Alexandra Jonson explores what is special about the Spanish teams that boast more homegrown players than any other club in the top five European leagues.
Two of the biggest sensations of La Liga this season are the O’s of Real Sociedad: 20-year-old Mikel Oyarzabal and 21-year-old Alvaro Odriozola. While the former is La Reals’ top-scorer this season with six goals in eight matches, the latter has – in only one year – gone from playing third division football to making his first team debut for the Spanish national team, arguably being the best player in a 3-0 win over Albania.
Having arrived at Real Sociedad age 14 and 11, Oyarzabal and Odriozola are only the latest talents to emerge out of one of Spain’s best youth academies. Today, Real Sociedad can pride themselves on having 15 homegrown players in their first team squad, a number only one team in Europe’s top 5 leagues can match: their neighbours Athletic Club de Bilbao who feature 20 homegrown players in their squad*.
“In the Basque Country the way it works with kids from a young age is important, there’s a footballing culture; perhaps genetics play a part, I’m not sure. But Athletic and La Real deserves a lot of credit,” Real Sociedad captain Xabi Prieto recently told Sid Lowe in an interview for ESPN.
While when I met up with Athletic’s Iñaki Williams last week, for an interview for Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, he noted that: “In other parts [of Spain] kids dream of playing for famous clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, while every kid who is born here dreams of playing for Athletic.”
At 34 it’s been 29 years since Prieto received his first season ticket to La Real’s old home stadium Atoxa. He’s never played, and likely never will, for another club. The reason is simple: he’s happy.
During our interview, Williams several times returned to the same sentences: “I could never see myself play for a club that’s not Athletic”, “I wouldn’t change [being here] for anything else in the world,” and “Athletic means everything to me.”
While not ever player who comes through the youth academies of the two Basque clubs stays for their entire career, having so many homegrown players creates a special bond in the dressing room.
“Players who come here from other clubs say it’s different here,” says Prieto.
While at Athletic the difference is even bigger with every single player coming from the Basque Country.
“Our squad is not like anything else in the world. Since everyone comes from the same area we have another dynamic, we know each-other to perfection,” says Williams.
Rejecting the norm
For both Real Sociedad and Athletic Club the youth academy have become the most fundamental part of the club.
With it’s policy of only signing players from the Basque region, Bilbao have a more restricted transfer market than other clubs making player development more crucial.
“We live on our youth academy, it’s the reason to why we can compete on the highest level because we barely do any signings at all,” Williams says.
Real Sociedad had a similar policy themselves until 1989, and in recent years economic troubles and stints in the second division have made a focus on player development all the more important.
In a sporting world that is increasingly focused on money and signings, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club have shown that investing in youth can still bring success.
While Athletic is having a rather disappointing season, currently 15th in the league table and struggling in the Europa League, they are still one of the only teams – alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid – which has never been relegated from the Spanish first division, despite only playing Basque players.
The team of the two O’s on the other hand, is enjoying another great season, with impressive performances in both the league and Europe while playing some of the most enjoyable football to watch in Spain.
*Statistic from CIES Football Observatory following UEFA’s definition for player to have been In the club for at least three years between the ages of 15 and 21.
Follow Alexandra at @AlexandraJonson