The 53,000-seater stadium of San Mamés catches my eye every time I go to Bilbao. Being so close to the bus station, everyone who arrives in the city by bus will see it. But San Mamés is not simply just another stadium in Spain. Rather, it is home to the most unique football club in the country and possibly the world, a club that only recruits local Basque players and has nonetheless quite miraculously managed to become one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football history, competing at the top level throughout its entire existence.
In the late 1800s, Bilbao being an industrial city attracted migrant workers from England who came to work as miners and shipyard workers. During this time, students from some of the more well-to-do Basque families were travelling to England for periods of study and returning to Bilbao with a newly developed interest in football. These students founded Athletic Club with its English spelling in 1898 whilst the British migrants created Bilbao Football Club in 1900. The two clubs merged together in 1902, creating Athletic Bilbao.
The original shirt of Athletic Bilbao was blue and white, and was purchased from English club Blackburn Rovers; this connection comes from British miners from the North of England who were living in Bilbao at the time. In 1910 however, a man called Juan Elorduy who worked for Athletic Bilbao travelled to England intending to purchase more of these Blackburn shirts. To his surprise, the shirts were sold out and so he improvised, shortly before boarding a ship from Southampton to Bilbao, by buying a bunch of Southampton FC shirts instead. Athletic Bilbao continues to wear the red and white stripes of Southampton to this day.
To play for Athletic Bilbao you have to be Basque. That means you can be from anywhere in the Greater Basque Region which includes the Basque Country, Navarre and the French Basque Country. This is however, an unwritten rule and has some flexibility to it. The club is very open to accepting players of Basque descent and nowadays considers anyone who grew up in the Basque Country to be Basque, regardless of their parents’ nationalities. Iñaki Williams for instance, is one of the club’s star players and was born in Bilbao to Liberian immigrants. This open idea of Basqueness is welcomed by the fans who feel a special connection to their club and its players, knowing that together they share a distinct culture and identity. Athletic Bilbao is their club. The Basque Country is their home.
Despite the limitations of the Basque-only policy, Athletic Bilbao are still one of the most successful clubs in Spain, having won 8 La Liga titles, the fourth most in history. They have also won the Copa del Rey 23 times, second only to Barcelona. Even in recent years, as the big money of modern football allows other clubs in La Liga to pluck talent from all over the world, Athletic Bilbao remains competing in Spain’s top league and refuses to yield to the trends of modern football. Perhaps that is the club’s greatest miracle.
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