Pictures of famous Athletic Bilbao players at San Mamés. Photo courtesy of Nicholas McGowan.

Athletic Bilbao would have no problems with the proposed UEFA plan of mandating eight homegrown players in the squad of eighteen for every match or the theoretical 6 + 5 rule, where six players of the starting eleven would have to be eligible for the national team of their club’s country.  Athletic Bilbao refuses to sign anyone not of Basque heritage.  This policy seems out of touch with modern times, as top European teams and minnows of UEFA try to sign the best players within their means, regardless of country or province of origin.  As their record of accomplishment indicates of always staying in the top flight of Spanish football, Bilbao is doing something right.  In the past four years, however, Bilbao finished in the bottom half of the table, including a last gasp win in the final round of the 2006-2007 season to stave off relegation.

Forsaking the cantera plan never entered the minds of the Bilbao boardroom.  These local players from the Basque gelled together in the past few years, taking the best shots from La Liga and many times plummeting onto the canvas.  Under the leadership of manager Joaquín Caparrós, Athletic Bilbao is now in a position to finish in the top half of the table and compete for European places.

Because of their amazing Copa del Rey cup run to the finals, Bilbao earned a spot in the Europa League.  After narrow escapes against Swiss team Young Boys in the third qualifying round and Norwegian outfit Tromsø in the playoff round, they commenced their voyage in the Europa League group stage with a 3-0 thrashing of Austria Wien.  In La Liga, Athletic won their first two matches, narrowly defeating Espanyol at San Mamés 1-0 and dispatching newcomers Xerez 0-1 at Chapín.  Bilbao’s first real test came Sunday against a Villarreal team who was searching for their first win in La Liga after two 1-1 draws with Osasuna and Mallorca.

Both Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal played in the Europa League on Thursday, so they were on equal footing when it came to a quick turnaround.  Villarreal was used to coping with midweek European matches along with their Spanish league responsibilities since they played in European competitions for the past six seasons.  It was Athletic, though, who looked like the fresher of the two teams from the outset.  Villarreal’s intricate passing and possession football were overmatched by Bilbao’s more physical and direct style of play.  Being that Bilbao’s roots derived from immigrant English steel and shipyard workers, Bilbao’s physical style and use of whipping deep crosses and a strong, tough target man should be of no surprise.

Bilbao created most of the first half chances, and they converted on two of these opportunities, giving them a 2-0 lead at halftime.  Villarreal did not have an attempted shot until the 36th minute, and by the end of the half, the Yellow Submarine had two shots total with none of them on goal.  Central defenders Diego Godín and Iván Marcano could not handle the brute strength and the technical skill of Bilbao talisman Fernando Llorente; Gaizka Toquero and David López ran rampant on the wings in support of Llorente; and Igor Gabilondo’s wicked crosses and free kicks created opportunities for his teammates and kept the Villarreal fullbacks in defense rather than making overlapping runs in the attack.

Villarreal manager Ernesto Valverde made a conscious decision to become more direct in the second half to counter Bilbao’s dominance.  This strategy paid off in the 49th minute when Cani scored to cut the deficit in half.  Joan Capdevila’s cross traveled deep into the penalty area, where Joseba Llorente headed the ball into Cani’s path, and Cani smashed it home from twelve yards out.  Despite this development, Bilbao was unfazed and eventually regained their two-goal advantage when Javi Martínez headed in the third goal from a Gabilondo corner in the 59th minute.  Athletic eventually won the match 3-2 and kept their 100% record.

Only La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid share a perfect three for three record with Bilbao, and while no one claims that Bilbao will keep pace with them for the remainder of the season, the swagger is back with this Bilbao team.  Iker Muniain and Isaac Aketxe, both 16 years old, made substitute appearances, 21 year old Javi Martínez scored a goal, 24 year old central defender Fernando Amorebieta effectively phased out Giuseppe Rossi and Joseba Llorente for the most part, and 24 year old Fernando Llorente showed the form that made him a strong candidate for inclusion into the Spanish national team for the 2010 World Cup.

Joaquín Caparrós constructed a team that stayed true to their origins with their direct play while incorporating the highly technical football necessary to compete successfully in La Liga.  Even if Athletic were relegated for the first time in their history, their supporters would not want Athletic to renounce its cantera policy and sell out for some extra wins.  The Basques want their club to be represented by their own, and the young talent that Caparrós brought into the fold promises a budding future for Los Leones.  While the economic inequities between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest of La Liga may prevent Athletic Bilbao from consistently challenging for titles as they did in the 1980’s, the Euskaldunak have a team of which they can be proud not just for their heritage but also for their football.