Athletic Bilbao: Pride or prejudice

Anyone seeking evidence of just how much the Europe’s soccer landscape has changed in the past three decades need look no further than this Thursday’s matchup between Athletic Bilbao and Manchester United. Manchester United is every inch the modern team and global brand. Its senior squad features players from 14 countries and four continents, it has its own television network and official supporters clubs in 24 nations that cater to a fan base estimated at between 75 and 300 million people. In stark contrast, Athletic Bilbao fields a squad comprised of players from the Basque region of Spain, with neither aspirations to create a global brand nor intentions to begin including non-Basque players in its team. In an increasingly globalized world, Manchester United is the present and future, while Athletic Bilbao remains an anachronistic holdout from another era.

For people inclined to pine longingly for the days when everyone on a team was a local lad, there is a certain quaint charm to Bilbao’s approach, but for those who value inclusiveness, openness and cultural and ethnic integration, Bilbao’s policy is troubling. Complicating this is the always sticky proposition of untangling the difference between a positive step taken to preserve and promote a small and perhaps marginalized culture and the more socially problematic decision to exclude people based on race or background.

Though it is not written down in any official club rules or stated operating procedures, Bilbao’s policy of signing and playing only players with roots in the Basque territories that straddle Spain and France is an absolute one. Bilbao’s fans argue that at the heart of the policy is not a desire to exclude anybody, but rather the hope of promoting Basque culture and providing a point of pride for this often-beleaguered ethnic community. In fact, throughout the region many people see Bilbao as a sort of de facto Basque national team, and in this sense the feelings of attachment between club and region go deeper than what one typically sees even in other soccer-mad areas of Europe.

Naturally, not everyone looks on this policy as some sort of innocent and proud homage to a region. Indeed, the fact that Bilbao’s policy takes place within a Spanish context will certainly give naysayers pause. Spanish football has a long and ugly tradition of ethnic and racial undertones and incidents that too often mar its games, rivalries and national team. Stories of visiting black players being taunted with monkey noises by Spanish crowds might make one immediately predisposed to view Bilbao’s exclusionary policy through a dark lens. In the face of this, defenders of Bilbao will point to its signing of Jonás Ramalho – a defender of mixed Angolan and Basque parentage – as evidence that the club does not exclude on the basis of race. This might smack of tokenism, but any fair reading of the situation would have to be that the exclusion of black players is not a purpose or goal of the rule as much as it is a side effect of a broader policy that bars anyone without local ties. After all, the city of Bilbao is nowhere near as diverse and cosmopolitan as Madrid or Barcelona.

Athletic Bilbao defender Jonás Ramalho, born to an Angolan father, became Bilbao’s first black player in December 2009.

Though the morality of it all may be hazy, what is clear is that in terms of producing results, Athletic Bilbao’s policy just isn’t sustainable, for the obvious reason that you have much greater margin of error when collecting talent from among the 7 billion people on earth as opposed to just the few million Basques in the world. Moreover, those concerned with issues of openness and fairness should remember that whether or not a single club in Spain elects to open its doors to people from all over the world will probably not advance or set back the cause of racial and ethnic integration in Europe all that much. Ultimately, what has a bigger impact than attempting to force one club to change is for successful clubs to offer a better way forward.

To this end, Bilbao’s opponent on Thursday, Manchester United, shows the power of inclusiveness. Love them or hate them, Manchester United certainly should be praised for the lengths they go to scour the globe for the best players available. Since Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford, Manchester United, bolstered by its foreign imports, has won its league 12 times, the FA Cup five times, and the Champions League twice. Over the same time frame, Athletic Bilbao has but a single Copa del Rey in its trophy case.

Admittedly, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison between Bilbao and Manchester United, but even in Spain there are good examples of how to have on-field success while still promoting regional pride. Take, for example, the premier club in Catalonia, and indeed all of world football, FC Barcelona. In many respects the situation and sensibilities of Basque and Catalan fans mirror each other. Catalonia has a long history of seeking its autonomy or independence from Spain, and this has seeped into its footballing culture.

Barcelona’s motto, “Més que un Club”(More than a Club) is testament to the degree to which FC Barcelona is interwoven with the cultural life of the city and region. Even the marquee rivalry in all of Spanish football – Real Madrid versus FC Barcelona – is fueled at least in part by deep-seeded historical tensions between Catalans and Spaniards that even precede the Fascist bombing of the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, in most games, FC Barcelona will field five or six Catalan players, but they buttress this squad with the likes of non-Spanish players such as Lionel Messi or Daniel Alves, as well as non-Catalan Spanish players such as Andres Iniesta and David Villa. Even with these additions, there is no sense in which Barcelona has strayed from its origins or traditions, and the presence of a Messi or Iniesta do not dampen the profound pride that Catalans take in the club as a Catalan club. Barcelona stands as an example of how to strike the balance between global branding and local loyalty.

In stark contrast to the present Barca approach, the broader history of Spanish football teaches a clear lesson about the pitfalls of rampant regionalism. For most of its history, the Spanish national team underperformed massively. An important contributor to this lack of national team success was a longstanding friction between players of Catalan or Basque descent and factions within Spanish football that were too stridently monocultural. That Spain finally fulfilled its potential only after it ended an era in which the team was captained by Fernando Hierro and then Raul is no coincidence, as these two players in particular had long stood as symbols of Spain’s monocultural footballing tradition that left many Catalan and Basque players feeling marginalized or excluded altogether. When Spain became a more inclusive national team, success followed. It is a lesson that Bilbao would be wise to heed.

One too easily falls into a trap by thinking about integration as some kind of charitable act designed to help the excluded. While playing a non-Basque player at Athletic Bilbao would no doubt give a single player a relished opportunity to ply their avocation at the highest level, the bigger impact will be that the club moves beyond its parochial tactical, organizational and psychological mindset. More opportunities bring greater dynamism, competition and an increasingly nuanced approach to playing, all of which can lead to better football.

Athletic Bilbao presently finds itself in fifth place in La Liga, and even that may be an overestimation of its quality because of the top-heavy nature of the Spanish league. As Europe and the world become increasingly interconnected and globalized, it will become more and more apparent that a team that does not look beyond its narrow borders will not be able to keep up talent-wise with its competitors, and will find itself tumbling down the tables. Without some additional evidence, it is probably not fair to refer to Athletic Bilbao as a racist team, but we do have all the evidence we need to assert that it is a very middling one, and will likely continue to be so until it modernizes and globalizes.