I must confess, I knew very little about Athletic Bilbao before I witnessed their footballing master class against Manchester United in the Europa League earlier this year. How glad I am that I flicked over to Channel 5 that night to gaze in awe as the Basque side put English football's finest to the sword. Quite a spectacle it was.
As I marvelled at Javi Martinez and co, I wondered where they may have been acquired from. I was a fool to overlook the fact that this might just be another hotbed of young Spanish talent, churning out players who are quickly flourishing into superstars at the highest level. The academy of Athletic Club, as they are officially known, does exactly this. During the second leg of the aforementioned Europa League last 16 tie, no fewer than nine academy products took to the pitch. At least seven of these could be said to be regular starters. How many other top level clubs in the world can boast this? Can any?
If one is not profoundly impressed by Bilbao's fine production line, they must surely applaud the club's mission to forever preserve its rich Basque heritage. Take a look at the first team squad and you will see that every single player, bar one, hails from the Basque Country. Even the one, Fernando Amorebieta, was born in Venezuela to parents native to the northern Spanish region. This admitable policy looks set to continue as it has done throughout the 113 year history of the club.
Of course, such an approach has its limitations. This is a club that has indeed won eight La Liga titles, but the last of those came in 1984. Since then, only two Copa del Reys have made it into the trophy cabinet at the Estadio San Mamés. In an era in which so much impinges upon continuous heavy investment and the power to recruit the finest players from far and wide, Bilbao will surely be left behind. They will inevitably fall victim to the power of Europe's big boys, who will swoop to pounce on a wealth of young talent. Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente are just two bright sparks who have been linked with big money moves away from the Basque Country. Will the lure of Champions League football elsewhere get the better of them?
Yet whatever happens, whoever comes and goes, the supporters will stay firmly behind their beloved team. In fact, team may be an understatement. This is a culture, as was clear to be seen on that unforgettable night in March, with a stadium packed to the rafters, blanketed in red and white, vibrating with the extraordinary sound produced by 40,000 Bilbao die-hards. Half measures do not exist here; everything is done to the absolute max. This passionate support drives the club and is one of the reasons why Los Leones are on a par with Real Madrid and Barcelona as one of only three sides never to have been relegated from La Liga.
This season may well prove to be one of Bilbao's most successful in a very long time. With eight points to make up in only six games, a Champions League berth is probably out of the question, but they are still going strong in the Europa League. The confidence gained from the defeat of the mighty Manchester United will spur them on and they must believe that they can win it. Those two wins over the English champions have put this club, famous in Spain, yet far from it elsewhere, firmly on the footballing map. Their preservation of age-old tradition is unique in the modern game. Others would do well to learn from it. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Athletic Club de Bilbao.