The Bilbao side’s Lezama academy is one of Spain’s greatest and they have been recognised by the European football governing body with a prestigious award.
Athletic Club were honoured with the Uefa Grassroots Award for Best Professional Club on Monday, thanks to the work that their hallowed youth academy of Lezama does with young players on and off the pitch.
The club from Bilbao, one of only three sides never to have been relegated from LaLiga Santander, is famed for its philosophy of only using players from the Basque Country or with links to the region. This remains possible thanks to the success of Lezama, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in January 2021.
When presenting the Basque club with the 2021/22 award, UEFA recognised the care Athletic Club takes to protect children who enter its academy and those of more than 150 partner clubs in the region.
As UEFA outlined in a statement: “Through its academy and community work, Athletic Club has developed a comprehensive child protection and safeguarding policy, enabling the protection of all young people in the club’s care. Athletic Club’s ‘Aterpe’ (the Basque word for ‘shelter’) programme, which enables a safe environment for players, ballboys and girls and player escorts, includes preventive elements, staff training and action protocols, with special attention to caring for children in vulnerable social situations.”
Athletic Club are fitting winners, given the dedication they have to using local talent and only sporadically using the transfer market, preferring to invest intelligently.
President Aitor Elizegi was delighted that Los Leones received the award, stating: “This programme is fundamental to Athletic Club, it’s our foundation. It’s everything that Athletic Club is about – a trust in youth, a trust in society. It’s a necessity and value. We try to turn our words into reality. It’s not always easy, but Athletic Club is committed to this and we thank UEFA for taking notice of this effort.”
Lezama: The beating heart of Athletic Club
Instead of creating headlines with marquee signings, Athletic Club prefer to invest in their Lezama academy, which opened in 1971. The facilities there also host B team Bilbao Athletic, as well as LaLiga SmartBank side SD Amorebieta.
In the 2020/21 campaign, Athletic Club gave 50.9 percent of available minutes in LaLiga Santander to players who had come through Lezama. The current squad is filled with Lezama graduates, including the Williams brothers Iñaki and Nico, Iker Munain and Unai Simón, and the academy shows no signs of slowing down. Players who come through Lezama often have strong connections to the club and many stay there for the majority of their careers.
Other clubs often covet players produced there too. For example, Chelsea made Kepa Arrizabalaga the world’s most expensive goalkeeper in 2018, while Manchester City signed Aymeric Laporte for a significant fee in the same year.
Athletic Club keep an eye on talent across the province of Biscay in particular, making partnerships with 155 local clubs and regularly scouting their games and staying in close contact.
They also look to give academy players the best professional experience possible from the start, not only reserving top facilities and assistance from physiotherapists, psychologists and nutritionists for the first team, a holistic approach which contributed to their UEFA Grassroots Awards triumph.
“We have to keep in mind that we are not one team, but we’re a club and the first team is a part of the club,” explained the club’s director of training methodology, Andoni Bombín. “The academy is, therefore, just as important as the first team. There is no resource that is only available for the first team and not for those in the academy. That would be absurd. We try to ensure that everything that is important for the club is present for both.”
Having made the effort to ensure the youngsters of their academy have everything they need, Athletic Club have now been rewarded with this prestigious UEFA Grassroots Award.