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Are you eligible to become an Athletic Club player? A historical guide (11th January, 2018)

How do you qualify to play at Athletic?

Cristian Ganea, a Romanian left-back who was born in Romania to Romanian parents, was recently being scouted by Athletic Club. How could they possible justify his signing? Well, at the age of 11, he was brought by his parents to the Basque Country and played for Basconia and Indartsu in his youth.

The truth is, however, that Athletic Club's definition of who qualifies has always been open to interpretation, with presidents relaxing and tightening the rules as they saw fit.

The definition, Basque players or players who trained in teams from Euskadi and Navarra, is not just vague by its definition of which players who have trained in teams from Euskadi and Navarra, but also has to do with the vagueness of the territorial limits of Euskadi and Navarra itself. And also to do with the fact that in the past Athletic Club were only recruiting players from the Biscay province surrounding Bilbao while the other leading clubs Real Sociedad and Osasuna focused on players from their respective provinces Gipuzkoa and Navarre. In recent decades Athletic expanded their recruitment in these other areas in their efforts to accommodate the best players with any Basque links, and this has seen many talented players from San Sebastián and Pamplona join the club (and caused Real Sociedad to abandon their own Basque policy in the face of this competition for signings).

And therefore, throughout the history of the club, ever since Veicht and Smith, the last foreigners left the team in 1912, the contradictions abound in this tradition that rose as a result of the professionalization of Spanish football. The club that had among its first legends English pioneers such as Mac Lennan, Evans, Langford and Davies decided to dispense with foreign footballers.

The influence of some presidents such as Alejandro de la Sota, Ramón Aras-Jauregui, José María Vilallonga and Ramón de la Sota, who all had connections to the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), had a lot to do with Athletic Club's new identity. Nevertheless, the policy ended up transcending its origins, and became institutionalized in such a way that no one today ever speaks of hiring players as a way to advance the cause of Basque nationalism.

Speaking of players, there are plenty that Athletic signed, and didn't sign, because of the way rules were interpreted. Chus Pereda was raised in Balmaseda in Biscay, and, as a schoolboy, he captained the provincial U-16 team. He began his senior career with Bilbao club Indautxu. If anyone was Basque, it was him...but his birthplace, Madina de Pomar (in Burgos), deterred Enrique Guzmán from signing the player in 1958. And the midfielder, who went on to play for Real Madrid and shine for Sevilla and Barcelona, did not forget the disappointment. "It bothered me. I was Athletic and it hurt a lot. I think they were totally wrong." Curiously, his best games were at the San Mamés - once, he played for Barcelona at the Basque club, and scored three goals in a 5-2 win.

Another case of the 50's was that of midfielder Miguel Jones, born in Guinea but raised in Bilbao. He went from Indautxu to Atlético Madrid in 1959 and nobody in Athletic even dared to suggest his signing. Not to mention José Eulogio Gárate, an Argentinian striker who was born to Basque parents and grew up in Eibar. He began his career with Eibar in 1960 before joining Indautxu in 1963, and yet in 1966 was allowed to move to Atlético Madrid, where he played for 11 seasons.

But the problem isn't that they were rejected, but that the yardstick used was selective. Defender Isaac Oceja spent 15 seasons at Athletic during the 30's and 40's, even captaining the side - and was born in Escalante (in Cantabria). Perhaps you could give him a free pass because he resided in Durango (Biscay).

There are other cases to. Armando Merodio, for example, was an important forward in the 50's. In his case, his signing from Barakaldo in 1956 wasn't stopped - it did not matter that he was born in Barcelona, ​​where his father, the great pelota player Chiquito de Gallarta, earned his living. But José Eulogio Garate's signing was dismissed.

And so was Roberto López Ufarte's, born in Fez (Morocco) - his parents, from Andalusia and Catalonia, moved abroad in search of work, and returned to Irún (Basque Country) when their son was just eight. Real Unión sold him to Real Sociedad in 1975, where he played for 12 seasons. But Vicente Biurrun, a Brazilian native and Brazilian-born goalkeeper who had Basque roots, was able to sign for Athletic Club from Osasuna in 1986. The "looser" interpretation in later years also benefited players like Luis Fernando (Zamora), Ernesto Valverde (Cáceres), Patxi Ferreira (Salamanca), Manuel Núñez (Cáceres) or La Rioja natives José Mari, De la Fuente, Santiago Ezquerro and Daniel Aranzubia.

Vicente Biurrun isn't the only foreign national with "Basque roots". In 1980 the club gave serious consideration to signing Iker Zubizarreta, a young Venezuelan of Basque heritage (his grandfather Félix had starred for Athletic in the 1910s) who had impressed at the football tournament at the 1980 Summer Olympics, but decided not to pursue it. In 2011, media sources claimed that Athletic had shown interest in young Mexican midfielder Jonathan Espericueta but no such move materialized, and the player himself (who did later play in Spain with Villarreal B) stated that his Basque connection was as distant as a great-great-grandfather.

