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When Manchester City new boy Aymeric Laporte was just a year old in 1995, his former club Athletic Bilbao released a television advert that imagined an alternative club history. It featured a group of supporters awaiting the signing of Hristo Stoichkov, a Franz Beckenbauer flag waving in the wind at the Estadio San Mamés and a young supporter receiving an Athletic shirt adorned with Michel Platini’s name on the back.
The advert, puzzling at first, ended with the question, ‘Why not?’. ‘Por amor propio’ was the answer – for that love of ours.
It was a rejection of the globalisation of football that was ensuing with the alignment of the Bosman ruling and EU regulations that allowed for unprecedented player movement to affirm the club’s chief principle, being a uniquely Basque entity.
Their rivals were embracing football’s profound adjustment and cast their nets farther and wider to in search of talent, but Athletic believed that their Basque-only recruitment policy – in force since the last Englishman departed in 1912 – could not be compromised because of the value of the tradition and sense of belonging that it engendered in their players and supporters.
The club also believed that nurturing local talent was a viable way of upholding their other pillar of identification – that their region was capable of perpetual first-division status, shared only with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
It worked, too. While Madrid embarked on the galactico era, Athletic’s band of locals secured a 2nd place La Liga finish in 1998 to secure Champions League football for the first time in over a decade. And – a flirt with relegation in 2006/07 apart – they have since maintained a healthy existence by going against the grain of modern football, which has incorporated a move into a new, Basque-designed, San Mamés.
Laporte’s new club, meanwhile, represent the antithesis of Athletic’s model. Manchester City, the flagship of the intercontinental City Football Group, located within the portfolio of the Abu Dhabi empire, is at the at the forefront of the globalised football world.
The influx of finance since Sheikh Mansour acquired the club in 2008 has seen City grow from a provincial entity, priding itself on representing Manchester as Manchester United targeted rapid international growth in the 1990s, to a club at the head of a system that profits from feeder clubs from in Australia, Japan, New York and even Uruguay.
The project is proving a huge success with City on course to challenge on all fronts, but for all of their financial backing and strategic planning, their model is not open to possibilities generated only by Athletic’s unique model.
The Basque outfit can boast a rare and remarkably strong hand in transfer negotiations, which has seen City forced into a prolonged two-year courting of an uncapped 23-year-old French defender, for a club-record fee in the region of £57m.
Stemming from Athletic’s unaffected local tradition, there is a sense of belonging in their players who enjoy representing their region and, more often than not, are quite content to stay with the club. Iñaki Williams, the club’s 23-year-old star, this month signed a new eight-year deal. “I’ve always said that here is where I want to be,” he said. “Here I have grown as a player, but above all as a person and I say that because those belonging to this club know that if there is a word that defines it, it is family.”
Williams’s contract includes a buy-out clause of up to €108m, though it is not that the club is as reliant upon hard cash to fund transfers as other clubs. With the pool of players eligible to sign for the club severely limited, investment instead goes on maximising the quality of their production line for local talent to ensure that the Basque Country is represented in the higher echelons of the first division for years to come.
It remains to be seen whether Laporte will become a star in the Stoichkov, Beckenbaeur or Platini bracket but Manchester City will certainly have learned from their pursuit of the Basque that even with their riches, amor propio is hard to find.