After a century of defying the odds with a local players-only policy, Athletic Bilbao faces a crisis which could lead to a first ever relegation from La Liga
It finally happened. ’El Toto’ was sacked on Monday after another lackluster weekend which confirmed his famous team as the one with the club’s worst start of season in La Liga…ever.
Athletic Club fans sure hoped that closing Matchday 14 on Monday would help to turn around luck for the red-and-whites, but in fact the opposite happened: Toto Berizzo and his players were overrun by a motivated Levante UD (3-0), in a match which confirmed the Granotas as one of the season’s potential nice surprises… and that the ‘Leones’ have actually become toothless kittens.
Leaving aside the game, Berizzo’s job was already on the line and it came as no surprise that his now former bosses decided to sack him the morning after the night before.
The Argentinean’s stint as Athletic’s manager was horrific, stat-wise. For starters, it’s the first time Athletic has played 14 La Liga games and only won one, to make it the worst start of season ever with 11 points from a total of 42.
Berizzo can be considered a purist, a big follower of the Marcelo Bielsa football school. But his team didn’t respond in the way he expected. Injuries have been piling up this season; the last one, poor Cristian Ganea in his debut game as a starter. Other players such as Iñaki Williams or Aritz Aduriz, whose leadership was important in past seasons, have been unable to help this year.
Reality starting to bite for romantic Athletic
Athletic’s problem mainly remains in its own incredible idiosyncrasy. A book of rules with a few advantages (sense of belonging, huge rapport between team and crowd, strong grassroots project) and many disadvantages. In such a globalized football world, Athletic Club’s idea of only playing Basque players (or footballers with Basque ancestry) means limiting the vast pool of potential players into a small, shallow pond.
Not being able to make super expensive signings (as Basque players, with only a few exceptions such as Javi Martínez or Fernando Llorente back in the day) because of their ID card incredibly restrains Athletic’s ability to make their roster more competitive each season.
While their flagship players get older every single year, no reliable youngsters have made a breakthrough. For example, Peru Nolaskoain has been one of the most important players to date, and this is actually his first season in top-flight football.
Youth players are forced to grow and mature more quickly than in other teams (Iker Muniain and Iñaki Williams have been playing for Athletic like…forever, and they’re only 25 and 24 years old), whereas veterans are usual requested to stay much longer than acceptable in other sides. The result: a very unbalanced team which highly depends on new talent fostered by themselves every single season, with a serious handicap when recruiting potential players which absolutely need a Basque relative.
And, somehow, it has worked to date. For almost a hundred years, since the Primera División was created in 1929, Athletic Club has hustled and fought to become one of only three teams who have been never relegated. The other two are, of course, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Something which makes Athletic’s feat even more impressive. Will this be the year they finally yield? Berizzo will no longer be on the bench to see it happen.