• January 28, 2023

Athletic Bilbao: Basque club facing two Copa del Rey finals in two weeks

Inaki Williams scored the winning goal when Athletic Bilbao beat Barcelona 3-2 in extra time to win the Supercopa de Espana

Inaki Williams remembers the days watching young people train at Athletic Bilbao’s famous Lezama Academy and dreaming of representing the club he loved.

Now the striker, whose own chance came at Lezama when he was 18, has the opportunity to help his youth team win the Copa del Rey in twice as many weeks.

“For anyone born in or around Bilbao, the main children’s dream is to play for Athletic Bilbao,” says the 26-year-old.

“I was very lucky because this dream came true. Now I have the opportunity to win two titles and make Athletic Bilbao champion.”

The club’s last success in competition was in 1984 as part of a national brace, but they can end the 37-year-old wait against Basque neighbors Real Sociedad on Saturday.

This will be the 2019-20 final, which has been delayed for 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic in the hope that fans will be allowed to participate, although it will now be held in Seville with no supporters.

Athletic will then face Barcelona in this season’s final on April 17th, having already beaten the Catalan giants to win the Supercopa in January.

Everything Athletic Bilbao does is a philosophy that goes back more than 100 years and that allows them to only use players who have gone through the academies of the Basque Country clubs.

It may limit the talent pool available, but Athletic is one of only three clubs, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, that have never been relegated from Spain’s top division and have won eight La Liga titles during that time.

Following Marcelino’s appointment as coach in January, Athletic beat both teams to win the Supercopa and while not a Basque himself, the head coach believes the club’s methods will remain sustainable.

“Is it incompatible with the 21st century? I would say absolutely not because the principles are way ahead of different situations,” he says.

“If you really trust a principle and believe in it, it’s very authentic and the philosophy and even the way of life and behavior is very strong. It’s very responsible, respectable and even very sustainable. I think it’s fantastic.”

Sports director Rafael Alkorta says Bilbao’s main market is “our own home”.

They rarely venture into the transfer market and the arrival of Pamplona-born winger Alex Berenguer from Napoli in October marked the club’s first signing in 20 months.

Instead, Athletic invested heavily in its academy, building a new San Mames stadium with 53,000 seats in 2013.

Finding and nurturing talent is key and the club has an extensive scouting network that includes agreements with around 160 local sites.

“We try to support them as much as possible with our trainers and employees who specialize in training courses or workshops,” explains Alkorta. “We are trying to build up the fact that children from a very young age only want to play with us.

“These are boys who were born in the Basque Country, boys who have trained since they were very young around us.

“There are many people who support us in this endeavor because they go to school every day, watch children play, go to all the towns and villages around us to discover talent – it is work that costs a lot of hours and a lot of reporting . “

Asier Villalibre plays a trumpet while Athletic Bilbao celebrates after beating BarcelonaAsier Villalibre plays a trumpet while Athletic Bilbao celebrates after beating Barcelona in Supercopa

One challenge for the club is to stave off interest in its top players – but winning trophies helps.

“Loyalty is one of the main elements of our work and our efforts so that children can understand from an early age that the main goal is to reach the top team,” says Alkorta.

“They also have to understand that this is where they will have the most opportunities to reach the top flight in Spain. We are all working on that every day by giving a lot of presentations and giving the coaches a lot of development.”

Alkorta, the former Spanish defender who played for Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, added: “Trophies are important so that we believe in what we do and so that children can see that with this approach you are winning trophies and Barcelona and Can beat Real Madrid.

“From our point of view – trophies, finals, playing in Europe from time to time – this gives us support and excites us that we can all continue to believe in our philosophy.”

Belonging to the Athletic family

Bilbao prepandemicAthletic Bilbao are celebrating in the Copa del Rey at their San Mames stadium before the coronavirus pandemic meant fans were no longer admitted

Williams grew up dreaming of playing at The Cathedral, the club’s original San Mames stadium, which was born in Bilbao shortly after his parents arrived from Ghana.

The striker, who has set a record in La Liga in 185 consecutive games, has spoken of spending his entire career at Athletic and is proud to see the city in red and white ahead of the upcoming final.

“Marcelino was deeply impressed by the fact that we are not just a team but also a family,” said Williams, whose 18-year-old brother Nico is also with the club.

“We try to avoid problems on the field or in the training rooms. They are more friends than colleagues.

“It’s something you’re taught from a young age and it makes us very excited to have the Athletic Bilbao badge on your shirt.”

Marcelino, who won the Copa del Rey with Valencia in 2019, believes the feeling of unity makes his team dangerous, despite looking to improve his position in ninth in the league.

“We’re talking about a unique locker room where people are united, everyone works hard and everyone is part of the organization,” says Marcelino.

“Many of them have known each other since childhood, they have developed over the years and their relatives know each other because they went through different teams in Lezama, the academy.

“All the players feel like they belong to the club they joined many years ago and now they are enjoying the dreams they had as children.”

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