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Spain trip day 2: An introduction to Bilbao

BILBAO, Basque Country — From the unique language to the local cuisine to their stunning architecture, the people of Basque Country live life differently than most of the rest of the world.

This is perhaps most evident in their soccer culture as well, where the region of just two million people produces some of the best soccer players in the world and features one-fifth of the top-flight teams in Spain’s La Liga.

This is what NorCal Premier Soccer learned Friday during a trip to Bilbao, where the culture of the game and its youth development runs in the citizens of this highly-autonomous region.

“Our blood is red and white,” said Gari Fullaondo, the former director of Athletic Bilbao, the Basque Country’s most popular club and one of just three La Liga clubs to never have been relegated.

Consistent with the region’s deep-rooted sense of national pride, Athletic only allows Basque players to play for their team, meaning that they’re at a huge disadvantage when it comes to their player pool they can draw from.

To combat this situation the club has adapted to run one of the best youth development systems in the entire world, one that NorCal witnessed up close with a lecture from Fullaondo and former star Ismael Urzaiz after a first team training session shortly after arriving in Bilbao.

About half of Basque Country’s population comes from the region of Biscay, which according to Fullaondo features 26,000 youth players at 149 different clubs, most of which are within a 10 minute drive to Bilbao, many of whom regularly attend the always-open Athletic training sessions.

“If we don’t do good work in Biscay with five, six, seven, eight and nine-year-olds, it’s impossible to come to [Bilbao] with good qualities,” Fullaondo said. “I think the most important thing in Biscay is that there are 149 different clubs that play soccer. The most important thing is that Athletic has an agreement with all of them…boys and girls want to play in Athletic. Most of them want to be Ronaldo or Messi, but all of them want to play in Athletic.”

It’s that level of community commitment and dedication that NorCal Premier Soccer strives to emulate, with an informed regional consensus on how to educate our youth.

“The game demands certain things, I don’t care where you’re at,” said Tom Atencio of US Club Soccer. “If you do those certain things you can play soccer properly and maximize yourself. Will you make the national team? Who knows? Probably not. Most of us aren’t. But you’re going to play correctly and you’re going to know how to be a good fan and you’re going to know how teach kids. That’s the best that we can do in America, is create good fans and kids that maximize themselves and get something good out of soccer.”

To see that consensus in effect, NorCal visited one of Athletic Bilbao’s top suppliers in the youth market, local club Danok Bat CF.

The NorCal team made the trek to the top of the hills in Bilbao later in the night to watch a few youth sessions with some promising players on turf fields above the city.

“The thing that struck me that night the most was how engaged the coaches were,” said Vinnie Cortezzo of North Coast FC. “From the moment training started and until they finished, they were involved. There was no standing around with their arms folded or hands in their pockets.”

“From the technical side I thought they were very clean, more so than the typical American player, but the biggest difference I think was insight and their approach to the game,” he added.

While a small club, Danok has produced 10 players who have made appearances in La Liga and is just one in a region that has roughly 50 fewer than NorCal Premier despite our part of the world having seven times as many people.

“In Biscay, we understand soccer in another way, we live soccer in another way,” Fullaondo said.

A way that NorCal Premier Soccer hopes to get to know better over our next few days in Bilbao. Check back tomorrow for our experience watching Athletic youth teams as well as our trip to San Sebastian to watch Athletic rivals Real Sociedad play.