For all the ways in which modern football is making fans fall rapidly out of love with the game – with everything from VAR to the ESL infuriating diehards across the globe – a certain club in Bilbao is keeping the soul of the game alive by doing things differently to the rest.
Athletic Club are that team. While football becomes increasingly globalised and commodified, the Basque ballers have refused to bend to the pressure of the times and are unique in their diligence to tradition.
More recently, Athletic Club broke convention by becoming the first club to play two finals of the same tournament in two weeks. But despite the results not going their way in the Copa Del Rey, Athletic Club will never lose their commitment to being unconventionally conventional.
While elite clubs around Europe change structures, management, and personnel season in, season out, The Cantera is Athletic Club's unbreakable bond with the Basque community. The Cantera policy is a commitment to making sure that every single first-team player is Basque raised. Each Athletic baller is Basque in one way or another, with players either born in the region or coming up through Athletic’s famous ‘Lezama’ academy, or the youth system of another club in the seven historic provinces of ‘Euskal Herria’.
Athletic even have an age-old saying to cement their stance: “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación”, which translates to “With home-grown talent and fans, there is no need for imports”. Rather than just an empty platitude or gimmicky club motto, Athletic Club truly is all about community.
Athletic Bilbao’s fanbase have a different model of success, too. Rather than seeing results or silverware as paramount, success is viewed through an acceptance of peaks and troughs. For the Bilbao faithful, supporting Athletic runs deeper than results. Prior to COVID, The San Mames Stadium was regularly packed out with 55,000 fervent fans. The match day experience is one that football fans all over the globe are longing to return, but no more so than in Bilbao. Rightly known as La Catedral, the stadium is truly biblical on match day – and whether Athletic win or lose, you know the showcase will be deeply spiritual.
By fighting against the system and representing something more than just a football team, Los Leones have become one of the most well-loved football clubs in the modern era. Having done things on their own terms since 1898 – through good times and bad – Athletic Club have created something unique, something magical, and something to belong to. In an age of mercenary ballers, petrodollars and sportswashing, Athletic Club’s unbreakable authenticity and identity have kept them closer to their community than any club in Europe.
Athletic Club and New Balance's new home shirt for the 2021/22 season will see the club wear this unparalleled authenticity on their sleeves, with a modern take on the iconic racing red and white vertical stripes that salute the Club’s eternal local influence. The intersection of the famous stripes mirrors the diagonal line featured in the iconic Athletic Club crest, mirroring how Athletic Club’s identity is felt throughout the Basque region.
Club Captain Iker Muniain said: “This year’s jersey really means a lot to the team. It’s a reminder of the special connection we have to the Basque people. Whenever we wear the colours of Athletic Club, we know the fans are with us”.
In a time where we've seen greed in the game rear its ugly head, Athletic Club are living proof that clubs can still be something more than just a commodity – but a community.
The Athletic Club 21/22 home jersey is available now from newbalance.com/football.