Proud Athletic basking in the glory of 'Basqueness'
IT WOULD be easy for an outsider to become confused ahead of Wednesday's Europa League final about what shorthand names to give the contestants, Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid. A commentator unfamiliar with Spanish football might wonder if, rather than saying "Atletico versus Athletic", it might be simpler to refer to the teams by their cities.
But habits form in football and if a Spanish fan says "Madrid", he never means the city's second most popular team, Atletico; he means Real Madrid. Atletico Madrid are always "Atletico" for short, or "Atleti" for even shorter. And you give yourself away as a naive outsider if in Spain you ever utter the words "Atletico Bilbao". This proud club always refer to themselves via the English word, Athletic, and never the Spanish translation, Atletico.
There is a reason for that. Athletic Bilbao was formed by British workers in the north-eastern Spanish city and by students who had been studying in England. The Anglicised name - Athletic, not Atletico - also stuck because Bilbao is in Spain, but something other than purely Spanish; it is the biggest city in the Basque Country, a territory which has gained - often with difficulty, sometimes with the threat of violence - a measure of autonomy from Spain's central government. It is a place where the Basque language - which is as different from Spanish as Afrikaans is from Ndebele - is taught in schools and spoken widely, and where Athletic, the football club, are a symbol of "Basqueness".
No other major club in Europe makes locale and ethnicity as important as Athletic Bilbao. To play for Athletic, you must have roots in the Basque region - which stretches across the eastern border into France - either by birth or somewhere on the branches of your family tree. Imagine, say, AmaZulu declaring that to wear their shirt you have to be Zulu. Or Orlando Pirates declaring that, to play for them, you must show that you, or your parents, or at least one of your grandparents, were proper Sowetans. That's sort of how it is at Athletic Bilbao.
Some players find it oppressive, to effectively be representing a "nation" every weekend. When France international Bixente Lizarazu signed for Athletic in the late 1990s, excited to be at a place that celebrated his Basque roots, he realised he had "underestimated the symbolic value of the club". He "wondered if I was there as a sportsman or to serve a political purpose".
But the truly stunning aspect of Athletic's impressive progress to a major European final - they knocked out and overwhelmed Manchester United en route to Wednesday's showdown in Bucharest - is that their home grown philosophy should be thriving at a time when the business of football is so global. The Atletico Madrid team they will meet in the final are much more like most big modern clubs: they hoard from worldwide. They have a brilliant Colombian striker, Radamel Falcao. He, alongside a Brazilian, Diego, and a Turk, Arda Turan, were Atletico's big signings last summer.
Athletic Bilbao can never have so exotic a vision. What they do have is a fine set of young players. No club other than Barcelona supplied more men to Spain's last senior and pre-Olympic Games squads, chosen two months ago; players like Javi Martinez, the tall, tough 24-year-old midfielder who will be among the most pursued players in the coming summer's transfer market and was the youngest member of Spain's World Cup winning squad in South Africa.
Martinez says: "You look at Athletic's younger players and this is an excellent generation. People talk a lot about the Barcelona youth system; I'd say ours is as good." He recites the list: Fernando Llorente, the striker, who has leapfrogged Chelsea's Fernando Torres in the Spain hierarchy, the zippy winger, Iker Muniain, still in his teens, and Ander Herrera, a clever inside-forward.
"Four of us were with the Spain under-21s who won the European championship last summer, plus you have the ones who have been playing for a while with the senior Spain team, like [full back] Andoni Iraola, me and Llorente."
Did playing for a club that is exclusively Basque create a distinct style? "There's a tradition here of playing up to a big, powerful centre forward, like Llorente. But we also want to play attractively. This season we have played some of the most exciting football in Europe," said Martinez.
Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao, Wednesday, 8.30pm SS3/Maximo.