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Athletic Bilbao would rather be relegated than compromise their values as battle at bottom looms

Angel Garitano had a magnificent moustache and a task before him that was almost as imposing. Known to everyone as "Ondarru," Garitano arrived at Athletic Club Bilbao as assistant to the new coach Jose Manuel Esnal, "Mane" -- two men on a desperate rescue mission in the autumn of 2006. Athletic had never been outside the first division in their 108-year history but 12 weeks into the season that was a possibility that had become horribly real. They'd won just once in all competitions and were in the relegation zone on eight points, so manager Felix Sarriugarte was sacked.

The decision, the club's president said, was "obligatory." It was also, it turned out, justified. Seven games later, Athletic had collected 14 more points and defeated their Basque rivals Real Sociedad; the rescue mission was well underway, although the fear never truly left them until they defeated Levante on the final day of the season. Not long after the end of the campaign, they were gone -- following presidential elections that summer, the winning candidate, Fernando Macua, brought Joaquin Caparros with him -- but Mane and Garitano had rescued them, departing with their work there done.

They had saved their football club. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that they had saved football a little bit as well; it's also hard to avoid that same feeling over a decade later.

Twelve years on, Athletic have called Garitano again: Gaizka Garitano. Although he would have loved to have been a bertsolari, a kind of Basque street poet, he spent his life in football instead. He spent it in the Basque Country, too: 14 of his 16 years as a player were spent there at Athletic, Real Sociedad, Alaves and Eibar -- the latter took to the first division as coach -- and he was in charge of Athletic's B team until this week. He came from a footballing family: his uncles played, Ander making 275 appearances for Athletic, and so did his father.

Gaizka is Angel Garitano's son, arriving on a mission much like his father's, 12 years on.

Twelve years after his father rescued Athletic Bilbao, Gaizka Garitano is being asked to work a similar magic even though the league in which they're trying to remain has changed a lot since.
Twelve years after his father rescued Athletic Bilbao, Gaizka Garitano is being asked to work a similar magic even though the league in which they're trying to remain has changed a lot since.

History has a habit of repeating itself: This week, Athletic sacked their coach Eduardo Berizzo. If back then it was "obligatory" to sack Sarriugarte, they said much the same this time about Berizzo. Even Berizzo himself said it. "What I'm thinking of is Athletic," the departing manager said. "And if my resignation helps, so be it."

Athletic had won just one of 13 league games; they sat in the relegation zone, safety slipping away. This was the first great crisis at the club since 2006-07, a season, incidentally, that ended with Gaizka suffering relegation with Real Sociedad while Angel rescued Athletic. Now his son must do the same.

When he took over with Garitano in 2006, Mane became the fourth man to manage Athletic in the past 13 months. Not one manager had been sacked during the season since then... until this week. Caparros, Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde all completed their contracts; Cuco Ziganda saw out his first season before departing. But Berizzo has been sacked and while he knew it was coming, virtually inviting it, something has been broken. The centre-back Mikel San Jose said he felt "ashamed, defeated, sad, down."

For the president Josu Urrutia, who followed Macua in 2011, this was a bitter way to end. Athletic are a unique club, anyway, and he was proud of trying to hold back the tide of "modern" football. However flawed that idea may appear upon closer inspection -- boasting an economic and political muscle greater than those around it, Athletic is a dominant and sometimes domineering institution -- this is a special club and Urrutia made much of those symbolic statements. Players were not allowed to leave without paying their buy-out clause, and he recently challenged legal convention to make Iker Muniain the only footballer in the country whose contract did not include a clause.

Football was going one way and Athletic sought to arrest that development. It was Athletic too who introduced the One Club Man award -- first won by Matt Le Tissier, then by Paolo Maldini, Sepp Maier and Carles Puyol -- designed to celebrate those rare players who never left. And Urrutia was proud of having not sacked a manager in his seven years as president. And yet with just three weeks left in his tenure, he did just that.

Having resigned as president of Athletic to make way for elections that will be held on Dec. 27, ones in which he will not stand, Urrutia currently heads a comision gestora (an interim board) whose job it is to oversee the transition. The new deal for Muniain was supposed to be his last act, a legacy of sorts: a symbolic gesture before his departure. Instead, his last act is to do something he always presumed to avoid.

