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Between a lie and a hard truth: Club Athletic of Bilbao

This past transfer season FC Bayern went after Spanish player Javi Martínez; a defensive midfielder with multiple qualities who played for Club Athletic of Bilbao. Despite multiple reportedly generous offers, Bilbao or – as they preferred to be called – Club Athletic, didn’t budge. President Urrutia’s announcement that Athletic was not selling any of their players was a call to arms; leaving the Germans to afford no other option than his full release clause – a cool 40 million. The Spanish club’s firm stance surprised not only the Bayern brass but also the rest of the teams making inquires about the midfielder.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, FC Bayern’s CEO, expressed his admiration for Athetic’s stance in light of their refusal to acknowledge Bayern’s astronomical offers; offers that went well beyond the player’s current valuation. It seemed that in a game of Poker, Bilbao isn’t a club that will go down bluffing.

But what initially was a sound praise quickly turned into a potentially nightmarish situation, Athletic even going as far as threatening to take legal actions if the player left the club. Martinez’s parents intervened and, even after undergoing the required medical and depositing that bloated ‘let-me-out’ check, few people believed the Martinez case was settled and over.

The Martinez transfer brought to the spotlight a very special case, one that seems incomprehensive to most fans and experts alike. The following article written by Marca columnist Santiago Segurola describes a club torn between the wants of the Club and the needs of its players; wants and needs that recently have taken quite conflicting directions.

Please note this is an unofficial translation and the full article, in its original language, can be found here. Enjoy.



Athletic, between a comfortable lie and a cruel reality

By Santiago Segurola

Friday, September 14th, 2012.

Professional football is build upon a necessary lie. Fans adhere unconditionally to their crests in exchange for a belief that their players maintain an indestructible love affair with their teams – hence the lie.  This very simple premise lies at the root of football’s success. The tribe’s pride, the universal following, the enormous economic consequences, the mediatic recognition, everything that has converted this simple game in a phenomenon of our times is indebted to that passionate link that rises between the actors and its followers.


Cynicism would kill football or would, at least, convert it into something else less obsessive, more analytical and, for this reason, less suitable to addiction. In some ways this is what will probably occur when sheiks or Russian oligarchs grow tire of their recent toys: their clubs will fall in shambles and the majority of their followers will look elsewhere because their only motivation was success and stardom. It is not a new scenario. Football has seen a few teams sky raise artificially protected by easy money, only to fall shortly thereafter.


Another possibility, no less reproachable, is the adoption of a savage model, represented by a small and dictatorial aristocracy of teams that condemn the rest to poverty, depression and stimulus-less survival. Something like that is happening in Spain: There has never existed so wide a breach between Real Madrid and Barcelona on one side and the rest of la Liga on the other. While 90% of the clubs are slowly becoming poorer, the two more important multiply their wealth. The result will be appreciated in an ever-nearer future. Competition will decay, stadiums shall become depleted, debts will become unbearable and football’s main will fall into total despair. This lunar scenery will ultimately damage the two big Spanish clubs, which will probably find an escape route in a new transnational competition, forged by the fortunes of Arab, Russian and American moguls that are starting to govern the world of football. Ten years ago nobody would have suspected that Chelsea, City and PSG would occupy a secure place in a European Super league. It is instant magic born out of petrocurrency.


Meanwhile there is the poetic relationship between the fans and their teams. In few places this romanticism can be felt as strong and the one in Bilbao where Athletic maintains decades ago a model that could be described as singular, peculiar, eccentric, extravagant, admirable or lunatic. The description is yours to pick. What is not open for discussion is the degree of compromise between its fans and the club. This adherence is so strong that it generates enough power to save Athletic from a destiny that would logically have to bestow upon them in modern football: The ultimate drop to second division.


As surprising as it sounds, Athletic is one of the only three teams that has never been ‘south.’ Which are the other two? Real Madrid and Barcelona. This fact has become more important in the last 30 years. Except for Athletic, Real Madrid and Barcelona, all the teams in Spain’s First Division have crossed through Second Division. This includes Valencia, Atlético de Madrid, Sevilla and Zaragoza; all winners of some European competition during this period.


Athletic’s miracle shall be put under the microscope this season. No other place has seen the relationship between players and the club so idealized. It is a romantic idea, never mind false, which all the clubs and especially Athletic need to proclaim in order to maintain the unbreakable adherence from its fans. Up until this summer, all Athletic players had an excellent alibi to abandon the club so that they may reach their professional objectives and transfer to Barça (Zubizarreta, Eskurza,) Real Madrid (Alkorta, Karanka,) Atlético de Madrid (Ferreira) o Chelsea (Del Horno.) In every case, Athletic received very good money for the transfer in exchange for the players to feel compelled to proclaim that they left because the club forced them to. It was a priceless excuse in order to maintain the sacred bond with the club.


The unbreakable adherence to the club has been broken this summer. President Iosu Urrutia confirmed he would sell neither Fernando Llorente nor Javi Martínez, the club’s most important players. In this sense, it was a coherent decision in a world driven by incoherent ones. The effect, however, has had such a strong repercussion that it can only be described as the infant discovery of the inexistence of the Three Wise Kings. Both Javi Martínez, who transferred to Bayern Munich after depositing 40 million euros from his recession clause, and Llorente announced that they wished to abandon the club in order to play for better teams; a very professional aspiration that has destroyed the romantic discourse that held the Athletic Club vertical. The myth has been broken, reality has taken its place and the consequences are unforeseen for the future of the club, tied in a passionate debate: Is it better to believe in a comfortable lie or accept the consequences of a cruel reality?

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  • AssemFCB says:

    Thanks for the translation, TFlags, very nice article.

    • tflags says:

      Thanks. Athletic does present a interesting proposition – a sporting model unlike any adopted by the traditionally big clubs or the up and comers. Will this ideals based entity hold its course for yet another year on first division is an interesting question its own players ought to reply.

  • MUTU says:

    Great article!