Athletic Club of Bilbao are a unique club in European football, conforming to ethos that date back over a century and are a bastion of resistance in the ever-evolving world of modern football. Since 1912, the club has played exclusively with players meeting its own criteria to be deemed as Basque – the region of Northern Spain in which they play.
In January, central defender Aymeric Laporte’s €65m release clause was triggered and he joined Manchester City, making him the world’s second most expensive defender. Now, goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has joined Chelsea in a world record fee for a goalkeeper after his €80m release clause was activated.
On the face of things, this appears to be extremely good business by the Basque giants. Especially in light of their replacement for Laporte being sorted immediately – they poached Inigo Martinez, star of regional rivals Real Sociedad, after buying out his €32m clause. Martinez had been linked to City and Barcelona, but it was Los Leones who decisively moved.
It is obvious that this is a club who are very well run. Along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, they are the only founding club of La Liga to never have suffered relegation – a run which has lasted 89 seasons. The only other founding club across Europe’s top five leagues to never suffer relegation is Inter in Italy (Hamburg in Germany lost their status on this list following their demotion earlier this year).
But Athletic are a club who do not prioritise finances, player profits and seeing players as a commodity. Their aim is to maintain their playing pool for the entirety of their careers at the top level. They are aware that the Basque Country – home to just 2.19 million people – can only produce so many players capable of meeting their aspirations. Furthermore, many of the brightest stars also play for Real Sociedad, Eibar, Osasuna and Alaves, who all share similar ideas of continuity.
Martinez was the first signing into Athletic’s first-team squad in 30 months – dating back to their move for midfielder Raul Garcia, formerly of Atletico Madrid. No other club in Europe’s top five leagues had gone over a year without adding to their squad.
This summer has marked somewhat of a change with a relative influx of arrivals. Romanian international defender Cristian Ganea – who grew up in the Basque Country – arrives, while midfielders Dani Garcia and Ander Capa have both joined from Eibar. Yuri Berchiche is somewhat of a marquee signing, following a deal being struck with Paris Saint-Germain.
Rather than signing a replacement for Kepa, Athletic now look set to elevate experienced shot-stopper Iago Herrerin into the number one spot, with Alex Remiro – who spent last season on loan at Segunda champions Huesca – also promoted to the first-team squad. Promoting youth products is the Athletic way and these record deals will not alter this policy.
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