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."
Forced to Compromise
Athletic's management recognizes that times are changing. But because the overwhelming majority of players, and all of Bilbao's citizens, are opposed to the team's recruiting players other than homegrown ones from Basque "canteras" ("quarries") -- as youth soccer academies are known in Spain -- it is rather unlikely that transfers will be fielded any time soon. "We know that we are waging a crusade of sorts," says Fernando García Macua, Athletic's president. But the club's philosophy is sacrosanct, says Macua, "because people here have internalized it."
Athletic's standards are not just a matter of national pride for the Basque people. They also stem from the almost obstinate determination of most Bilbao residents to help preserve what they consider to be the magic of football. Part of that magic means having a stadium in downtown Bilbao, players from the surrounding region and as little commercialism as possible.
Athletic was the last club in Spain's Primera División to allow perimeter advertising boards in its stadium. Athletic's players still wear jerseys with no advertising, and the team continues to adamantly refuse to become a publicly traded company, a standard shared by only three other teams in the Primera División.
The team only risks making tentative compromises when it comes to how it selects potential players. In the past, a dyed-in-the-wool Athletic star had to be from Bilbao or at least from the surrounding province of Biscay. Nowadays, the club has somewhat relaxed its rules to include in its unofficial recruitment profile players from the three Basque provinces in Spain, the adjacent Navarra province and the French part of the Basque region. To date, the only French player to have made it to Bilbao has been Bixenta Lizarazu, but he left after one year to join FC Bayern, Germany's most successful soccer team.
But now the club is even having trouble finding new talent in the Basque heartland in northern Spain -- and not just because the area has one of Europe's lowest birth rates. Athletic's scouts complain that they are forced to travel to more and more remote villages to find young men -- among the Playstation-wielding, overprotected youth -- from real Basque stock: ambitious, robust and duty-bound.
Someone who fits this description has recently started coming to Athletic's home games, where he stands in the south stand behind the goal. He is tall, strong and has a determined look in his eyes. Over the three months he has played on Athletic's under 12s team, he has scored 14 goals.
His name is Binke Diabate. The talent scouts noticed him in one of the villages in the south of the province of Navarra. Binke had moved there with his parents in 2005 after the family fled to Spain from Bamako, the capital of Mali. Jonás Ramalho, a 14-year-old player who recently had his debut with Athletic's regular team, was the club's first dark-skinned player. Binke promises to spearhead the next revolution by being the first African Muslim to wear the club's fabled jersey.
"Our boys have to be ready earlier and earlier these days," Iribar complains. He feels the clock ticking and knows that two of his team's rivals in the Primera División -- Real Saragossa and CA Osasuna -- were also courting the adolescent hopeful.
Athletic eventually managed to sign Diabate because its youth division is still considered the best in the Basque region. It also had an unbeatable promise to offer the younger Malian immigrant: Nowhere but in Bilbao would it be easier for a young talent to make the jump to the premiere Spanish league as there are no foreigners at Athletic Bilbao to get in the way of its homegrown players.
Binke is still new to Bilbao and doesn't speak the Basque language yet, but he has already mastered the typical Basque football maneuvers consisting of rapid passing paired with aggressive defense.
To prevent the young players -- and the hope of Basque football -- from hitting upon the idea that there are other clubs in the world, Athletic Bilbao employs Koldo Asua as its youth manager. Asua, a portly, full-blooded Basque, says that he takes his parents' canon of values to heart: "God, family, the Basque country and Athletic -- only in reverse order."
Asua guards over every player as if they were diamonds in the rough. But he also keeps one eye on the lookout for new talent. He has discovered, for example, a goalie with Basque ancestors in the Italian city of Ostia, and two grandsons of a Basque refugee from the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War will soon arrive from Latin America. Athletic employs 19 scouts who travel throughout the Basque region. In the province of Biscay alone, there are 150 partner clubs that guarantee Athletic a right of first refusal in return for financial support. The club uses a database to search for players with Basque roots, and it is even considering establishing football schools in Latin America for the children of emigrants.
The management at Athletic is fighting against the rapidly turning wheel of time. In the clubhouse, there is still a photo on the wall depicting the heroes of 1984 -- the club's last championship team -- sitting in a boat headed from the ocean toward downtown Bilbao after winning the final game. It is a genre portrait in black and white, showing serious-looking men after a job well done standing against an industrial background lining the riverbank.
'From Sport to Spectacle'
Times have changed and the club has been "banalized," says Andoni Zubizarreta, as he sips a small coffee in the Café Iruna near the Palacio de Justicia. Zubizarreta is one of Spanish football's premiere record-holders: 622 Primera División matches as goalie, 126 international games and four World Cups. He was also the sporting director at Athletic until the end of 2004.
Since leaving Athletic, Zubizarreta has been working for a management consulting firm. He complains that football has degenerated "from sport to spectacle," and from work to entertainment. It is a "distorted image of our society," he says, "and even Bilbao has changed its mentality."
The city, known to tourists worldwide today primarily for its Guggenheim Museum -- a Frank Gehry-designed, titanium-clad colossus covered with silver scales on the southern bank of the Nervión River -- became the center of Basque heavy industry in the late 19th century. There were iron ore mines in the region that played a role in the development of shipyards in Bilbao, which also enjoys easy access to the sea.
It was on the "Campa de los Ingleses" ("English fields") -- near today's site of the Guggenheim Museum -- that skilled immigrants from the southern English port cities of Portsmouth and Southampton showed the Basques how soccer was played. But there are almost no shipyards and no blast furnaces in Bilbao today, and Zubizarreta is convinced that the breeding ground on which the Athletic Bilbao myth thrived has disappeared with them.
Holding on to Pride
Today, anyone who attracts Athletic's attention as a Basque player can quickly rise to fame and fortune. Asier del Horno, for example -- who was traded to Chelsea in 2005 for €12 million ($19 million today) and is now back with Athletic again -- attracts attention primarily for what he does off the field. CA Osasuna collected a whopping €12 million for the transfer of midfield players Javi Martínez and David López to Bilbao. More and more boys in the streets of Bilbao are wearing Chelsea and Manchester jerseys, that is, the jerseys of Champions League clubs. A portrait of David Beckham hangs over Binke's bed. Anger over the worldwide ascendancy of sport-focused corporations and players who are nothing but pop stars in football shorts tends, especially, to unite older fans behind the Athletic brand.
Nevertheless, club president Fernando García Macua speaks of a tangible sense of sympathy throughout the Basque region. "The worse off we are," he says, "the more people there are who sympathize with our values."
This year, the club spent a long time on the edge of a precipice. But then it celebrated highly symbolic victories, such as its win over FC Sevilla, a leading Spanish football team. The visiting club was weakened because its star players were scattered on other continents, playing for their national teams. But the Basques, cheered on by close to 40,000 hometown fans in San Mamés, were all there. Athletic won the match 2:0. The crusaders from Bilbao had won a rearguard action.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan