“He’s been waiting for this moment his entire life. He’s just minutes away from hoisting up the trophy of his dreams. Holland has stayed up all night to watch their beloved Dutch maestro make history. They said it was impossible. Hell, I said it was impossible. Well, we’ve all been proved wrong by Mr. Cruyff. He has been absolutely phenomenal all series and is showing no sign of slowing down. My goodness! I’ve never heard the chants of “Johan” sung quite like this. It’s deafening! And there’s his last warm up pitch. He’s ready to go. Just look at that smile. Folks, it’s the World Series. It’s Game 7. It’s 1-0 in the bottom of the 9th here at Yankee Stadium and you better believe the world is watching….”
When you mention the Ajax team of the late 1960s and early 70s, there’s no denying that geniuses ran rampant throughout Holland and Europe for the better part of a decade. But what if I told you that Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens weren’t born to play the beautiful game? What if I told you that some of Holland’s finest athletes may have wanted the opportunity to pursue a career in another sport they adored?
The small matter of Liverpool versus Manchester United is, arguably, the biggest fixture in any sport, anywhere in the world. This Saturday afternoon at Anfield was due to be a special occasion regardless, but the most illustrious match in English football will be forced to share the day with a very significant anniversary. October 15th marks one year since Liverpool FC was formally taken over by John W. Henry’s New England Sports Ventures (now the Fenway Sports Group), saved from the cusp of financial oblivion and launched back into the flighty echelons that all clubs aspire to: financial stability. And, if your name is Tom Ollis Hicks, it marks a full year since the ‘epic swindle’.
Athletic Bilbao is famous among football circles for being the only club in the world that insists on signing only local players to their team. Athletic was formed in 1898 in Lamiako (now part of the town/municipality of Leioa, about eight kilometers north of Bilbao), Bizkaia by British industrial workers living in the area. Athletic is also the oldest football club currently in the Spanish First Division, being one year older than FC Barcelona, and being the only club, aside from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, to have never spent a season in Second Division. It is a club with a cult of personality; in Bilbao, it is very difficult to support any club other than Athletic, as Bilbao has no other major professional side, and no one would dare support Real Sociedad, based in San Sebastián (or, as the Basques call it, “Donosti”, short for Donostia, the Basque name for the city), Bilbao’s major rival. Athletic is the one thing residents of Bilbao, in fact all of Bizkaia —Vizcaya in Spanish—, have in common.
One question that always seems to be asked of this seemingly small club is why it only signs Basque players. Another is how. With the why, it’s a national pride issue. Aside from the first squad in 1898 where more than half of the starters were of English nationality, Athletic has prided itself on never signing a “foreign” player to its club. And by foreign, of course, I mean non-Basque. This is an interesting concept because, despite (or, as some fans would argue because of) this little caveat, Athletic has been one of the Spanish league’s most successful sides. As I mentioned earlier, Athletic is one of three clubs that has never dropped to second division, though they have come extremely close a few times. But what exactly is a Basque? Or at least, what constitutes a Basque as far as Athletic Bilbao signing their football talent is concerned?