles on a cord, much resembling Marcelo Bielsa. ‘Here all of the coaches are from Bilbao,’ he began as we settled in a spare glass office. ‘It is not difficult for them to explain what the Athletic philosophy is and what the club means.’
Young players are educated on Basque history at school so they grow up to appreciate the significance of the Athletic shirt. ‘Our model is unique in world football. Chivas have only Mexican players, but we don’t have only Spanish players; we have only Basque players.’

Iñaki Azkarraga was headhunted as a teacher twenty years ago by Amorrortu. His job is to educate and instil pride in the youth players. ‘I have been here for twenty years. It was Amorrortu who wanted somebody to come in and support the academy players with their studies when he was manager in 1995. We have an academy culture of people caring about their studies because it gives us a good idea about the players’ levels of discipline and how willing they are to sacrifice. The Basques are different in some ways; the people are very tough, strong minded. There’s decades of history combined with us being self-sufficient that fits our identity and creates a wheel that defends our values.’
Clubs in today’s game compete for marginal gains. All are equal in terms of analysis techniques and squad depth, so must find a competitive edge in their preparation for matches. They approach each game with an intent to motivate their players, to fight for marginal gains. If a club has a squad of intrinsically motivated players, as mentioned, then they are in an advantageous position. If, like Athletic, they are in a situation whereby they can instil intrinsic motivation by educating young academy players on the historic plight of their region, reinforcing how the club they play for represents an autonomous nation of people, then they are in strong standing. ‘The children are taught Basque history. With democracy, we began to discover our own values. When they learn about Basque history in school, by the time they are in the first team it means everything to represent the club.’ This is the secret of Athletic Bilbao, how their weaknesses make them stronger.



If you are interested in chatting to Dan about his work his Twiiter address is @europegamebook

The book is available here



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