There's No Soccer Team Like Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao, La Liga's Basque-only team, does everything differently. It doesn't make life any easier for them, but staying stubborn makes them great.

by Colin McGowan
Apr 30 2015, 3:25pm

Photo by Breiniak4534 (Own work via Wikimedia Commons)

Athletic Bilbao didn't fly too close to the sun last season so much as they looked at it funny. A club of their size and limitations will occasionally thwack their collective heads against a granite-hard ceiling, and last year was Athletic's turn. It was all too much—they qualified for the Champions League last May and subsequently sold their best player, Ander Herrera, to Manchester United, all while attempting to scare away transfer bids for half the rest of their roster. Perhaps it was internal unrest or the strain placed on a relatively thin squad trying to compete on three competitions simultaneously, but, this season, they swiftly crashed out of Europe's most lucrative tournament, finishing third in a group they arguably should have won. Their league form suffered, too: toward the end of 2013, they were sunk solidly into the bottom third of La Liga's table.

As ever, Athletic have landed on their feet. They are in some ways Spain's most remarkable club. They're not even Spanish, as their most fervent nationalistic supporters would point out: they're Basque. Athletic have a proud history—a nearly unblemished one, if you excuse some directives the club followed under Generalissimo Franco's regime—of fielding Basque-only squads. This leaves them to draw from an exceedingly narrow pool of talent, and yet they're consistently quite good. After their dire start to the season, they're eighth in La Liga at the moment, and on the edge of Europa League qualification. They find a way.

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On its face, none of this explains precisely why in the fuck Matt Le Tissier was being honored at the new San Mamés on Tuesday. Le Tissier is a folk hero for expressivist soccer fans, a before-his-time visionary who would have been better appreciated had he entered his prime in 2007 rather than a decade-and-a-half earlier. If you're struggling to think of the connection he has to Athletic Bilbao, it's because he has none. He's from the channel islands and played at Southampton for 16 seasons. He's a little bit English, a little bit French, and not at all Basque. Southampton wear red and white stripes like they do in Bilbao, but that's the full extent of the two clubs' kinship.

Despite this, Athletic hauled a delighted if slightly confused Matt Le Tissier out to the center circle at halftime of the Basque Derby—an excellent and suitably fraught match, by the way—to present him with the completely made-up One-Club Man Award. This bears emphasizing: Athletic Bilbao invented a trophy to give to a foreign player who played for a foreign club, simply because he played for that club his entire career. The press release is similarly batshit: "What we value most are your (Le Tissier's) values and principles, your loyalty to the same club during your entire career. We see ourselves very much reflected in this value and in these principles. For this reason, it is a true honor for us to give you our first One-Club Man Award. This way, you will always be part of our history."

To grasp the weird beauty of this odd act of canonization, it's important to understand that Athletic are founded on a somewhat batshit principle: that is, to rep Basqueness to the fullest. They adhere to an ideological purity—this is a club that has to straight up reckon with themselves whenever they sign a player from the maybe-not-quite-Basque city of Pamplona, or an ethnically Basque Frenchman—that should cut them off at the knees and leave them toiling in the minor leagues of Spain's soccer hierarchy. But they overcome this self-handcuffing; and they thrive. They do so by the grace of Basque players who find a literal and spiritual home in Bilbao, but also with the help of some Athletic lifers. Every gifted player who moves through Athletic Bilbao's youth academy—a journey which, wonderfully, usually involves a loan spell at the strip-clubbishly named affiliate Baskonia—is, the club hopes, going to stay for a long time. Talented Basque players are a finite resource, and Athletic will only ever have so many bodies to work with.

So, as there is a special place in Athletic annals for players who have grown up in the club and stayed throughout their careers, it would follow that there might be an affection at Athletic for Matt Le Tissier, solely for what he represents. Loyalty is the lifeblood of Athletic Bilbao, and if Le Tissier has had little to do with the club before they decided to make up an award for him, players almost exactly like him have. It was a truly Athleticesque act to honor a person who represents the ideal that sustains their whole operation. In a lot of respects, their award ceremony made sense. In others, it didn't. It was, all of it, perfectly characteristic of Spain's most strangely successful club.