The mercantilistic history of Athletic Bilbao

In the next post in this series attempting to explain International Relations (IR) theory through football I will be looking at the similarities between the international political economy theory of economic nationalism, also known as mercantilism, and the history of Athletic Bilbao.

Mercantilism was how the emerging nation-states of fifteenth century managed their trade and inter-state relations, making it the oldest theory of international political economy.  At its core the mercantile system favoured strict regulation of the economy and government protection for native industries.  This was believed to provide the best conditions for economic development and the securing of the national interest.

Mercantilism received more support from the United States (US) in 1791 when Alexander Hamilton wrote his ‘Report on the Manufactures’.  Hamilton believed that during the war of independence the US had become too reliant on foreign imports to the detriment of US industry.  To remedy this he advised that the new US government restrict imports and instead focus on developing the US economy.

The United States began to open up its economy more following the end of the Second World War, when the US economy was able to take advantage of the destruction of all its major economic rivals, the end of the European Empires, the rapid advances in manufacturing and demand for US products from overseas.  Only when it was in a position to gain did the US become a champion of liberal free trade.  Regardless of what Republican windbags will tell you, the US was not a nation built on free market principles.

Examining the principles of mercantilism in more detail shows that the national interest is paramount in economic planning.  Anything that promotes domestic industry by restricting foreign investment is favoured.  Following on from this the rights of home country investors are supported over those from elsewhere.  This means that politics for mercantilists are a zero-sum game.  There is a finite amount of wealth and power available to all nations, and if one nation is to gain it must be at the expense of another.  The anarchical nature of the international system means that nations must try to enhance their power at each step.

Indeed the principle of international anarchy is a key assumption of economic nationalism, as is the primacy of the nation state.  The most powerful nation-states shape the global economy in their own image.

When thinking of a parallel in the world of football there is one clear standout, that of Athletic Bilbao.  It is somehow appropriate that a team built by returning students of the industrial way of life in England should have set up a team that fits so well with mercantilist ideology.  Juanito Astorquia, a merchant’s son, had been studying in Manchester and returned to Spain with ideas of setting up football club to match the ones he seen in England’s northern industrial towns. Athletic were one of the first football teams formed in Spain and in their long history they have never been outside the top league.  They are also one of the most successful Spanish teams, winning La Liga 8 times and the Copa del Rey 23 times.  And yet they have always remained true (more or less) to a mercantilist ideal.

This season’s Copa del Rey finalists have operated a policy of only using Basque players since their inception in 1898 (or 1901 depending on whose account you believe).  This also excludes a few early English imports, like the 1901 vice-captain ‘Alfredo’ Mills, who was so Basque he was considered a local anyway, so we won’t quibble (Ball, 2003:64).  Qualifying as Basque meant being born in one of the seven traditionally Basque regions of Álava, Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Navarre, Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule.  Although few players have been selected from the latter 3 French regions.  Bilbao have slightly watered-down their policy to include players who were ‘formed’ as footballers in the Basque country.  They used this argument to sign Enric Saborit from Espanyol.  Also players such as Fernando Amorebieta qualified through his Basque parents, even though he was born in Venezuela.  Bilbao also fielded their first ever black player in 2011, when defender Jonas Ramalho made a substitute appearance against Sevilla.  The only thing of note there is that he is black, as Sid Lowe points out, he was born and raised in Basque territory.

Like so many areas of modern life football has been swamped by the ever rising tide of neoliberalism.  The commodification of virtually everything found a willing home in a sport always run by those willing to do anything for short-term gain and glory.  Money, and the movement of money and labour are now the most important factors in determining a club’s success, or lack of it.  Consistently the wealthier a team is the more successful it also is.  The generation of profit and the availability of credit are routinely considered to be the most important factors for squad development in the modern game.  Which is why any attempt to impose rules and regulations on the free movement of capital and labour are usually given short shrift.  And also why the self-imposed regulation of Athletic Bilbao is so original and, frankly, interesting.

The definition of what actually constitutes a Basque has been less-rigidly imposed than the actual rule itself, nevertheless Bilbao have stuck with it after others from the same region removed any restrictions they had (cf. Real Sociedad & John Aldridge).  And la cantera of Athletic has produced some remarkable success stories.

Players emerging from the Bilbao system have performed well for the Spain national team as well as for other club sides after leaving Bilbao.  Aitor Karanka went to Real Madrid, Andoni Zubizarreta went to Barcelona and made 126 appearances for the Spain national side.  Not least is the current most prolific Spanish striker Fernando Llorente.  If (by the admittedly unlikely event) Llorente overtakes Messi and Ronaldo in the race to be the top scorer in La Liga this year he will receive an award named for Bilbao’s most celebrated player of all time.  Rafael ‘Pichichi’ Moreno played 287 games between 1911 and 1921 for Bilbao, scoring 468 goals in the process.

Quoting from the Athletic’s centenary book:

‘Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it is a feeling – and as such its ways of operating often escape rational analysis.  We see ourselves as unique in world football and this defines our identity.  We do not say we are better or worse than others, merely different.  We only wish for the sons of our soil to represent our club, and in so wishing we stand out as a sporting entity and not as a business concept.  We wish to mould our players into men, not just footballers, and each time a player from the cantera makes his debut we feel we have realised an objective which is in harmony with the ideologies of our founders and forefathers.’ (quoted in Ball, 2003: 61).

This refusal to bow to the free market ideology that has turned the heads of the rest of football’s rulers is something to be applauded.  Another reason to admire Bilbao is that they are one of only four teams in Spain to be run by a union of supporters (the others are Barcelona, Real Madrid and Osasuna).  It is hard not to wish them well.

The decision to embark on ‘la cantera’ policy and the countless other decisions to stick with it over the years deserve praise as it flies in the face of the received wisdom on how to run a football club and also the development path prescribed by neoliberals.  The Asian economic crisis of 1997-98 highlighted clearly the problems inherent with neoliberalism and ushered in a period called by some ‘new mercantilism’.  Others have gone further and stated that all current politics could be given the same label (Harvey, 2007:206).  Athletic Bilbao’s traditional mercantilist focus on producing your own players with strict limitations on where you can take them from has done no harm to them.  Indeed neither has the idea of letting domestic industry develop behind protectionist barriers before opening up markets to foreign investment done any harm to South Korea or Taiwan.

Another La Liga team with a strong nationalist/regionalist identity, Barcelona, also have been extraordinarily successful with a generation of players trained as youngsters at the La Masía training complex.  As debt continues to plague football teams, and wages and transfer fees continue to rise unsustainably, the system used by Athletic Bilbao for over 100 years offers a realistic alternative.  Bilbao’s brand of mercantilism could be the best choice for some football teams, as it is proving for some nations.

Please take a look at the other posts in this Football & IR series on In Sun & Shadow



Ball, Phil (2003) ‘Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football‘ When Saturday Comes Books, UK.

Harvey, David (2007) ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ Oxford University Press, UK

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