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Athletic stand by their principles

It's always significantly easier to admire principles than to hold them dearly or, indeed, stick rigidly to them. For that reason, I propose the case of Athletic Club to you.

You may know them as Athletic Bilbao, but believe me, they want you to call them Athletic Club or, simply, Athletic. While there are some gently frayed edges to their philosophy, Los Rojiblancos -- also known as Los Leones -- only recruit Basque footballers.

For that they are admired, sometimes venerated, and particularly in times of various clubs spending 100 million euros in a single transfer market or footballers being especially hedonistic, the San Mames club is often placed on a pantheon of either Corinthian or ethical wonderment.

Those frayed edges that you see? Well, Athletic think nothing of claiming La Rioja or Navarra as "Basque territory" and, thus, recruiting players from there. A dilution? Not in their eyes: "Historically Basque, don't you know." All that land-grabbing or redrawing of boundaries has lasted from time immemorial all around the world. And still causes wars now.

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But I challenge you. If your club was one of the true giants of its nation -- one of only three teams never to be relegated but in the same breath you had to concede that they hadn't won a serious trophy for over three decades -- would your "faith" suffer from doubts? Would you be tempted to nick into the club president's transfer-fund biscuit tin and splash a few million on a couple of superstars from Milan, Manchester or, hell, Malawi if it meant lifting silverware?

Come on. Tell the truth.

I make no bones about the fact that my perception was always that the practical, acceptable, sensible and modern way forward was to place heavy emphasis on the cantera (youth system) from which only Basque footballers would graduate -- but to complement that with one or two important and well-judged "imports" from the regular transfer market.

That was until I spent a day in the presence of Jose Angel Iribar. He'd played for them from 1962 to 1980, winning trophies for club and country, and talked passionately to me about the concept that it was not Athletic who was out of step. Rather, it was the rest of the footballing world with their avarice, their success at any cost and their vast expenditure on "mercenary" stars who'd transfer in and out at the drop of a hat -- so long as the hat was jammed full of hard cash.

Spain goalkeeper Jose Angel Iribar played for Athletic between 1962 and 1980.

Iribar talked to me about his convictions about the development of home-bred players who not only believe in the club but support it, as well as the preservation of the symbiotic relationship between season-ticket holders and footballers on the pitch. He feels they are not only romantic ideals -- they are the way forward to sanitise European football.

So far, so good. Whether he convinced me 100 percent is one matter, but he certainly convinced me to show more respect to Athletic's beliefs and to cease preaching as if I knew better.

All that said, the drawbacks are immense. When you lose three utter diamonds -- two of them for over 80 million euros in total -- in Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and now Ander Herrera, how do you replace them?

The answer is that you can't. Finding substitutes for that level of quality would be a brutal task even if you had the wealth of Solomon and the cream of global football from which to choose. If you limit yourself to players who were born in your region or who have Basque parents (or foreigners who have developed from a very young age in the Athletic nursery scheme) then you just have to take the hit -- like-for-like replacements would be beyond miraculous.

Cut to the present day. Ernesto Valverde is a superb coach and it was for that reason that I argued for months before last season began that he was the blindingly obvious replacement for Marcelo Bielsa. Valverde duly marched Athletic all the way to fourth place in La Liga, for which the fates of football rewarded him with a nerve-jangling tie against Napoli to reach the Champions League group stage.

Some reward, that.

Athletic secured a top-four spot in La Liga last season.

With their admirable new San Mames stadium to pay for, the riches of the elite European football being diverted into Athletic's coffers would be a serious lottery win. Most coaches would therefore speculate to accumulate by buying a brilliant, creative, intelligent and proven creative midfielder to replace what was lost when Herrera signed with Manchester United.

Then they would add cover to the striker position given that only Aritz Aduriz is a truly proven striker at Athletic and were he to be injured at any time, particularly during the two all-or-nothing-ties against Rafa Benitez's Napoli, then it would likely be disastrous.

All of which must turn our attention to two men: Borja Viguera and Unai Lopez. Viguera is the great hope in front of goal and Lopez the uncut gem who should, in due course, give Athletic everything they lost in Herrera -- perhaps even more. Both men just about fit the place of birth criterion, but aside from that, they differ greatly.

Viguera was signed from neighbouring Alaves, carrying with him that allure of the "I can score anywhere" striker. But like Llorente, he's Riojano by birth, just outside the Basque region, leading some to argue that he didn't fit the Athletic Club criteria geographically.

"The president told me that there were some who were arguing that I shouldn't be eligible for the club but he said he was totally sure and if they went ahead and signed me then that means I fit the criteria," argued Viguera, who signed "practically without taking a second thought."

Just like John Aldridge had to make it with Oxford United before joining (and triumphing with) his beloved Liverpool, Viguera has had a long and interesting route to reach what retrospectively seems a natural destination.

With 25 goals, he was the Segunda Division's leading scorer last season and there's something about his finishing that hints at the fact that, despite him going from Spain's second tier to the doors of the Champions League for just one million euros, he may possess an innate skill that will allow him to fit in at the top table.

If you can score, no matter how you do it, you are welcome anywhere. Were he to succeed at Athletic, it'll be all the sweeter for the club's fans, considering Real Sociedad, Athletic's sworn enemies, beat them to Viguera when he was a kid but then chewed him up and spat him out.

"I've worked brutally hard to get where I am, never letting my head go down when things were against me, always listening to my family and my girlfriend for their support and always seeking to be consistent and reliable," Viguera says.

Borja Viguera is hoping to make an impression at a higher level this season.

From Segunda B to Segunda and then to the Champions League within two years is a vertigo trip -- we'll soon see whether he has a head for heights. But should Aduriz need a rest or some injury rehab, there will be no more eager apprentice than this "dream-come-true" 27-year-old.

What does Viguera share with Unai Lopez apart from the Athletic first team squad? Lopez, too, flourished in the Real Sociedad cantera before opting to leave them and cross enemy lines to Athletic in 2011-12. It has happened before, of course -- but this caused a fuss. Barcelona, too, tried to tempt the talented kid, and at the time, Lopez's La Real mentor in the youth system, Bittor Alkiza, complained bitterly: "There are a couple of clubs who go on and on about their 'in-house' product but the first time they think they need a player in a particular position for the near future they go fishing in the reservoir of talent at other clubs ..."

Lopez was the anti-Iniesta in that it was "living so far away from home at such a young age which made me step back from the Barca offer ... anyway, I've always liked Athletic" -- the opposite of the decision Andres Iniesta took en route to greatness.

All the same, this kid fits into the broad "Iniesta category" in that he's slight and saturnine but also technically gifted, visionary in his use of the ball, positionally intelligent and quite able to play as a creative midfielder or an attacking inside forward, just like Spain's World Cup-winning goal scorer.

In the past two years he's skipped up two age categories and his work in the Athletic second team last season means that he'll get some significant exposure in the senior squad this season -- indeed there are some who think that this Basque gem is already ready to play a handful of first-team games between now and Christmas.

Borja Viguera: one to cross your fingers for and wish him well.

Unai Lopez: one to cross the road and pay the entrance money to watch; a talent.

Athletic Club: unique in elite world football and a team that, perhaps, carry more neutrals with them over the next week than Napoli do.

But if they should make it to the Champions League and earn huge bushels of money, just remember that they won't be bidding for Radamel Falcao and Arturo Vidal. It's not "the Athletic way."

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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