Most cash-strapped clubs in La Liga are peering through the transfer shop window shaking their heads in regret at the goods on display and their price tags. “Too expensive, too expensive, too expensive,” is the familiar refrain. Athletic Bilbao have pockets stuffed with cash, but the club’s player problem is a very different one—“not Basque enough, not Basque enough, not Basque enough.”
Athletic are one of the most financially sound clubs in the Spanish game for the simple reason that they hardly ever invest (thus waste) money on footballers. At times the northern side would dearly love to, especially this summer considering two world-class performers in the form of Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente have left over the past 12 months.
The problem is that Athletic have a very narrow player pool to choose from, due to the long-standing choice of the institution to only field footballers from the youth-system or from the greater Basque and Navarre region. This has always left the Bilbao side competing with a distinct disadvantage, which is why it is so incredible that alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, Athletic is the only club never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight.
A disappointing second year under Marcelo Bielsa after a fabulous first sees Athletic regrouping this summer and trying to boost the squad with reinforcements.
Former boss Ernesto Valverde has moved on from Valencia to take up this challenge in a second spell in charge in San Mames. Whilst there will be the usual promotion of players from the academy with defender Jonas Ramalho set to continue his promising progress in La Primera, Athletic are trying desperately to plug a few gaps in the team.
Although midfield creativity was not a major issue for the side, Athletic decided to buy the talented Benat Etxebarria from Betis, a footballer who left the Basque outfit four seasons ago. The 26-year-old has since gone on from strength to strength to be a gifted set-piece taker who has formed part of recent Spain squads. Benat will join Ander Herrera, Oscar de Marcos and Markel Susaeta to form an impressive set of midfielders.
Another old boy returning home is Xabier Etxeita, a centre-back who comes on a free transfer from newlypromoted Elche.
The big problem for Athletic is up front with just two strikers on the books in the form of Ariz Aduriz and Gaizka Toquero. (Some uncharitable types might suggest one-and-a-half forwards in respect to the latter player.)
This sees Athletic signing up Osasuna striker Kike Sola for €4 million. It’s a price tag that is way too high for a limited front man who managed just nine league goals last season. But this is typical in transfers involving Athletic Bilbao. Selling clubs—normally Real Sociedad and Osasuna for regional reasons—can always inflate the fee knowing that the buyer has few other options.
It is not as if the side who aspire to a Champions League place would not like to invest a little bit more. Instead, Athletic Bilbao cannot, which is why the Basques are one of the most peculiar but also most admirable sides in the world.