As featured in The Guardian:

“Any boy that’s born within a 60-kilometre radius of here is showered with Athletic balloons and gifts; maternity wards are plastered in red and white. This football club becomes part of our identity from the second we’re born.”

I’m up in northern-Spain in the sleepy-town of Lezama; situated six kilometres outside of Bilbao. This place is the home of just 2,400 people, however it accommodates one of the most unique football clubs in the world; Athletic Club Bilbao.

Just 14 years after being founded and following accusations of fielding ineligible foreign players in the 1911 Copa del Rey, ‘Los Leones’ made the decision to only ever field players who were either born in the Basque Country or ‘formed locally’. More than 100 years later and here we are today with Athletic being one of only three clubs to have never been relegated from the top-tier of Spanish football (alongside both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).

The reliance on local talent is colossal and the Lezama Facilities were built in 1971, now hosting the club’s first-team, women’s teams and academy teams. Although there are eight pitches, a gymnasium, a press room and medical room, the iconic arch – which was relocated to here from the old San Mamés stadium – gives the place a feeling of great institution.

Under-16 head coach Jon Solaun describes the emphasis put on both tradition and development here: “I was born in Bilbao and to put on this tracksuit and represent this club is everything to me; I know the boys feel the same pride” he says. “We all feel like a piece of history here as a family.”

The former central-midfielder pursues “It’s incredible for the kids to be around one another and watch each other grow through the categories as both people and players. When a Lezama kid pulls on the red and white in San Mamés, we all feel a great sense of triumph.”

With a record of at least two new academy products graduating into the first team yearly over the past five consecutive seasons, there’s been plenty of praise for the work put in by sporting director José Amorrortu. The man who both captained and managed the first team before going onto steer the direction of the club tells me about the philosophies in place and why they’re resulting in so much success.

“Eighty-five percent of the first team players came through this academy, and the average stay here before reaching the first team is seven years, so we take them as young boys and mould them; these figures are just a consequence of our work.”

“We have 20 scouts around the Biscay area and we also have 150 brother-clubs in the region that monitor the progress of youngsters and send them to Lezama if they feel they possess the qualities to play here.” He continues “We trust our coaches and local clubs to develop the kids so much that we don’t even start our academy programme until they’re under-10; just last year we had 1,500 nine-year-olds train here, it’s not difficult to find players.”

After manoeuvering the conversation towards what the coaches are looking for in a child so young, Amorrortu explains that “cognitive skills are key.” He stresses “we want to know how they think and make decisions on the pitch, and then see how they act off it.”

The term ‘values’ comes up countless times during the discussion and the 65-year-old is adamant that they play a pivotal part in what the club model themselves on. “Kids will have roles and responsibilities as soon as they enter the building; whether it’s sorting the kit, cleaning the dressing-room or carrying equipment. There’s a rota.”

“I’ve worked at Atletico de Madrid and other elite clubs, but nobody has what we have” he advances “We have a culture here, an identity. It’s our job to create good people as well as good players, and nobody does that like we do.”

“Family is everything for Basque people and we want to do right by our own people; there’s no greater sense of pride for a boy than playing football for this club.”

The former Spain international scurries to his office before returning with a sheet of paper. “It’s important they have more means to life than football. Careers are short and they’re one bad tackle away from it all being over.” Handing me a team-sheet, he progresses “Our third team is made up of 21 kids between the ages of 18 and 19; 13 of the 21 are currently doing degrees in University. Yet, we don’t force anything on them, we just encourage good values. Especially in today’s game and society, our boys are an example.”

The first team have trained and left the premises, now it’s the turn of the youngsters and sessions are taking place below the picturesque Basque-hills, each has exceptionally high standards. The first 30 minutes for players between the ages of nine and 16 consist of ball work and are, in Amorrortu’s words, “Very technical. We drive technique, technique, technique.”

Players work in pairs and whilst they move the ball back and forth with various touches and turns, the coach is constantly reminding them of the “Three key points: 1, Posture – Keep your back upright whilst bending knees. 2, Vision – Check your surroundings for space and people and 3, Change of rhythm and direction.”

Following the 30 minutes of technical-work – each session evolves into a tactical exercise – and the importance of strategy and shape is drilled home to each individual. There’s a strong sense of earnestness around the place and standards are extremely high, so much so that two lackadaisical under-14s are sent out of the session, ordered to stand at the side and watch with their hands behind their backs.

“Every single individual here has to be a representation of the club and the people” under-18 Head Coach Iban Fuentes tells me. “As soon as a kid takes it easy, he needs to be reminded that there’s others desperate to be in his place. This is the nature of the game and we must provide them with a sporting education as well.”

Touching on the direction in which the sport is going, he continues, “Society is changing, and the model professional isn’t what it was 20 years ago. We work hard to keep the boys focussed, but of course there’s difficult moments. However, they tend to reach an age where they understand that money can’t buy what we have here at Athletic, and that’s where the hard work from everyone pays off.”

“This club is like no other. We train alongside the first-team and the boss ensures there’s no barriers between us and them. They’ll stop and chat to the kids when passing and they always follow the development and growth of their own.”

“We’re all living the dream. Every person in this complex has a season ticket, and if the first-team play away then the kids will train then go home and put on their Athletic pyjamas to watch the game with their family. Meanwhile, the coaches here have a meeting point in town where we watch the games together. We’re all members of the Athletic family and have our own culture and identity.”


By Alex Clapham