Financially and philosophically, a ban on foreign players in the Premier League would be disastrous, but every year local talent is further marginalised in favour of cheaper, ready-made imports. This trends looks set to continue with another predicted record spend by clubs in this summer’s transfer window.
It is not xenophobic to say that fans would like to see more British talent within our game. It is simply a plea from loyal supporters for their clubs to realise from where their power is truly derived. It is a cliché to say that a club is nothing without its fans, but this is often just paying lip-service to placate us. We love a cult, foreign hero in this country, but we also love a local boy; someone, in years gone by at least, that you might see down your local. This is the link fans crave. Our club is part of our identity and we want the team to reflect that. There have been, and still are, many foreign players who buy into the clubs history, but as the Premier League becomes further globalised, clubs are forgetting their roots.
To prove that a club can be successful and maintain links to its origins, I present Athletic Bilbao. It has had a long and illustrious history. Founded in 1898, it is one of the three founding members of the Primera División (1929) to never have been relegated – no prizes for guessing the other two. Since the inauguration of the Spanish league, it has won eight titles. This may not seem a lot, and to call it ‘illustrious history’ may seem far-fetched, but it is the fourth most in history behind Real Madrid (33), Barcelona (24) and Atlético de Madrid (10). They are also the second most successful team in Copa del Rey history with 24 titles, behind only Barcelona.
The dominance of the two big fish is well documented; such is their dominance in Spanish politics. But the pride of the Basque region is no less than its counterparts, and as such, its people are fiercely loyal. Their sense of identity is demonstrated by Athletic’s ‘Cantera’ (literally meaning ‘quarry’) policy which they have employed since 1912, whereby the club will only recruit Basque players. ‘Cantera’ is a term used to refer to the youth academies and the farm teams organised by sports clubs. It is also used to refer to the geographical area from which clubs recruit players. A traditional mining region (DNA tests suggest there are close links between the Basque people and the British), it is as if the players are chiselled out of the very rock and moulded into heroes to follow on the pitch.
The Basque Country was the first area in Spain in which football became popular (another link to Britain). In fact, one of the main beneficiaries of Bilbao’s success has been the Spanish national team, producing countless internationals, bettered only by Real Madrid. In 1920 Spain made its international debut at the Olympics where they won the silver medal. Of the twenty-one players in the squad, fourteen were Basques; four of the most famous being: Pinchichi, José María Belauste, Domingo Acedo and Félix Sesúmaga.
The early successes of the Basque region and Athletic’s ‘Cantera’ system have continued ever since, and it has gone on to produce many notable players: Telmo Zarra, the then all-time leading scorer in the top flight (268 goals in 323 games); José Ángel Iribar, who made 614 appearances for Athletic and played in Spain’s Euro-winning team of 1964; Andoni Zubizarreta, who holds the record for the most top flight appearances (622) and the second most caps for Spain (126).
Another beneficiary of Bilbao’s ‘Cantera’ system has been the Premier League. In recent years we have seen an influx in Basque talent plying their trade up and down the country, becoming household names (Arteta; Alonso; Amorebieta; Ázpilicueta; Monreal; Herrera; Llorente). These players bring with them the ideals of their former clubs and showcase what a will to live within your means and to nurture local talent can produce. With a strong will and a long-term plan, local talent can be successful. Is this not a message that England and the Premier League should take on board?