Forget Barcelona's La Masia, or Ajax's famed De Toekomst, only one club can rightfully claim to be the best academy in the world, La Liga's very own Athletic Bilbao. Standing as one of only four clubs to never have been relegated from Spain's top league, and second only to Real Madrid in the number of players supplied to the Spanish national team, it is all the more remarkable for the fact that to represent Bilbao, you have to be a Basque native.
To elucidate on the slightly cloudy ruling surrounding what actually constitutes being Basque, Bilbao state two conditions, nationality, and footballing formation. Nationality applies to the Basque regions of Biscay, Gipuzoka, Álava and Navarre in Spain, as well as Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre in France.
Football formation refers to being formed as a footballer in the Basque country. The ruling is far from black and white , and exactly what constitutes being formed as a footballer in the Basque country is open to interpretation, however, no matter how you look at it, producing every first-team player through these stipulations is no mean feat.
The Lezama complex is where all the factions of Athletic Bilbao train, including the B team and various age-groups. It is the heart and soul of the Bilbao philosophy. As with Barcelona's La Masia, the Lezama houses young footballers, fostering the community atmosphere. Another key tool in Athletic's academy system is the use of Basque side CD Basconia, currently playing in the fourth-tier of Spanish football, as a feeder club.
Fernando Llorente, Andoni Iraola and Beñat all passed through Basconia on their route to the Bilbao first team, and Spanish national side.
Three of the stars of the current campaign were raised in the Lezama. Aymeric Laporte, the nineteen-year-old centre-back, became only the second French football to play for Bilbao, having joined their youth system at the age of fifteen.
Composed and elegant, he has been heavily linked with Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Barcelona in the press. The €36million release-clause in Laporte's contract may well be met this summer, although Bilbao will be keen to see Laporte continue his career at the Sam Mamés.
Ander Iturraspe drives the Athletic midfield forward with vibrant Basque passion. Having been with the club since the age of ten, the Biscay born midfielder is Bilbao through and through. He rarely claims the plaudits, but is a fan favourite and a key part of the Bilbao set-up.
The jewell in the Bilbao crown is Iker Muniain. Although only 21, it seems Muniain has been around for an age. Bursting onto the scene at the age of sixteen and seven months, Muniain has been ever-present since. Muniain possesses a low-centre of gravity and stocky strength that outweigh his small-stature. A powerful left-footed attacker, although he hasn't progressed at the pace many naively thought, he is once again becoming a key player in the Bilbao team.
Ander Herrera, the focus of a futile chase by Manchester United, is another excellent player, although the attacking midfielder came through the Real Zaragoza academy. Beñat, the deep-lying midfielder that allows Ander licence to roam was schooled in Bilbao, but allowed to continue his footballing education at Real Betis, before returning at the start of the season.
Scouting eligible players from other academies allows Bilbao to boost their youth-teams. Javi Martínez, sold to Bayern Munich for around €40 million was plucked from Osasuna as a seventeen-year old, shortly becoming a first-team regular.
The list is endless. Every player that passes through Bilbao is inextricably linked in some way with the Basque region. Nothing makes the San Mamés crowd happier than watching one of their own take pride in the shirt.
It really is quite spectacular that with all the self-inflicted rules and regulations in place, Bilbao continue to thrive. Some argue that introducing non-basque footballers to the youth set-up at a a young age is bending the rules of what it means to be Basque. However, there is no getting around the fact that Bilbao regularly produce the vast majority of their squad's through the academy. The Champions League will be graced with the raucous atmosphere of the San Mamés stadium next season, and the worlds best academy will once again grace the highest stage in European football.
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