I have heard it said that it is easier to change your religion than it is to change your affiliation to a football team. For example, I chose to board the West Ham United roller coaster and have endured the ride through the ups and downs, false dawns and brief moments of celebration during that ride; but I will remain on board until my ticket finally runs out.
Some fans say they have a second team. I wouldn’t say I have a second team, but I will say that Athletic Bilbao occupies a little place in my heart.
For those of us taking Spanish at our University, we had to decide on our Spanish – speaking destination for our third and penultimate year. Many saw this as a year’s holiday. Therefore places such as Costa Rica, Cuba and Valencia were chosen.
I chose the best University. Unfortunately the best University was not in an exotic location in South America, the Caribbean, or on the Southern Coast of Spain. It was In Bilbao, a grim, post-industrial City in the North of Spain and a part of the Basque region. I was wondering if I had made the right decision, but soon grew to love the City and its inhabitants. Bilbao is a fiercely independent City, and so too the Basque people.
This independence is clear and loud with the attitude and philosophy that Athletic Bilbao projects to the world. They use the English Athletic rather than the Spanish equivalent of Atlético. However they did have to resort to using the Spanish equivalent when General Franco came to power as he banned all foreign words.
But two weeks after Franco’s death, they changed it back to Athletic. Soon after, the Basque derby took place between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad of San Sebastian. As the two Captains, Irbar of Athletic, and Kartabarria of Real walked on to the pitch together, they did so carrying the still banned Basque flag.
Athletic Bilbao has never played or signed a footballer who is not a Basque. This is a unique stance in world football – especially unique in this era of modern day multi-national football clubs. But this has coincided with Athletic Bilbao not winning anything for a long time as they are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona, who can buy almost anyone they like.
However, a poll was taken in the nineties with 76% of Athletic Bilbao’s fans voting that the team should retain its policy of remaining a Basque team and playing only Basque players.
The spirit of this philosophy is probably summed up best by their Chairman, José Maria Arrate, who said: “Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it’s a feeling – and as such, its ways of operating often escapes rational analysis……..we only wish for the sons of our soil to represent our club.”
It is difficult to imagine West Ham having the same policy of only playing Eastenders!