The Uruguayan international Diego Forlán, whose paternal grandmother was Basque, claimed he had talks over a potential transfer to the club in 2004 but this signing would have been incompatible with the club's current policy as Forlan was not born in a Basque region, nor did he play football as a youth (or at any point in his career) at a club in the territory. This is in contrast to Higinio Ortúzar, Vicente Biurrun, Javier Iturriaga and Fernando Amorebieta who were all born in Latin America with Basque parentage, but as with players born in other Spanish regions such as Armando Merodio, Patxi Ferreira and Ernesto Valverde, it was their residency in the territory from childhood rather than their ancestry which made them eligible for Athletic. And as you'd remember, that wasn't the case earlier, when talented players raised locally but with birthplaces elsewhere (Chus Pereda, Miguel Jones, José Eulogio Gárate and the elder brother of Athletic Bilbao legend Manuel Sarabia, Lázaro, who was "called [in] to sign, but when he went to fill out the file, they realized that...he was born in Torres (Jaén)...he came home crying") were not signed.

The truth is that increasingly pressing needs of the team have been feeding increasingly open interpretations. It would have been unthinkable for Bixente Lizarazu, a French Basque player signed in 1996 from Bordeaux, to have signed in another era. But the very existence of the French Basque Country gives Athletic Club another loophole to exploit. Aymeric Laporte was the first French Basque player to successfully graduate from the youth system in 2012. He was signed in 2009 but not without fierce debate - he had no link to the Basque region through birth or residency, and a blood link only via great-grandparents. He did join a team in the territory, Aviron Bayonnais, but only by arrangement after the initial approach from Athletic, as he was too young to move to a club outside France at the time - he arrived formally in 2010.

And players born in the Basque Country but raised elsewhere are now considered eligible. Fernando Llorente was born in Pamplona but lived his whole childhood in Rincón de Soto (close to Basque territory but outside it) before he was recruited as an 11-year-old. Two of Athletic's most expensive signings, the Bilbao-born Spain internationals Roberto Ríos and Ander Herrera learned their skills in the cities where their footballing fathers were based professionally (Eusebio at Real Betis, and Pedro at Real Zaragoza respectively). In fact, Roberto Ríos, signed in 1997 was a record signing - 2 billion pesetas - and representative of the relaxing of the cantera rules during that time. Benefiting from the more flexible approach, in 1998, coach Luis Fernández led the club to second in La Liga and to Champions League qualification. Not to mention the case of Gaizka Mendieta (son of Andrés of CD Castellón) who had similar origins but turned down a move, albeit he remained a proud Basque who played for the unofficial representative team.

And recently, the rules have been stretched even further - which some fans haven't totally accepted. Enric Saborit, originally from Catalonia, who graduated through the youth and reserve levels to reach the first team, caused questions to be asked when he signed in 2008; he had no connection with the region by birth or blood, but while already 16 years old and playing in Espanyol's cantera teams had moved to Vitoria-Gasteiz where his mother relocated for work two years earlier, and as a resident of the territory was immediately deemed eligible by Athletic to play for the club.

And in the summer of 2017, Athletic recruited Youssouf Diarra, a forward born in Mali who was raised in Catalonia and had spent two years playing for clubs in Navarre from the age of 16, which the club deemed sufficient under the policy. The previous year they had signed Colombia-born 16-year-old Deiby Ochoa, who lived in La Rioja and had only ever played for clubs in that region. Both players had attended trial matches at the Lezama training center. However, despite recruiting Ochoa (the spelling of whose name was changed to the Basque Otxoa in club records), in October 2017 it was announced that Athletic's youth training camp in Oion - in Álava, but just a few miles from Logroño - would no longer accept players who did not fit the Athletic philosophy, effectively excluding around 150 Riojan youngsters of various ages from the system and leaving only around 10 Basques across the squads.

The case remains that doubts exist on what exactly the signing policy is. Benjamín Zarandona, born in Valladolid, has a father from Portugalete (Basque Country) and a mother from Equatorial Guinea. Is he qualified? Jorge López Montaña was a Villarreal legend and was a riojano - did his Sestao-born grandfather make him eligible?

It's hard to tell. And the confusion isn't just in the first team. In the youth teams, there was no debate when youth players were signed from Pradejón, in La Rioja (admittedly, not too far from the Navarre border). But when one of the presidential candidates to succeed José María Arrate spoke of the need to establish a network of extra-community scouts in order to catch promises from all over Spain, the debate was reignited.

And yet - that motto will always remain. Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación, or with home-grown talent and local support, you don't need foreigners, is a powerful message to send.

The only question is - what the heck does "home-grown" and "local" mean?


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