From Sid Lowe’s Monday piece on SI.com, on Athletic Bilbao defender Jonas Ramalho:
Ramalho is an 18-year-old who can play at right back and center back and on this occasion was asked to play in central midfield. He is tall and quick, he is good in possession, he is Iker Muniaín’s best friend, and he is a European Champion at the U19 level.
He is also black.
Ramalho is the first black player ever to play for the club.
It has taken over 100 years for a black player to make his debut for Athletic. A couple of others have been close: in the 1950s there was talk that they might sign Miguel Jones, born in Equatorial Guinea, but the club decided against it. Half a century later, there were rumours of them signing another man with roots in Equatorial Guinea: the midfielder Benjamín Zarrandona.
In 2009, Benjamín told a Spanish radio station: “Athletic wanted to sign me when I was still playing at Valladolid. Some said that the reason they didn’t was the color of my skin. Luis Fernández [the coach] told me that and so did someone else. Members have a vote [in presidential elections]. We’re talking 10 years ago — it was not like it is now.”
When the revelation was made, Miguel Jones’s case was revisited. Some raised the old specter: Athletic as a racist club. Jones had lived in the Basque Country since he was 5, played football in the Basque Country and ended teaching economics at Deusto University in the Basque Country. But, some said, he was black. And that was why Athletic would not sign him. Jones, though, was having none of it. “The idea that I didn’t play for Athletic because I was black is media rubbish,” he said recently. “They didn’t sign me because I was not from [the Basque province of] Vizcaya. I was born in Equatorial Guinea [in 1938] and came to the Bilbao at the age of 4.”
Lowe’s piece, titled Jonas Ramalho helping to dispel longstanding Athletic Bilbao myth, goes on to discuss the problems constructing a Basque identity. As the case of Venezuelan international Fernando Amorebieta shows, Basque-ness (as it applies to Athletic’s standards) is not a static thing. As Lowe notes, Athletic’s policies are now like most national teams, something others could see as maleable to the team’s interests.
Lowe on Amorebieta:
Defender Fernando Amorebieta was born in Venezuela. His parents are both Basque, from Vizcaya. At the age of 2, the family returned to the Basque Country; it was more than 20 years before Fernando visited his country of birth again. Amorebieta is more Basque than Venezuelan — but recently made his debut for Venezuela. If his status as an Athletic-eligible player is questionable, his status as a Venezuelan is too.
Then again, Venezuela is a national team. Athletic Bilbao is not.
For some time now, the club has be aggrandized for exclusionary policies that limit places in the team to players of Basque-descent, a policy that can be seen as walking a precarious line between promoting a minority group’s culture and being an antiquated, segregationist system.
I tend to side with the latter view. If these policies were instituted somewhere other than the soccer realm, we would consider them benign at best. They wouldn’t be celebrated as much as permitted. Instead, among many soccer fans, Athletic is the little club that could, an underdog story contrived by their own curious approach when in the big picture they aren’t much of an underdog at all.
The Ramalho story (and Lowe’s telling of it) helps address the idea that race was an exclusionary factor in Athletic’s policies. As Lowe says, the policy is not about color, but color is a consequence. And perhaps that’s part of the point.
Bad policies, philosophically dubious in their own right, often have very bad consequences.