Aside from a few rowdy supporters, the silence in Bilbao only amplified the agony of defeat. But after having their hopes of a first trophy since 1984 dashed by their greatest rivals, it was not long before Athletic Club’s pain gave way to hope once more. Their second Copa del Rey final in the space of 15 days, owing to the 2020 edition’s postponement, is now not only a chance of glory but an added means of redemption. “I’m not disappointed, before the game I was very proud of my players and I still am, but I am sad,” said Marcelino Garcia Toral, Athletic’s manager, after their defeat by Real Sociedad.
“We need to lift our heads up, there are important things at stake this season,” came the rallying cry from Iker Muniain. The forward, after all, is the embodiment of Athletic’s philosophy, making over 450 appearances since graduating from the academy, rejecting approaches from elsewhere and instead pledging to retire in Bilbao. That willing dedication, though, hardly appeases a player’s individual appetite for silverware. For Athletic, too, victory on Saturday would provide further validation that their century-old principle of only fielding Basque players can withstand the economic frenzy of modern football.
“Trophies are important for us to believe in what we are doing and for children to see with this approach you can win trophies and can beat Barcelona and Real Madrid,” says Rafael Alkorta, who spent over a decade at the club as a player before becoming technical director in 2018. “This from our point of view – trophies, finals, playing in Europe from time to time – does give us support and make us feel enthusiastic that we can all carry on believing in our philosophy.”
Like any guiding principle, Athletic’s loyalty begins with the grassroots. In the quiet town of Lezama 10km outside of Bilbao sits one of Spain’s most reliable talent factories, with an extensive scouting network ensuring the Basque region’s best young prospects are embedded in Athletic’s culture. “We always try to portray the way Athletic Bilbao plays which is based on family and being united with each other,” says Inaki Williams, the club’s star striker who signed an unprecedented nine-year contract extension in 2019. “It is something you are taught from a very young age. It is something to be admired. So many people support us because of what we achieve because this is a very small region in Spain.”
The question for Athletic has always been whether keeping only to their territory will always inhibit them from conquering Spain’s football giants. Marcelino has already inspired one famous upset against Barcelona when he led Valencia to Copa del Rey victory in 2019 but admits Athletic’s stubborn resolution has a magnetic appeal. “Is it incompatible with the 21st century? I would say absolutely not, because the principles are way ahead of different situations,” he says. “When you really trust and believe in a principle it is very authentic, and the philosophy and even the way of living and way of behaving is very strong. It is very responsible, respectable and even very viable. I think it is fantastic.
“We are talking about a unique changing room where people are united, all of them are working hard and all of them form part of the organisation. Many of them have known each other since they were children, they have progressed over the years and their relatives know each other, because they went through different teams at Lezama, the academy. All of the players have that feeling of belonging, that they belong to the club where they arrived many years ago and now they are enjoying the dreams they had as children.”
For Athletic’s sustained success, though, they can ill-afford their best players to leave. In recent years, buyout clauses in Kepa Arrizabalaga and Aymeric Laporte’s contacts forced their hand and, even in receiving well over £100m for players nurtured in the academy, sales are always made reluctantly. It is not so much a club as a bloodline where loyalty is, at least in hope, never an expense. “What we are trying to build with this is that children from a very young age only want to play with us,” says Alkorta. “This is a unique philosophy but we have it deeply embedded in our hearts. These are young boys who have been born in the Basque Country, young boys who have trained since they were very little in our environment. Loyalty is one of the main elements of our work and efforts.”
Saturday’s final against Barcelona could no doubt inspire that sense of allegiance in several generations to come. It is the battle between the non-conformers, stable but with a ceiling, against an icon besieged by debt-ridden success. For Athletic, Copa del Rey victory would be a crowning glory for their DNA, the blood, sweat and tears that sustain it, and proof that sometimes the keys to a global sport can lie in a neighbourhood bound like family.