In the era of modern football, where money and marketing have a greater influence on the game than loyalty and romanticism, there is a club in La Liga that keeps alive this treasured tradition. They are immune to big spending and do not sign players from outside the Basque boundaries, as if they were competing in the 19th century. They believe pride is more powerful than fiscal value. Athletic Club de Bilbao stand out from the crowd, with a "one club man" award that rewards the most committed of players (Matthew Le Tissier was the first ever recipient), defining their onus on commitment. IBTimes UK looks at the story behind one of the most fascinating clubs in the world who, alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, have never been relegated from the Spanish top flight.
It all started with Southampton
Up until 1902, Athletic played in white but decided it was time for a unique kit, so they chose a blue and white shirt, similar to Blackburn Rovers. When Juan Elorduy, a very wealthy Athletic player, travelled to London in 1910 during Christmas, the Basque club asked him to buy 50 Blackburn kits as Athletic's were ageing badly. However, with none left in London, he came across Southampton's red and white stripped kit. Though not what he was looking for, it began the "zurigom" legend.
A philosophy that makes a virtue of necessity
In a sport full of foreign influence, Athletic have a very special policy. Only players native to the Basque Country or made in local academies are eligible to play. It is not easy to compete against the financial giants of the game who can sign players at will. Even Real Sociedad, their near neighbours, spend money on players from all over the world; but no-one in Bilbao questions the philosophy.
They prefer to work with the young players, to scout locally and promote through their Lezama academy year-by-year. The results are stunning. They have lifted 33 trophies in their 118-year history, the last one in August when they smashed Lionel Messi's Barcelona in Spain's Super Cup final.
In the last decade, Athletic have played in six major finals, including in the Europa League against Atletico Madrid, and have featured in continental competition in five of the last seven seasons. Despite their rivals having huge incomes, the club continue to produce results.
The badge, above everything else
It is difficult to explain Athletic Club's success across their 118-year history. Their youth academy is ranked sixth in the world, according to The Football Observatory. The ability to polish raw and young diamonds has led to the club lifting 23 Spanish Cups, eight league titles and two Super Cups. But aside from young talent, their reputation is built on pride and dignity. The refusal to sell striker Fernando Llorente – eventually waiting until the end of his contract – sent a message to the world regarding their morals. "Athletic Club do not negotiate," they said. "If you want our stars, pay the full release clause. And, players, if you do not want to play for us, you will watch the match from the stands, we will play with the youngsters".
"If you think you can achieve this, come and try"
Athletic's ability to overcome the odds is straight out of Rafael Nadal's copybook. The Europa League quarter-final against Sevilla once again emphasised their never-say-die attitude. Trailing from the first leg, and without Aymeric Laporte and Iñaki Williams, the Athletic mantra "the more difficult the victory, the greater the happiness in winning" rang true. They took the game to extra time, with only penalties denying them a semi-final berth over the reigning champions.
Just days later they repeated the heroics. Without seven first team players they overcame Malaga and are now fifth in La Liga. This "never surrender" philosophy generates a very powerful sense of belonging among the players. Matías Lizarazu, summed up this on Twitter: "We have played 118 years in elite with a unique philosophy. Whoever think they can achieve this, come and try."