Athletic Club famously have a philosophy unlike any other in the world. Usually referred to (a little too) simply as a Basque-only policy, only players who were born, raised or developed in the Basque Country — the seven provinces that straddle the Spanish-French border — can play for the Bilbao-based club.
With a population of just more than 3.1 million (and just under 2.2 million if counting the four Spanish provinces) that policy imposes obvious limitations upon them. But it gives far more than it takes.
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Ander Herrera knows all too well about the mystique of the club. Born in Bilbao, he moved away at the age of four because his dad Pedro became the sporting director at Real Zaragoza, where he once played. Ander therefore grew up supporting Zaragoza, made his professional debut there, and has since enjoyed stellar stints at Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain. He would love to go back to Zaragoza one day.
“One of the best memories I have in footballer as a player and a fan is the 3-2 win over Real Madrid at Montjuic in the 2004 Copa del Rey final,” Herrera says. “I cried when [Luciano] Galletti scored the winner.”
But being born in Bilbao also means that Herrera could play for Athletic, even if he didn’t grow up a fan. He did so from 2011-2014 and has now returned on loan from PSG for this season. For all that he achieved elsewhere — more than 500 games, two league titles, four national cups, a Europa League, a Champions League final — for all that he didn’t support them, Athletic stands apart.
“Juan Mata is a Real Oviedo fan and I talk to him about Athletic a lot,” Herrera says of his former Man United teammate. “I always tell him that it seems like a pity to me that he hadn’t been born in, oh I don’t know, Renteria. That way he could have had the chance to experience this club, to live it. He’s my friend and it makes me a little sad that he never had the chance.”
Renteria is a not especially remarkable town an hour or so west of Bilbao, not far from the French border, with a population of 39,355 people. It’s just the first place that comes to Herrera’s mind, it could be Renteria or anywhere, anywhere in the Basque Country at least. That way, Mata would have been able to play for Athletic — and that, Herrera insists, is pretty much the best thing there is in football.
This, Herrera says sitting at the club’s Lezama training ground under the famous arch brought here from the old San Mames stadium — the place where everyone at the club trains daily, from the youngest kid in the youth system to the first team footballers, both men and women — is the most romantic club in the world. A succesful one, too. Only Real Madrid and Barcelona can match their record of having played their entire history in Spain’s first division.
Ahead of Athletic’s game at Barcelona this Sunday (LIVE on ESPN+, 3 p.m. ET), Herrera talks with ESPN’s Martin Ainstein for a new episode of The Bicycle Diaries about the club’s unique expectations, his time at PSG, and which players and coaches he’s learned most from.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESPN: How can you explain what makes Athletic so special?
Herrera: I haven’t been at every club and surely there will be clubs that still respect their legends, their fans, their players, but it is true that this club is special. You can’t deny that. I’m a Zaragoza fan from the day I was born, but I would like my club to be like this one. In Zaragoza, I hold Athletic as an example: an example of what it means to love what you are, what you stand for, to love and protect your people. To see your own as the best — even if you know it’s not true.
Why has Athletic gone its whole history without being relegated to to the second division, why does it have consideration across the world, why do players keep coming through? Because of that love and that belief, even if it is not true, that there’s no one better than you. I would like my club, the club of my heart which is Zaragoza, to be a little bit more like this one. It’s a pleasure to be part of this club. I enjoy every day.
ESPN: Do you see the Basque-only policy ever changing?
Herrera: I had this conversation the other day with the physios, people who have been here for ever. I’ve asked: ‘What do you prefer? Change the philosophy or have Athletic get relegated to the second division one year?’ And the response was unanimous: go down. You can’t lose that philosophy because that’s what makes the club special. That’s what makes the fan feel so identified with the club: because the fan knows that the guy in the team is his cousin, his uncle, his nephew, the guy he went to school with.
You’re at the ground watching the kid from your neighbourhood, people who grew up around you. The issue of whether the philosophy should change could be a thorny issue in Bilbao but I think the philosophy can’t be lost ever. For me it’s non-negotiable. All the members I know feel that way. The loveliest thing for them is the philosophy, that they chose to compete like this many years ago and they still do. And I think that goes in the DNA of Basque players, I really think so. The way we compete.
ESPN: What does it mean to you to return after time at Man United and PSG?
Herrera: I was very happy here. I was here for three fantastic years. As well as a footballer, you feel fulfilled as a person. To see the respect the kids have for the first team players, to see the affection of the people, to see how close that relationship is. One of the first days I trained here there were 2,000 or 3,00 fans and at the end six or seven players stopped and signed autographs for every single one of them. The club orders them to but it’s not an obligation. That’s part of why and how the philosophy survives.
One day, hopefully, this kids can be here at Lezama or play for the first team. It’s difficult to express in words what I felt on my first day [back] at San Mames. The reception was fantastic. It’s perfect for me to join the club in this moment, with the generation of players: [they’re] very, very talented.
ESPN: Athletic’s unique identity, the community around it, must bring with it a special pressure?
Herrera: At bad moments, yes. I remember my second year with [former Athletic manager Marcelo] Bielsa. We had reached two finals the first season but that season we were flirting with relegation and the pressure is huge. You never want to be the one that goes down in history [as the first Athletic team to be relegated]. And I always say that in Bilbao everyone is an Athletic fan and has a view, all the way to the 73-year-old neighbour on the fifth floor, who has been a nurse all her life. She too is a ‘coach.’ ‘I’d pay this guy’, ‘I’d do that’.
