Our regular readers will know that we don’t normally talk about sports, especially soccer, unless the articles highlight other aspects that go beyond the sports angle.  This is one of those cases.

In the latest edition of the Financial Times Magazine, sports journalist Murad Ahmed has penned a thorough article covering all the basic aspects that make Athletic Bilbao such a special club.

He starts and finishes by talking about Iñaki Williams, the young Basque man who has shown how our country can change while still preserving its essence.  That’s why it’s so pathetic to read a comment to the article claiming that maintaining their policy of only signing Basque players to the team “smells a lot like ethnic nationalism”.  Several commentators are trying to discredit and belittle, but only end up showing how frustrated their are that their teams can’t manage to do the same thing, determined to win while losing all contact with where they were born.  It seems that the ability of some to understand has been lost in some dark corner of a freezer.

Athletic’s goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar and Real Sociedad captain Inaxio Kortabarria (left) hold aloft the Basque Country flag in 1976 in what Iribar describes as ‘a very significant moment’ for the region
Athletic’s goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar and Real Sociedad captain Inaxio Kortabarria (left) hold aloft the Basque Country flag in 1976 in what Iribar describes as ‘a very significant moment’ for the region

This article really deserves a good read, especially when highlighting important historical moments, like when Athletic and Real Sociedad brought out the ikurriña just before a derby only one year after the dictator Franco died.  The story is told by José Ángel Iribar, the Gipuzkoan goalkeeper for Athletic, and living legend.  It’s a moment that has been etched into the history of our country, for which Iribar remembers everything fondly, except maybe for the fact that Athletic lost.

From our point of view, the value of an article like this one for how our country is seen abroad is huge.  And that is due to how, after all is said and done, it doesn’t really talk about soccer.  It’s really about something else, about what a society ought to be like.  The same thing happens, for instance, when writing about the Sociedad Deportiva Eibar.

As we said, the article starts by talking about Iñaki Williams, and finishes with some of his own words.  The first thing mentioned, of course, is that he’s black (Really?  We had no idea!), and ends with an explanation of what it means for this young man to play for the leading Basque team.

The mantra that the club is of the Basque people, by the Basque people, for the Basque people is an alluring one. It convinces players that football is more than a game. It leads to the likes of Williams rejecting the allure of wealthier sides. Instead, he seeks glory for the region that accepted his parents, to the club that developed his talent and to teammates he sees as kin.
“At the end of my career I want to be a legend like Iribar,” he says. “I think that all of us who are here feel like part of something. We feel that it reaches us in an important sense, and no one looks down on anyone else. This is a family. I think the fans realise that this is a family, because we fight together as brothers.”

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Financial Times – 15/11/2019 – Great Britain

Inside Athletic Bilbao: the football club playing by its own rules

Athletic’s Iñaki Williams in action against Espanyol last month. ‘We are doing everything right and that is something that other clubs can’t buy,’ says the star striker © Daniel Castro Garcia
Athletic’s Iñaki Williams in action against Espanyol last month. ‘We are doing everything right and that is something that other clubs can’t buy,’ says the star striker © Daniel Castro Garcia

January 2019. Athletic Club, a football team based in Bilbao, are playing Sevilla. Receiving the ball in his own half, forward Iñaki Williams flicks it around an opponent and then — whoosh — he runs. Sevilla defenders give chase but can’t catch the 25-year-old, who sprints 70 metres in less than eight seconds. Williams shoots. He scores. The match is won. More than 40,000 Athletic fans in the stadium go wild.

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Google Translator.  The Financial Times does not allow for automatic translation, so you’ll have to copy and paste the text yourself.