Ex-manager Joaquin Caporros: “Logically due to its philosophy, the best academy work in the country is done at Athletic.”
In 1912, after being accused of fielding ineligible foreign players in the 1911 Copa del Rey, Athletic Club made the most important decision in its history. It was decided that Athletic Club would only use players who were either born in one of the seven provinces of the wider Basque Country or had some tangible familial connection to the region. For many years Athletic were supplied players from smaller clubs in and around Bizkaia, and most training sessions were conducted at their stadium, San Mamés.
However in 1970, the club realised that in order to maintain both its success and its philosophy, it would have to modernise and therefore adopt an another approach to running its affairs and training its players. Some years before the likes of Barcelona’s La Masia and Sporting Gijón’s Mareo, Athletic opened up their own state-of-the-art training facilities and youth academy in the small village of Lezama. Construction work was fully completed in 1975, and ever since ‘Lezama’ has played a crucial role in helping Athletic keep its unique identity whilst remaining competitive in a truly globalised football world.
Lezama is located about six kilometres away from Bilbao and the centre is spread out over 14,760m2. The facilities include: A two thousand capacity stadium with a stand, three more natural turf pitches, a couple of artificial pitches, a gym, a media centre, a medical centre, an underground car park, a bar and accommodation for players.
In addition to physical infrastructure, there is an abundance of staff; from coaches, doctors and psychologists to groundsmen and cooks. Another startling feature of Lezama is its openness. In modern day football, training grounds can appear more like military bases than football centres with their security fences and guarded entrances, but this is not the case at Lezama. The club holds open training sessions weekly, and it’s not uncommon to find hundreds if not thousands of fans, of all ages, attending sessions, especially in pre-season.
Furthermore, since its foundation in the seventies, Lezama has undergone several upgrades. The most major recent completed reformations came at the end of the 2012/13 season. They made new playing fields and placed the iconic arch from the old San Mamés on to the grandstand of Lezama’s main ground.
The nature of the club’s philosophy and a hardline stance on transfers sees Athletic generate huge profits when the time comes to sell its academy products, however, due to a limited market these profits are usually reinvested in Lezama. For example, a new stand is currently being built on Bilbao Athletic’s ground, the funds for which most likely came from Aymeric Laporte’s transfer to Man City.
At Athletic the Cantera means everything. Due to the obvious restrictions of the transfer policy, there is more of a reliance on bringing players through the youth system than at perhaps any other club in the world.
One of the reasons Athletic has been so successful in doing that is because there is a clear path to the first team. Unlike other top division sides in Europe, an Athletic youngster can see the senior players and will be aware that the majority of them started in the same place, a trial at Lezama.
The process goes something like this: players will progress through the various ‘cadete’ age-based groups until around the age of sixteen. Once a player reaches this point, and if he has shown enough promise, normally, he will be thrown into CD Basconia, effectively Athletic’s C team.
A Tercera Divsión staple, Basconia is based the neighbourhood of Basauri, and for the last twenty one years Athletic have had an agreement in which Basconia’s ranks are filled with Athletic youngsters.
Typically, a player will turn out for Basconia for a season or two. Thus a player can potentially rack up nearly forty appearances in Spain’s fourth tier against hardened professional opposition. Most of whom would like nothing more than to secure themselves a story about how they turned an Athletic superstar inside out when he was but still a pup.
After their spell at Basconia, the fledgling stars might be promoted into the Bilbao Athletic squad. Formed in 1964 with Piru Gainza as the first manager, Bilbao Athletic is seen as being one of the most vital steps in any young player’s development at the club.
Bilbao Athletic (whose name is a homage to Bilbao Football Club, one of the two sides that merged to form the present day Athletic Club) usually compete in the Segunda B División although at various points they have also been part of the Segunda División, including as recently as 2015/16.
A player will spend around two or three seasons with this side before either being moved into the first team, sent out on loan to gain more experience or released to create room for the next generation of talent.
All of this ensures that by the time a player reaches the top team, they could have already notched up around one hundred professional appearances.
It must also be mentioned that it is not only the men’s game which is nurtured at Lezama. Athletic Club have made huge strides in the female side of the game as well. The women’s team have access to the same facilities as the men, they also train and play their home game at the complex. Since joining forces with Athletic Club in 2002, the side have won five SuperLiga titles.
Player development is overseen by Athletic’s current Director of Football, ex-manager and former player José María Amorrortu as well as the rest of the numerous technical staff based on site. At the moment, of the twenty-eight players in Athletic’s current senior squad (as posted on the official club website) twenty-three began their careers at Lezama. In their first game of the season, a 2-1 victory, against CD Leganés, nine of the starting eleven were products of Lezama, no other side in a top tier European league began with as many players who had come through their own youth system.
Although Athletic Club have been and continue to be pioneers in the art of developing youth players, they are not the only club that have state-of-the-art training facilities. But, they are the only club in the world whose existence and sheer essence, for that matter, rely entirely on their academy being able to produce high quality professionals. Lezama’s role in this cannot be overstated, it isn’t just an academy or training centre but rather it is the very beating heart of the club.
This article is part of a series on Basque Football made in collaboration with The Linesman. For more brilliant footballing content please visit the site here.