Bilbao: Mariacarmen Echevarria hobbles up the small slope at Athletic Bilbao's Lezama Academy with the help of a walking stick. Despite her advanced age – she turned 83 this year – and the effort that walking up the slope is taking, the smile on her face is sunnier than the Biscayan sun.
"This is like watching my boyfriend," the octogenarian beams as she gazes at Athletic's training session on an unnaturally warm afternoon.
Echevarria is part of a group of senior citizens from a nearby old-age nursery which has been invited by the club – as is the tradition each Wednesday – to watch the first team players train. "I used to go to the old San Mames a lot. Now due to my age, I have stopped going to matches. But this club will always be in my heart. I'll always be loyal," Echevarria adds.
Nestled some 10 kilometres away from the city of Bilbao, the Lezama facility, which houses the training pitches of Athletic, is testament to the ironies which make Athletic unique. Consider this: The facilities at Lezama are state of the art. But the highlight of the academy still remains the gargantuan arch which adorned the old San Mames since 1953, and was moved to the training facility when the old club stadium was razed to the ground.
Other ironies too abound at the club: while it is famous for its 'Basque players only' policy – the club has an unwritten rule followed for over a century to only hire players with roots in the Basque country, which consists of parts of Spain and France flanked by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Pyrenees Mountain to the south – it also has an almost English identity which extends beyond their Anglicised name of Athletic and their club colours of red and white which were borrowed from Premier League club Southampton. Many of their managers in the past have been British – none more famous than Fred Pentland, who introduced the short passing style of football when he arrived in the early 1920s, years before Barcelona became famous for their tiki-taka – while it is believed that British immigrant workers who came to work in industries in Bilbao introduced the sport to the city.
More than a club
The words mes que un club – more than a club – have been made popular by Barcelona, but it could as have easily have passed off as Athletic Bilbao's motto.
Even as commercialisation changes the face of the sport – this is after all a country where Real Madrid splurged 100 million euros to buy Gareth Bale in 2013 in the middle of a dire economic crisis engulfing Spain – Athletic have resisted change and have stayed committed to their policy of recruiting players from the Basque country.
In Bilbao, irrespective of how much change takes place, traditions never go out of style. As the club moves upwards, the roots grow stronger too.
But at a time when instant success is demanded at a football club, is this dedication to their 120-year philosophy outdated?
"There is no debate about changing our philosophy," says Jose Angel Iribar, who is one of the greatest goalkeepers in the history of the Spanish league and currently an ambassador with the club. "The fans want us to stick to this policy even if we don't win as much."
"We know now-a-days fans want instant results. But this club belongs to the people. We are not an exclusive society. The club's 45,000 fans, or socios, are happy with the path we have chosen. It is not important for us to have superstars if they are going to be inconsistent with our philosophy. We instead choose to put our focus in scouting talented players in their early teens and then helping them progress to our senior team. We want players to stay here all their life," adds Jose Maria Amorrortu, who is in charge of the youth teams at the Spanish club.
Amorrortu, who famously coaxed Fernando Llorente's parents to let him join the club in 1996, says the fact that the club has hired managers from foreign countries in the past is proof that their mind is open.
"We have to be open-minded to new ideas from outside. As long as the coaches are connected to the philosophy of the club, we don't have a problem in hiring foreign coaches," he says.
There is only one plausible way of getting the club to change this philosophy, according to Borja Gonzalez Bilbao, who is the Stadium Business Manager at Athletic.
"Every four years, we have presidential elections. If someone wants our 'Basque players only' philosophy to change, they can contest the elections with that agenda. But until now, this has not happened," says Bilbao.
The result of this philosophy is that the fans are closer to the players and the club than at most other clubs of this stature.
"We always keep the community and fans' interest first even if it means taking a hit commercially," says Bilbao. "When the new San Mames stadium was being planned, we could have moved the new stadium site outside the city. This would have given us a huge commercial boost as fans travelling to matches would have to eat or drink at establishments controlled by us. But we chose to set up the new stadium at the heart of the city so that local businesses, many of which are owned by socios, profit."
As football clubs increasingly come to resemble businesses, Athletic's human touch has always endeared them to the locals. Famously, when the club won the LaLiga title back in 1984, the players gave a delightful tweak to title celebrations by using a flotilla instead of an open-top bus to parade the trophy. Millions of fans flanked both banks of the Nervion River as the trophy parade snaked through the city. The players then spent the next three days going to nearby villages to meet fans who could not make it for the parade.
In another break from footballing tradition, the club has not renamed any of its stands for former legends. But it made an exception in 2014 for Jose Iragorri, a radio journalist, when he died due to prostate cancer. The club's press conference room bears Iragorri's name till date.
It's things like this that keep fans like Mariacarmen Echevarria swell with joy even if it just at having to watch the first team train for a few minutes on hot afternoons.
The writer is in Spain at the invitation of LaLiga
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Updated Date: Oct 04, 2018 18:37:25 IST