When Íñigo Martínez held up the red-and-white-striped jersey of Athletic Club on January 30th 2018, he became the first player to sign for the Basque institution’s first-team squad since Raúl García on August 31st 2015. An incredible two and a haIf years had passed between those dates, or 884 days to be exact.
This kind of inactivity in the transfer market is rare in modern football, but not in Bilbao. There they do things differently. They also do things successfully; Athletic Club are one of just three teams never to have been relegated from LaLiga, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid.
One of the underlying explanations for Athletic’s frugality in the transfer market is directly linked to the club’s core belief that all its players should either be from Spain’s Basque Country region or have family ties to the area. Logically, this approach significantly limits the talent pool from which the club can go fishing. If they can only sign Basque players, it stands to reason that they won’t have as many new arrivals as other clubs in Spain and across Europe.
Athletic Club have thus developed a reputation for moving in the transfer market only when the right opportunity presents itself, as was the case with Pamplona- born midfielder Raul Garcia and centre-back Iñigo Martinez, who hails from the town of Ondarroa just over an hour away from Bilbao. To this day, the last footballer signed by Athletic was Alex Berenguer, one year and eight months after the previous signing: Kenan Kodro. So where do they spend their money?
Lezma, a world-class youth academy
Athletic counterbalance their minimal transfer activity by investing elsewhere, in particular their world-renowned youth academy based in Lezama, just outside of the city. This training centre was inaugurated in 1971 and has been consistently improved and redeveloped to the point at which it now boasts four full-size grass pitches, four full-size artificial pitches, an indoor pitch and a gymnasium. There is also a small stadium on the site, where Athletic’s reserve team — named Bilbao Athletic — play their football. And eventually during the season 2021/22, also the SD Amorebieta side, just promoted to second division.
As well as investing in the facilities, Athletic also put significant amounts of money towards their coaching staff to ensure that their young up-and- coming players are provided with elite-level teaching and instruction. Some of the best coaches in all of Spain work at Lezama, while there are also top- quality medical and fitness staff on site to ensure that the players receive the best-possible preparation for a career in professional football.
This plan has long been a successful one for Athletic Club and they have produced a conveyor belt of talent over the years. International superstars such as Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte, Fernando Llorente and Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga — the world’s most expensive goalkeeper — have all passed through the Lezama academy, as have most of the current first-team squad. Actually, in the 2020/21 season, Athletic was the club in the five major European leagues that gave the most minutes to players who grew up in their academy: 50.9% of the possible minutes.
What about the future?
Some observers might wonder whether the Athletic Club model is sustainable, but all indications suggest a very healthy future for the club. While rapidly rising transfer costs pose a significant challenge to many other clubs, Athletic’s world- class academy provides the club with an invaluable foundation from which to develop and draw the talent of the future. They have also invested in a luxury state- of-the-art stadium, one which provides them with a home advantage few clubs in Europe can match. The Athletic Club approach is a unique one, but it is a successful one.
Andoni Ayarza, Deputy Sporting Director and head of scouting
56-year-oId Andoni Ayarza is Deputy Sporting Director at Athletic Club, head of scouting and a former player for the Bilbao-based team. After coming through the club’s academy, he played for the Athletic Club first team in 1987/88, 1988/89 and 1991/92 for a total of 5ó appearances, as well as spending time at Real Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano. After retiring in 1997, Ayarza studied journalism at the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, the University of the Basque Country. He went on to write about football for Basque newspaper El Correo.
When Aitor Elizegi won the Athletic Club presidential elections in December 2018, he hired Ayarza as part of his new team of directors. Since then, Ayarza has worked closely with sporting director Rafa Alkorta, a former teammate at Athletic Club back in his playing days. They had already been collaborating before those elections, discussing their vision for Athletic Club and for the club’s youth football section.
One of Ayarza’s main focuses in his current role has been the club’s prestigious Lezama youth academy, with his work complicated by the fact that the coronavirus pandemic hit just over a year into the new project. While the pandemic affected all of football, it had an especially negative impact on youth football since the 2019/20 youth football season had to be ended early. That made it difficult to work with the players already in Athletic Club’s academy and to scout and recruit outside talents.
Iñaki Williams, a home-grown player with a record
History was made during Athletic Club’s 1st of October night clash with Deportivo Alavés at San Mamés. It was Iñaki Williams’ 203th consecutive appearance for the club in LaLiga, moving him into first on the all-time rankings, over the legendary Real Sociedad player Juan Antonio Larrañaga, with the longest streak of consecutive games in the whole LaLiga history. The former record of 202 games was set in 1993.
Williams’ incredible run began against Atlético de Madrid. He returned from an injury to play against Los Colchoneros back in the 2015/16 campaign, on April 20th 2016. Alter playing the final live matches of that season, he played in all 38 of Athletic Club’s games in 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19, 2019/20 and 2020/21, as well as the first 8 fixtures of the current campaign. In other words, there hasn’t been an Athletic Club LaLiga match that hasn’t featured Williams during live years and a hall, since a 1-0 win over Malaga CF all the way back in spring 2016.
At that time, Real Madrid only had won 10 Champions League trophies, the Spanish National Team was still the current European champion, Erling Haaland was still playing in the reserve team of Bryne FK, Stranger Things had not yet been released, and the president of the United States was still Barack Obama… and in all this time in which the world has changed so much, Iñaki Williams has not missed a single Athletic Club match in LaLiga.