For all of La Liga’s intriguing, historic clubs, few can truly measure up to Athletic Bilbao. Even the pasts of league-standards Real Madrid and Barcelona, with their aged Clasico rivalries and political intertwinings, seem to want at the feet of the Basque Country kings.
Actually, it’s perhaps that independent lineage that makes such a phenomenon so. Alongside Madrid and Barca, Athletic Club are the only other club in Spain to have never been relegated from the Primera. Unlike the two giants, however, the Basque club, as a rule, only employ players with direct familial links to their autonomous community. Because of these quirks, in Athletic, you have one of the more wholly unique sports organizations in the world. This makes whatever happening within the club, at any given time, innately important. Now is no different.
Iñaki Williams stands out, there and everywhere else in Bilbao. Also fondly known in his hometown as “La Pantera” (the Panther), Williams is the face of Athletic Bilbao’s latest generation of bright young footballers. Just 22 years old, the Biscay-born forward of Ghanian-Liberian descent has become a vital piece in Ernesto Valverde’s rojiblanco attack in recent seasons, even earning a Spain call-up earlier this year.
Fully equipped with dizzying speed and a ruthless finishing touch, he can be best described as Samuel Eto’o with a wider range of playability; meaning as long as he’s deployed somewhere in the final third, he’ll find a path to the goal. With Aritz Aduriz approaching 36 — albeit still scoring goals, too — Iñaki’s coronation as the premier striker in Basque Country feels imminent.
While Inaki’s emergence as a name has been more in-your-face, the blossoming of Athletic’s young defensive stalwart, Yeray Alvarez, has been more subdued, yet plenty effective. Having been promoted from the Bilbao Athletic squad over the summer, Yeray has made six total appearances for the first-team this season. Two of these showings were league wins against Valencia and Sevilla, although his most visible performance came just last week in Athletic’s 3-2 derby win over Real Sociedad.
Despite the side’s shipping of two goals, Yeray combatted his rivals with contentious tackling and steady positioning. He was also able to penetrate La Real’s midfield to great effect, motoring himself tirelessly from end-to-end during the contest. If a coming out party was to be had for Yeray, this most recent Basque derby was it.
Still, Yeray is very much a talent in-progress. His partner in central defense — and the most promising of the Leones’ U-23 starlets — Aymeric Laporte, however, is already a well-known commodity among Europe’s elite, having garnered much attention abroad. A mainstay in Athletic’s defense for the last three seasons, Laporte’s calm control and precise passing matched with grand aerial ability make him one of the most gifted centre-halves to come out of Bilbao in quite some time. Considering these notes and numbers, it’s quite amazing that Laporte is only 22 years old. He’ll be in Bilbao for another four seasons after signing a contract extension in June. That is, unless some thick wallets want to pay his €65 million buyout clause.
Then there’s the rest of the pack. Inigo Lekue, a 23-year-old right-back who’s impressed enough in his early top-flight career to earn a Spain call-up last May. 22-year-old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who already has a U-19 Euro title and a vast amount of Segunda appearances on his record. There’s Iker Muniain, most commonly known as “that little guy who set Old Trafford ablaze in 2012,” who’s still only 22 years of age. And there’s 23-year-old forward Sabin Merino, along with Unai Lopez, a 20-year-old prodigy cutting his teeth on-loan at Leganes.
Keep in mind, these are just the players of tomorrow. Toss in Aduriz, Beñat, Raul Garcia, Susaeta, Mikel San Jose, Oscar de Marcos and Ander Iturraspe, and you’ve got a side very much built for today, too. The Lions currently sit sixth in La Liga and have as many victories (five) as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla. And if there was any question about the fan-friendliness of the side, they’re one of two teams yet to draw a match. That record and likeability will certainly be put to the test this Sunday as they visit the Bernabeu.
This is simply the routine Athletic Bilbao has cultivated in their little pocket of Iberia. To be sure, they’re a strange phenomenon. That a single club in a moderately abundant region of Spain can commit so heavily to the members of their own community, particularly in today’s globalized giant that is World Football, seems almost unbelievable.
But it’s not just the fact that they’re sticking to these ideals, either. It’s rather the fact that they’re succeeding in increasingly difficult ways while also sticking to those ideals. Not only have they never been relegated from La Liga, but, looking at the San Mames assembly line, it doesn’t look like they ever will be. They continue to stay up, continue to qualify for Europe, and continue to churn out wondrous footballers like they’re Txakoli. That’s enough to make Athletic Bilbao a sports miracle, no matter how many times the story comes across the table.