There are only three teams that have never been relegated from La Liga since its inception in 1929. As you might expect, Real Madrid and Barcelona make up two of the three, but the other is perhaps not so obvious.
Not Atlético Madrid, not Valencia nor Sevilla, but Athletic Club of Bilbao.
Although they have not troubled the trophy engravers much over the last three decades, Athletic Club are still ranked fifth in the all-time La Liga table, and are the fourth most successful club in Spain in terms of La Liga titles.
Their last title came in 1984, and while they are no longer mixing it with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona as championship contenders, they have still managed to finish in the top seven in each of the past four seasons under the stewardship of Ernesto Valverde.
Valverde’s consistently strong performance in charge of Athletic Club led Barcelona’s board to identify him as the man to succeed Luis Enrique as manager, and in May of this year, he made the move from the Basque Country to Catalonia.
He was replaced by his former Athletic team-mate Cuco Ziganda, who had spent the last six years in charge of the club’s ‘B’ team (the imaginatively named Bilbao Athletic). Things started off pretty well for Ziganda, with two wins and a draw in his first three league games, but since then almost nothing has gone right.
They have only picked up four points in their last eight games, from a 1-0 win over Sevilla and a 3-3 draw with bottom side Málaga. They even somehow managed not to score against Las Palmas, who have conceded 28 goals in their other ten league games this season.
It has not been plain sailing in the cup competitions either. They sit third in a pretty benign Europa League group, following a defeat to Zorya Luhansk and a draw with Swedish side Östersunds. In the Copa del Rey, an admittedly much-changed team struggled to a draw with tiny Balearic Islanders SD Formentera, who play in the third tier of Spain’s football pyramid.
Although they may be struggling this season, when their unique situation is taken into account, it is clear that they have in fact been massively overachieving for years.
While their La Liga rivals are free to sign whoever they want with few restrictions, Athletic Club operate a policy whereby their squad can only be made up of Basque players. This has been relaxed over the years to include those who have had some part of their schooling in the Basque region, those of Basque heritage and players from Navarre and the French Basque Country, but it is still a very shallow pool from which eligible players can be drawn.
As a result, Athletic aren’t particularly active in the transfer market. Their club record signing is still Roberto Ríos, signed 20 years ago for £10.8m. Such scant expenditure on transfers means they can invest more in developing young players, and they have a good track record of bringing through talented youngsters. Current stars Iñaki Williams, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Iker Muniain and Aymeric Laporte all came though Athletic’s youth system.
Athletic fully expect each of these players to move on to bigger clubs at some point, but are safe in the knowledge that they will each command a large transfer fee, and that another young player will step up to take their place.
While this system has worked for them so far, you can’t help but wonder whether it will ultimately be their downfall. It is an admirable policy insofar as it keeps the club truly in touch with its community, but in some ways it is a relic of a bygone age. Sadly, the football world has grown bigger and uglier around it. Top-level football is now a global game, and Athletic are in danger of being left behind.
Rivals Real Sociedad, from neighbouring San Sebastián, abandoned their own Basque-only policy in 1989 with the signing of the distinctly un-Basque John Aldridge. There would be uproar among Athletic Club’s fans if they were to go down the same road, but there may come a time when a compromise has to be made.
The Spanish league is not yet as awash with cash as the Premier League, but investment in some clubs from wealthy third parties and a more evenly distributed television deal have increased the revenues of La Liga sides. Other clubs will be able to splash the cash on new players, while Athletic’s self-imposed paucity of transfer options may leave them eating their rivals’ dust.
On the other hand, if and when football’s bubble bursts, a largely self-sufficient Athletic Club will be better equipped than most to deal with it. Sticking with their long-term strategy could be a good way of insulating them against the short-term, boom-and-bust nature of modern football.
If Athletic’s poor form continues and a relegation battle ensues, it could bring the issue to a head. Would the fans be willing to relax the Basque-only policy if it meant maintaining their ever-present status in La Liga?
It would certainly be an issue that divided the fans, but without doubt most of them would rather go down with their principles intact than bow to the globalisation of the game. After all, it is what makes this club unique, and should be a source of pride.