Inaki Williams recalls how he watched young players train at Athletic Bilbao’s famous Lezama academy and dreamed of representing the club he loved.
Now the striker, who got his chance at Lezama as an 18-year-old, has the chance to help his side win the Copa del Rey twice in a matter of weeks.
For anyone born in or around Bilbao, playing for Athletic Bilbao one day is the biggest dream, says the 26-year-old.
I am very happy because this dream has come true. Now I have the chance to win two titles to make Athletic Bilbao champions.
The club’s last league win dates back to 1984, when they recorded a double victory at home, but they can end that 37-year wait on Saturday against Basque neighbours Real Sociedad.
This is the 2019-20 final, which was postponed for 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, in the hope that fans will be able to attend the final, even though it will now be held in Seville without fans.
Athletica will then be on the 17th. April in the final in Barcelona, after the Catalan giants had already won the Supercopa in January.
At the heart of everything Athletic Bilbao does is a philosophy that goes back more than 100 years, which is to use only players trained in the club’s academies in the Basque Country.
It may limit their talent, but Athletic is one of only three clubs, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, to have never been relegated from Spain’s top division and won eight La Liga titles in that time.
Since Marcelino was appointed coach in January, Athletic have beaten both teams to win the Supercopa and, although he is not a Basque himself, the head coach believes the club’s methods are sustainable.
Is it incompatible with the 21st century? The century? I would say not, because the principles leave room for different situations, he says.
If you really trust and believe in the principle, it is very authentic and the philosophy and even the lifestyle and the way of doing things is very strong. It is very responsible, respectable and even very viable. I love it.
Sporting director Rafael Alcorta 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 was his first visit to the club in 20 months.
Instead, Athletic invested heavily in their academy and built a new 53,000-seat San Mames Stadium in 2013.
Finding and promoting talent is the key to success. The club has an extensive scouting network which includes agreements with around 160 local clubs.
We try to help them as much as possible with our trainers and people who are specialized in organizing trainings or workshops, Alcorta said. What we try to understand is that children, from a young age, just want to play with us.
They are boys who were born in the Basque Country, boys who were raised in our area from an early age.
Many people support us in this, going to schools every day, watching kids play, going to all the cities and towns around us to find talent – it’s a job that requires a lot of hours and a lot of relationships.
Asier Villalibre plays trumpet as Athletic Bilbao celebrate victory over Barcelona in Supercopa.
One of the club’s problems is discouraging interest in its best players, but winning trophies helps.
Loyalty is one of the most important elements of what we do and we strive to ensure that kids understand from an early age that the main goal is to join the top team, says Alkorta.
They also have to understand that this is the place where they have the best chance of being promoted to the top flight in Spain, and that is something we work on every day, doing a lot of presentations and giving a lot of development to the coaches.
Alcorta, a former Spanish defender who played for Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, adds: Trophies are important for us to believe in what we are doing and for the children to see that we can win trophies and beat Barcelona and Real Madrid with this approach.
It makes us feel good about what we’re doing – trophies, finals, playing in Europe from time to time – and it makes us excited that we can all continue to believe in our philosophy.
Sports family member
pandemic Athletic Bilbao celebrated the Copa del Rey at the San Mamse stadium before fans were banned due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Williams grew up with the dream of playing at the Cathedral, the original stadium of the San Mames club that was established shortly after his parents arrived in Bilbao from Ghana.
The striker, who has played a record 185 consecutive games for the club in La Liga, spoke of having spent his entire career with Athletic and is proud that City will be dressed in red and white for the upcoming final.
Marcelino was very impressed that we are not only a team, but a family, said Williams, whose 18-year-old brother Nico is also a member of the club.
We try to avoid problems on the field or in the training areas. They’re more like friends than colleagues.
It’s something you learn from an early age and we are very excited when you wear the Athletic Bilbao badge on your shirt.
Marcelino, who won the Copa del Rey against Valencia in 2019, believes the sense of unity makes his team dangerous, although he would like to improve on ninth place in La Liga.
We are talking about a unique locker room where people are united, everyone works hard and everyone is part of the organization, Marcelino said.
Many of them have known each other since childhood, they have evolved over the years, and their family members know each other because they have been through different teams of Lezam, the academy.
All the players have a sense of belonging, of belonging to the club they came to years ago, and now they are fulfilling the dreams they had as children.
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