Visiting the Lions of Basque Country

 In Game

A day at Lezama, the engine room of Athletic Bilbao.

Sometime past midnight we drive past the Zubizuri bridge and check into our hotel. Next morning, we wake up to a view that was caught on camera as part of the James Bond franchise. We are in Bilbao for the next leg of our trip, where temperatures are hovering around the one degree mark. It’s a frosty morning but it’s hard not to be pulled by the charm of this Northern Spanish city, home of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s a Saturday and the runners within the city are out stepping lightly. We are headed to Lezama, a village which is about a 20-minute drive from the city center. The name sounds all the more familiar because of the team that has its training base there. While Lezama is a sleepy village, the area around is abuzz on most days as this is the training base of Athletic Club de Bilbao.

Athletic is one of the oldest football clubs in the country and is recognized worldwide for recruiting players of Basque origins only. The club is steeped deeply in tradition and is one of three clubs – along with Real Madrid and Barcelona – to have played in every season of the Spanish top flight since its inception. Lezama is a modern footballing facility, sprayed over 20 acres with 8 full-sized pitches laid out among other essential sporting facilities. As we pull in, we notice at least 200 kids out on the field, either taking part in training or playing competitive games against other teams from the region. Inaki Gonzalez, who is one of the youth coaches at the club, greets us before kickstarting a tour of the facility and explaining the Athletic philosophy. The iconic arch from Old San Mames towers over one of the pitches as we begin our stroll. Athletic’s B Team, Bilbao Athletic, are in action later in the day and will be taking on Albacete. Inaki explains the significance of the arc. ‘While the club continues to develop and take a modern approach to keep up with the rest of the world, it is very mindful of its values and its history in parallel. History, tradition, and symbolism are everything at the club here.’

Over the decades, Athletic – as a club – has developed a connection with its fans that others in Europe and the rest of the world can only dream of. The Vizcaya people’s loyalty is invested fully in Athletic’s red and white stripes. The feeling of ownership the fans have towards the club is something that deserves more than a passing mention. Here, season tickets are passed down from generation to generation and the club is a way of life. A way of life that all of Bilbao subscribes to.

Athletic is owned by the fans. It’s a democratic system where the president is elected in four year intervals. Josu Urrutia, who is the sitting president, joined the club in 1977 in the youth system, and after having played 400+ games for the club, has now risen to lead the institution. Overall, the reintegration rate of past players and coaches within the system is astonishing. Club legends walk the corridors going about their daily business. It really drives home the idea of building an identity and society revolving around the club.

While Athletic is financially very stable and one of the richest clubs in the region, it’s their core values and beliefs that have proven to be their greatest strengths. The club believes in humility, compassion, and community first.

‘This club belongs to the fans’ is a well-document cliche in global football -a great line to use in marketing campaigns and PR briefs. Only here, it stands literally, and evidently, true. Athletic is a community club through and through.

Inaki leads us to the changing rooms to illustrate a real-life example of this belief within the club. Whether you are a U-13 player or a player for the B Team, at Athletic you train and change in rooms that are exactly the same. Zero-frill functionality is what Athletic strives for. Humility within their players across the age groups is what they achieve.

Later in the day, we notice that every Athletic first team player makes it a point to stop and oblige fans who are waiting for them quite literally every single one of them. Inaki says while it might be a surprising to us, in Lezama it’s the norm. Fans first, always.

In the changing rooms, Inaki points out a board where every player has his number noted down. He explains that, on a daily basis, all the players are required to think introspectively about their game and journal what they feel they’ve learnt every given day and what they think their areas of improvement might be. Introspection is promoted as a way of life at the club. Inaki opines that Athletic’s youth system is not built to win trophies at the younger levels. They are instead focused on developing players with a long term vision in mind. They are accepting of the fact that Basque players might not always be the strongest of the fastest. That’s not within their control. But what sort of footballers they become is, and that is where they try to focus their energies. They want their players to be able to understand the game better and exploit the game of the opponents based on that. Here mistakes are seen as a natural part of the learning curve. While the modern demands of world football tend to make this a very steep curve, Athletic strives to make it a little easier.

Athletic’s technical philosophy trickles down from a leader. The sporting director at the club is the single point of contact for all matters technical. Jose Mari Ammorrotu has been associated with the club for the best part of 30 years as a player, the head coach, then the assistant coach, and now as Technical Director. Having worked with Atletico Madrid in the past as well, the likes of Llorente De Gea, Koke, among others have come through under his watchful eye. Now well into his sixties, Jose Mari hasn’t lost any of his energy, and his commitment to the cause of Athletic remains as strong as ever. Consolidating what Inaki has said all day, he explains that community and their integration is a vital part of the Athletic system. And with that in mind, Athletic intentionally don’t have any residential spaces within the facility. They have their boys stay in the farms along with local families who act as guardians during the players’ formative years. Athletic also reaches out to the smaller clubs around the Vizcaya region and provides them medical and financial support. What they get in return is each of these clubs’ undying loyalty and first right to any player they may have on their books.

Jose Mari has a very simple footballing philosophy. The club plays a 3-4-3 formation across the teams and this is not changeable. Coaches are expected to adapt to Athletic’s style of play. It’s never the other way around. Run, but not for the sake of running, do it because you have reason to. Jose Mari then underscores the requirement of strong principles to have a unique, and unmistakably revered identity as a club. Once a vision is in place, it’s vital that the people integrated buy into it and understand what one aims to achieve. Without it, the direction will never show an upward trajectory. We soak in his words of wisdom and make our way back to the city. Atletico Madrid are in town and the town is warming up for a tough match the next day. It’s only right that we soak it all in!

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