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Athletic Bilbao: How a Proud Basque Team Is Resisting Globalization

By Walter Mayr

Athletic Bilbao is Europe's most exotic football club. For 80 years, the legendary club has managed to keep itself in Spain's top division, fielding players recruited exclusively from the Basque region. But how long can the fiercely independent club continue to resist the trends of globalization?

Their chants are ear-piercing. They draw out their battle cries, snapping the last syllable of each word like a whip: "Athle-tic. Athle-tic. E-up." The drum roll follows, and then 40,000 fans in the San Mamés Stadium respond in unison: "Athletic, red and white. The people love you because you are a part of the people."

The people have risen from their seats. In seat number 73 in the VIP stands -- where ties are obligatory and cigars optional -- José Ángel Iribar is standing up, too. A member of the 1964 European championship team, Iribar spent almost two decades down on the field as Athletic Bilbao's goalie. He owes his nickname -- "El Chopo" ("the Poplar") -- to his former habit of leaping straight up in the air to pluck balls out of the sky.

These days, Iribar -- the club's honorary president -- has other concerns on his mind. In the last season, Athletic barely escaped relegation, and this year it still lacks the points it needs to remain in the top division.

The Burden of Tradition

For the last 80 years -- that is, the entire lifespan of the league -- the legendary club has played in Spain's Primera División. The only other clubs that have managed the same feat are Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. But the difference between Athletic Bilbao and these two powerhouses of Spanish soccer is that the Basque team only recruits players from the Basque region. More precisely, its players are either Basques or outsiders who came of age playing in Basque clubs.

Ever since the 1995 Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice, which gave professional football players more freedom to move between clubs within the European Union, Athletic has become somewhat of a dinosaur in terms of its unique hiring policy. The last foreigner left the club in 1912.

Nevertheless, the annals of the club list eight championship titles and 24 cup victories. Athletic can also boast the most unerring goal scorer, the highest score ever in a league victory -- its 12-1 win over FC Barcelona in 1931 -- and the highest number of players invited to join the Spanish national team.

"We cannot and will not change our principles," says Iribar. Even if globalization continues its forward march and survival in the business of professional soccer gets more difficult every year, Athletic insists on abiding by its traditions. "We must keep our feet on the ground and have confidence in the players we have," says Iribar.

Iribar's words carry a lot of weight among the Basques. He has earned that respect because it was he who -- in December 1976, a year after the death of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco -- marched onto the field ahead of a match against San Sebastián bearing the Basque flag, which had been outlawed for 40 years. He also has it because he manages the unofficial Basque national team, which is fighting for recognition by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the sport's controlling body in Europe.

A Sense of Where They Are

The crowd in the stands behind Athletic's goalposts is now rhythmically chanting the words "Herri Norte," or "People of the North." Some fans are even waving banners calling for the release of captured members of the Basque terrorist organization, ETA. Others, interspersed among the crowd, are singing "Let's kill a Spaniard" to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Nevertheless, radical Basques represent a tiny minority among Athletic fans, who are mostly known for having good manners. But they exist. And despite the fact that it once lost one of its members, Juan Pedro Guzmán, for 11 days when he was abducted by ETA, the club's managing board still favors a hands-off policy in the name of "freedom of opinion."

Whether deliberately or not, Athletic Bilbao is more than just a football club. Athletic is the largest common denominator of the Basques and practically a religion for many of the 2 million people living in the Spanish part of the Basque region. Basque fans refer to the San Mamés Stadium, built in 1913, as their "cathedral," and any self-respecting citizen of this city on the Bay of Biscay has season tickets. The club has 34,000 members, and anyone seeking to join can expect to spend time on a long waiting list.

Hardly anyone in the stadium so much as mentions the unthinkable. But you can sense the anxiety all the way from the lowest seats right behind the chalk sideline to those at the very top, where 80 VIP guests discuss the game over glasses of Rioja and pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. It is a fear of having to do what other clubs have done and having their survival depend on fielding mercenaries from all over the world.

Only recently, something happened that would have previously been unimaginable in San Mamés: Catcalls came from the stands against players on the home team, nicknamed the "Leones," or "Lions." Bawdy insults can also be heard now and then, such as: "No son leones, son maricones," which roughly translates as "They're no lions; they're gay."

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