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

Athletic Bilbao are expected to take on Barcelona on April 17 in this season’s final, having already beaten the Catalan giants to win the Supercopa in January.

Underpinning all that Athletic Bilbao do is a philosophy that dates back more than 100 years and one that sees them field only players who have come through the academies of Basque Country clubs.

It may limit their available talent pool but Athletic are one of only three clubs, alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid, never to have been relegated from Spain’s top flight and have won eight La Liga titles in that time.

Following Marcelino’s appointment as manager in January, Athletic beat both those sides to win the Supercopa and, despite not being Basque himself, the head coach believes the club’s methods remain sustainable.

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

“When you really trust and believe in a principle it is very authentic, and the philosophy and even the way of living and way of behaving is very strong. It is very responsible, respectable and even very viable. I think it is fantastic.”

Sporting director Rafael Alkorta says Bilbao’s major 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 was the club’s first signing in 20 months.

Athletic have instead invested heavily in their academy, as well as building a new 53,000-seat San Mames stadium in 2013.

Finding and nurturing talent is key and the club boast a comprehensive scouting network that includes agreements with around 160 local sides.

“We try to assist them as much as we possibly can with our coaches and the people specialised to deliver training courses or workshops,” explains Alkorta. “What we are trying to build with this is that children from a very young age only want to play with us.

“These are young boys who have been born in the Basque Country, young boys who have trained since they were very little in our environment.

“There are lots of people supporting us in this endeavour because they will go to schools on a daily basis, they will watch children play, they go to all the towns and villages in our environment to spot talent – it is work that takes a lot of hours and lots of reporting.”

One challenge the club faces is fending off interest in their top players – but winning trophies helps.

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

“They must also understand this is where they will have the most possibilities of reaching the first division in Spain and is something all of us work on on a daily basis, by giving lots of presentations, providing lots of development for the coaches.”

Alkorta, the former Spain defender who played for Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, adds: “Trophies are important for us to believe in what we are doing and for children to see with this approach you can win trophies and can beat Barcelona and Real Madrid.

“This from our point of view – trophies, finals, playing in Europe from time to time – does give us support and make us feel enthusiastic that we can all carry on believing in our philosophy.”

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