There was no choice, they felt. They drew upon article 68 of the club's constitution, which states that the interim administration must limit itself to those decisions that are "necessary" and "indispensable." All of which underlines how bad this situation is. Change was necessary, some felt. But some changes -- one change -- will not be made. Ever. No matter what. Even if that means salvation being just out of reach. Yes, even if that means going down because, most believe, if they change that, they would have changed everything. Athletic would no longer be Athletic.

Famously, Athletic have what most refer to as a Basque-only policy. A philosophy, they prefer to call it. It is a policy that has shifted over the years and there is a certain elasticity in the way it is interpreted and applied but at heart it is simple, and it is respected, rigid, a matter of principle: The only footballers who can play for Athletic are those who have been developed in the Basque Country, whether at Athletic or at other clubs.

And that's that.

Muniain, centre, has signed a new long-term contract with Athletic Bilbao and will be one of the stars tasked with rescuing this club from a first-ever relegation.
Muniain, centre, has signed a new long-term contract with Athletic Bilbao and will be one of the stars tasked with rescuing this club from a first-ever relegation.

If it's a debate that never really goes away, nor does it ever really come around. While others in Spain may debate it, and may even deign to tell Athletic what to do, few in Bilbao truly do. Not even now; not even as football moves further away from their model, so out of keeping with the rest of the planet; not even when the Spanish league, which started out at time when almost 50 percent of footballers were Basque but fewer than a fifth of that are now, becomes more international than ever; not even when the Basque Country makes up just 1.4 percent of Spain's territory and 4.9 percent of its population; or when the other Basque teams are significant competitors, both on the pitch and for local talent (Real Sociedad actually have more youth-team products in their first team squad, for example); not even with relegation close and elections closer.

A first-ever relegation, remember. Along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, Athletic are the only club to have always been in the first division. Relegation may be inevitable one day, but they continue to resist, and doing so according to their philosophy. If they were to go, it would not just change things for them, it would change things for everyone. Football here would be poorer. Something would be gone, perhaps forever.

One way out of trouble is to sign, but this winter Athletic's options are extremely limited. They have the cash, but no one really to spend it on. The perfect list might read: Ander Herrera, Fernando Llorente, and Ibai Gomez, and that's about it. And, anyway, even those players might not be plausible. Yet that doesn't mean they will change and cast their view wider, change what took them this far, what made them what they are, desperately seeking salvation. As Leganes defender Unai Bustinza, who is a former Athletic player, said this week: "I would prefer to see Athletic in the second division than to see them change the philosophy."

He spoke for just about everyone.

Bilbao are one of only three clubs never to be relegated from the Spanish first division but one win from their first 14 games has them on the precipice.
Bilbao are one of only three clubs never to be relegated from the Spanish first division but one win in their first 14 games has them on the precipice.

Urrutia would never have contemplated it and neither of the presidential candidates ready to replace him have either: Alberto Uribe-Echevarria and Aitor Elizegi will not campaign on a change. Not that change, at least. As the former president Jose Julian Lertxundi put it: "Anyone who is a candidate and aspires to change that... isn't a candidate. You don't even touch the philosophy: there are sweeter ways of committing suicide."

They would rather "die" than die: above all, though, they would rather live. Their way.

And so, contradictory though it sounds, Athletic would make their own the words of their former manager, an Argentinian who this very week talked about his optimism, offering up a life lesson before his final game, a 3-0 loss at Levante.

Diagnosed with cancer a year ago, Berizzo insisted: "They told me that I had to stop coaching because I had to attend to important personal issues and I didn't get depressed then for issues much more profound than losing games. Being an optimist is inherent. You discover that the secret of life is to get up again every morning with desire.

"My greatest success is to live my life my way."

That was Athletic's too. It still would be, even in the second division. They would do anything to avoid it, but they won't do that. It means, therefore, that they had to do something else and two days later, two days after those moving and meaningful words, Berizzo was gone. Now it is Garitano in charge at San Mames.

Few know Athletic or the Basque Country like he does. And if he has any doubts, he can always call home and ask his dad, who's been here before.

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