Sometimes soccer is so more than a sport. Yes, it provides the participant with the pleasurable entertainment of athletic competition or a means to make a living. It can also provide a fan with an escapism from the routine 9-5 grind, and that escape may at times allow the imagination to run wild with fantasies, in the deep hollows of our memories, of our own youthful efforts at the sport. But, at some special times, soccer is the balm that inspires, soothes, and binds a community. Such is the case at Bilbao with its Athletic Club.
In Spanish Football’s first division, Athletic Club Bilbao has made a point of integrating the sport into the deepest societal fabric of the independent-minded Basque community from which it springs.
Bilbao lays just off the Bay of Biscay and is the largest city of the Franco-Spanish Basque Country. The city is in the northernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula about 400 miles due north of Madrid or 600 miles northwest of Barcelona.
The Basque people can date their earliest origins to the Old Stone Age and their community, which was the subject of Ancient Roman commentaries from the First Century, has inhabited the same region for millennia. The Basque language is a natural isolate, meaning it does not descend from or share a common heritage with any other linguistic family.
Athletic, as the club is sometimes known, is one of the founding clubs of La Liga, and together with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona is one of the three Spanish clubs never to have been relegated. Athletic is also widely known for mostly promoting from within, with the vast majority of its players coming from the Basque region. An extension of the club, and an added means of connecting with its local community, is its foundation.
The Athletic Club Foundation (established in 2002) is the community outreach arm of the soccer club, and it aims to “utilize soccer and the region’s social and historical values as tools through which to help better the quality of life of our community. All of our activities are supported by the volunteer efforts of our technical staff and players.”
The foundation provides, on its own and via collaborative relationships with local social groups, an original and innovative menu of activities that runs from using community participation in playing soccer to assist the homeless, the mentally and physically handicapped, and youth and women at risk, to providing able bodied volunteer companions to elderly and handicapped fans attending games at San Mames Stadium.
Beginning today and running through the 15th of the month, the foundation will be hosting the tenth edition of its cultural series Literature and Soccer (Letras y Futbol) in collaboration with Bilbao’s Floral Library. The event tries to foment literacy via soccer, bringing together local and invited soccer writers, players, and coaches, to discuss in public fora works of literature they have previously committed to read from a list provided by the organizers.
Programs such as this help reinforce the cultural and linguistic ties that are such an integral part of the Basque community’s identity. Similarly, at a time when disaffection in Catalonia has postponed El Clasico, the club’s local outreach seems a soothing balm for many who feel a tighter bind to one another through futebol.
Though most MLS clubs provide community outreach of some sort, and communities understand the important role football can play in society, the creative breadth of activities the Athletic Club Foundation offers should be an example to all futbol clubs worldwide.