Napoli sent 13 players to play for six different countries at this summer's World Cup, including starters in the final and third place game. They are a club with glitzy UEFA Champions League (UCL) aspirations, willing to drop the odd €40 million on a Gonzalo Higuain-type to get to that promised land, as well as the money and exposure that comes with it. Somewhere above Napoli, somewhere closer to a Dortmund or Juventus-level team, is a positive feedback loop that Napoli is charting their course towards. Make the UCL, cash those checks, buy better players, and on and on it goes. But despite how much they've spent or how well they've worn the costume of perennial Champions League contender, Napoli won't be a part of this year's tournament. Athletic Bilbao, a very different club with zero World Cup players, hijacked their dreams and sent them out of the tournament.
Soccer teams want to mean something. An integral part of many top club's identities is an ethos, something that differentiates them off the field beyond geography. Real Madrid is about riding around shining to an ostentatious extreme, Ajax emphasizes the deliberate cultivation of local, organic, fair-trade footballers, and Arsenal seem to be about ideas in the abstract. Some of it's history, a lot of it is branding. Athletic Bilbao, Athletic to its friends, is not about any of that. They don't spray oil money around, copying and pasting players onto their team at a reckless rate. Athletic fields a squad of Basque players, that is who they are. Their something is as brick-and-mortar as it gets.
The Basque region has a population of 3 million and change, roughly equivalent to the Portland metro area. In a country full of regionalism and separatist movements, the Basque Country is the most autonomous. The regional government center in Vitoria-Gasteiz is responsible for the nuts and bolts of governance such as collecting taxes and implementing education and health policy. This off-to-the-side setup is entrenched further by the Basque language, which isn't a romance language like Spanish or other regional dialects, and is altogether unlike any other language on the Iberian peninsula. Linguistic consolidation is increasing around the world, but many areas in the region, including Bilbao, still have populations 80-100 percent fluent in Basque.
The region recently emerged from a period of violent extremism instigated mainly by the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) until it formally disbanded in 2011. The initial struggle towards separatism in the 1890's was galvanized by Sabino Arana, a lightning rod of a man. He routinely invoked xenophobic arguments of Basque racial superiority in his brief but influential political career. "We, the Basques, must avoid the mortal contagion, maintain firm our faith in our ancestors and the serious religiosity that distinguishes us, and purify our customs," said Arana, "before so healthy and exemplary, now so infected and at the point of corruption by the influence of those who have come from outside." After his death due to Addison's Disease at 38, the independence movement shied away from his racial-spiritual ideas of independence and moved towards a civic, practical model of self-determination. Today, over 60 percent of Basques support self-determination, a higher percentage than that of Catalonia or Galicia.
While Athletic have never been associated with the fringe elements of the separatist movement, their away kit has the same colors as the Basque flag, and Francisco Franco's rigid linguistic policies forced them to change their name to Atletico Bilbao during his reign. They're not an overtly political team, but they're rooted with a sense of place that almost no other top club has. They live their geography. It's inseparable from club identity, not just part of it.
Still, it's not like Athletic isn't a business. They've made a few high profile sales in the past few years, moving Javi Martinez to Bayern, Ander Herrera to Manchester United, and Fernando Llorente to Juventus. Normally, you'd see clubs reinvesting this newly earned cash in a player of similar caliber to the one they sold, but Athletic never move like that. They'll pry away Basques from other teams if the fit is right, but the makeup of their team never hinges on new arrivals. Athletic always colors within the lines.
A sense of patience defines the way the team is run. Even when they go through turmoil, like when Martinez and Llorente were on their way out at the same time, they stick to the process. Two years after that transfer opera, they're in the UCL group stages with a young, fiery team. Their legendary Lezama youth system is the engine of the squad, producing players for the first team at a regular clip. It's one thing to orient a squad around players from the cantera and supplement them from outside. This is the Barcelona model: identify young talent, bring it through the system en masse, and bolster the ranks from elsewhere to stay competitive during the inevitable low periods. Teams aspire to this sort of autonomy, mainly because it's cheaper if you do it right, but nobody is as inexorably married to the ground-up model as Athletic is. The team is a startlingly cohesive whole from top to bottom, and they play like it. Their independence and borderline collectivist structure is unabashedly Basque. ?"scar de Marcos wears the playmaker's number 10 jersey, but he's starting at right back at the moment because it's the best use of his talents in this particular XI.
On Wednesday, they looked unshakable. Athletic pressed Napoli relentlessly from the jump and the Italians never established a rhythm. The Napoli midfield would try to string together a few passes, only for a swarm of red-striped players to force them to turn it over or panic and try something disastrously ambitious. When Athletic had to defend their final third, everyone jumped in. Diminutive winger Iker Muniain was destabilizing attacks and flinging himself all over the pitch just as much as burly center back Aymeric LaPorte, the second French Basque player ever to play for Athletic. Despite their ball dominance, Marek Hamšík broke first and put Napoli ahead early in the second half. You can have a good tactical setup, but if you can't adjust when the sledding gets tough, it doesn't matter. Playing from behind can tug at the edges of a team and force an unraveling.
But Athletic didn't change a thing and it worked, the same way their "Basques Only" stance works. Athletic kept pressing Napoli and picking their spots, until Aduriz slipped his mark on a corner kick and rang home an equalizer. Suddenly, Napoli had to chase the game, which opened up swaths of space for Athletic. Two quick goals later, it was over. Athletic are back in the Champions League for the first time since 1998. Their group has Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, and BATE Borisov. It's one of the more forgiving groups, especially given Shakhtar Donetsk's own proximity to a different, more dire struggle with Ukraine's ongoing regionalism and nationalism. Bilbao can do big things in this group.
Either way, they are worth your attention, whether you're a neutral or not, for their style alone. Athletic will hound the ball for 90 minutes and play with speed at every position. Muniain is as dangerous and creative a 21-year-old as you'll find in the whole tournament. Behind him, Bayern target Ander Iturraspe is the team's fulcrum, snuffing out opposing attacks and working the ball to the creative braintrust. There's an eery efficiency to Athletic. They don't have the galactic talents of the top teams in the world, but they tend to pick the right pass and catch runners in stride more than their opponents. They aren't going to bust out and write sonatas on the break like Messi, but they move as a whole, everyone on the same frequency hitting their marks together.
Beyond style, there are bigger things working for them. In a tournament that orbits around huge piles of money, Athletic are a genuine outsider. The UCL doesn't feel like a means to an end for them. There isn't any grand plan to qualify, sell off big players, then reinvest in bigger stars to keep up a residency program on the UCL rollercoaster. Athletic don't want to become Real Madrid, and they're all the better for it. So, watch them. Make them your new Basque Buddies. Teams with uncut commitments to geography and cultural identity like this are rare in general and unheard of at this level. Appreciate their slowness off the pitch, marvel at their conjoined ruthlessness on it. It feels weird to raise a banner for a team like Athletic as a bandwagon darling, because they so blatantly refuse to participate in the talent arms race, but that's what makes them hum in their folkloric, homemade pitch. They represent a region and a culture without any co-optation or cynicism. Watch them because they matter.