But, I tell you what: bendita presion. It’s lovely to live in a society that feels such a deep connection to its football team, that’s so committed to Athletic Club. But you can’t hide that it brings pressure. There’s no club I have been at that is as ‘present’ within its environment, its society. I don’t think it’s about being the only team in the city, either; it’s more than that. It’s special, deeper.
Maybe I could compare it to Barcelona a little bit: even the political element is there. It’s important for people within politics to be seen to be tuned into what’s happening at Athletic, to be involved — without getting into whether it’s this party or that one, it’s significant.
ESPN: In that sense are Athletic and PSG polar opposites? PSG seems much less rooted in its city.
Herrera: They are different, of course, but I’m not so sure about that. I lived in Paris for three years and maybe the city itself is not such a football place. But in the neighbourhoods, the cartiers, PSG’s presence is felt. And for Parisians, it is part of them. Often you talk about Paris and people think about tourism, fashion week, people coming from all over the world. But there is another Paris, other Parisians.
They’re different clubs but I wouldn’t say that PSG is a club that’s not rooted in its society. At the same time, you can’t compare it with a club [like Athletic] where the 25 players are born or raised or developed as footballers here.
ESPN: The expectations are different too.
Herrera: I think it’s good for Neymar to play with Lionel Messi, it’s good for Messi to play with Neymar, and it’s fantastic for Kylian Mbappe to receive balls from them. We used to be talked about every day. When you have those names in the team, when you have those players, if you don’t win every game 6-0, they’re going to kill you.
I used to read the stories in the media when I was there, that there was a problem or a fight in the dressing room. I was in the dressing room and there was no fight. They exaggerate everything. I’m not there anymore but I read the stories as well and I don’t trust them because I have been there.
And of course, in football, you cannot be friend with every single teammate that you have been with during your career. But the respect is always there. And my experience there is that they respect each other.
ESPN: Is Athletic’s the easiest dressing room in the world?
Herrera: Yes. Yes. Every coach would say so. I talked about this with [former PSG manager Mauricio] Pochettino and all his staff, who are spectacular people: I said to them I hope one day you get the chance to experience it. They have huge respect for Athletic, they look upon this club with admiration. I spoke to them about how for a coach working at Athletic, it is easy: no one puts on face, no one is bad-tempered, everyone is committed. Even if he didn’t play at the weekend, a player comes in on a Monday and works hard.
That’s special for a coach, very nice. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coach because it’s a very hard profession, and there’s so little gratitude, but if I was this would be the place for it.
ESPN: It reminds one of [current Athletic manager] Ernesto Valverde. He got attacked so much at Barcelona, and here he’s loved.
Herrera: He did things at Barcelona that were good. [Champions League losses to] Liverpool and AS Roma hurt but when you get to that stage of the tournament, it can happen, anyone can beat you, that’s the way it is.
I would say Ernesto is a person that does things the simple way. I am a bit old fashioned in this sense: I struggle a bit with GPS, Big Data, all that stuff. I know it’s useful, another tool, that it’s good for us. But I also have a lot of respect for people like Valverde, [longtime LaLiga manager Jose Luis] Mendilibar, normal people whose approach is based on what they see on the pitch. The data helps, and he uses it, but it can’t be the only tool in football.
And I would put Valverde in that group of people who do things with normality, who coach based on common sense, and I love working with him day to day. He’s a normal guy who gives the player space, who doesn’t overwhelm him, who trusts in him, in his responsibility and professionalism. And one of the things I like about him is how he prepares every game: he doesn’t overload you or drive it into you, but gives your four or five ideas, things you need to know, things the other team will do.
ESPN: You have played with some incredible players over the years. Who would you highlight? Not necessarily the best, but a player that impacted upon you in some way.
Herrera: I would say [Messi] because he’s the best I have played with, sure, but then you see him as a person. I met the best player all all time, and saw the normality with which he lived his life. I have been to a restaurant with him and you see how he stops for everyone to take a photo, how he treats people. And it was a very welcome surprise: he exceeded my expectations.
And then in terms of being professional, getting everything out of your career, I would say Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Ramos. Two role models, and example of professionalism, of how to behave, of how to get the best out of your body for as long as possible. But I don’t want to forget [Andoni] Iraola, [Carlos] Gurpegui, Aritz Aduriz: players who who always put Athletic Club above all else, above the individual. They really left their mark on me.
Then there are great players who became real friends, like David de Gea and Juan Mata. I could have to give you a list of like 20, 30 people. One by one go through it.
ESPN: The criticism of Messi was fierce at times in Paris.
Herrera: He is [human]. And he has family and he has kids who can listen, who can read sometimes or whatever. But he’s very mature. He doesn’t care too much. He doesn’t say because he’s very humble, but he knows he’s the best in history, the best player of all time. Respect. He’s a legend.
ESPN: You’ve played under amazing coaches: [Jose] Mourinho, Bielsa, Valverde, Pochettino, [Luis] Van Gaal, [Thomas] Tuchel. What would you take from each of them?
Herrera: I have had a good time with all of them, I couldn’t say a bad thing about any of them. With Bielsa, I met someone who was mad about football, the most unique, different coach I have had. Mourinho, a competitive machine. Van Gaal, the positional game. Tuchel, spectacular analysis of opponents. Marcelino [García Toral], the number one when it comes to 4-4-2. Pochettino is a bit like Valverde, there’s the normality, the common sense, that left a mark.
We could spent hours talking about these guys; I feel very lucky to have worked with them. I also felt important with them all, like I contributed with them all. That’s the most important thing. Football is a team sport, and we’re there at the service of the team.
Athletic Club’s Ander Herrera on Bilbao, playing with Messi
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