January 19, 2019

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Athletic Bilbao Is Flush With Cash and Facing Relegation

Athletic Bilbao Is Flush With Cash and Facing Relegation
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Athletic, at least under Urrutia, never negotiated, whatever the price. Players would leave only if their buyout clause — a fee that would trigger a sale — was met, and Athletic’s management hoped it never would be.

Urrutia, sitting in an austere drawing room full of lacquered furniture on the ground floor of a mansion built in 1900 and bestowed to the club by one of the city’s historic trading families, described how the club lost defensive midfielder Javi Martínez to the German giant Bayern Munich a year into his presidency in 2011. This all happened after he tried to ignore Jupp Heynckes, then Bayern’s manager, who had coached Urrutia, a tough tackling midfielder during two spells at Athletic, and Bayern’s top two officials, Karl Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness.

“Jupp says, ‘We consider Javi is a player for the future, and 40 seems a lot; we are ready to pay 22 or 23,” Urrutia recalled. “We said: Perfect. So we don’t have to worry ourselves about it.”

In the end, Bayern paid the full 40 million euro buyout fee for Martínez, a sum that broke Germany’s transfer record.

Since then, the team has lost other players in a similar fashion. Ander Herrera, another defensive midfielder, joined Manchester United in 2014. Defender Aymeric Laporte became Manchester City’s costliest acquisition when he joined for 65 million euros. Most recently, Chelsea made Kepa Arrizabalaga the most expensive goalkeeper in the world after paying his full 80 million euro release clause.

All those deals, regardless of the fee, frustrated Urrutia. He wished all of Athletic’s players shared his values. Urrutia came through the club’s youth system and never wore another jersey in a two-decade career. The club, he said, tries to instill loyalty from the moment players enter the system.

Athletic officials like to play the guilt card and remind players that the Basque-only policy was probably the reason they were able to have a professional career in the first place — that the club could have picked other, better athletes if it had the option of shopping on the global market.



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