Football’s ‘cantera’ policy: The last bastions of homegrown talent?

The modern game has become a truly international spectacle, especially at the highest levels, with top teams featuring the best athletes from across the globe. Some sides may field full teams that do not feature any players of the nationality of their home country.

However, that’s not the case for all teams.

Across the world’s top divisions, there are a very small handful of clubs actively combating this move away from homegrown, domestic talent. They have chosen to impose voluntary restrictions on the players they can field and sign.

Three in particular have imposed this focus on homegrown talent through their ‘cantera’ policies, preventing the clubs from signing or fielding players who do not meet the self-imposed criteria. These restrictions are not written rules, but rather choices that have become so ingrained in the club’s history and tradition that they are a part of the clubs’ identities.

The most well-known of these clubs to have imposed these kind of restrictions on players is Spanish side Athletic Bilbao.

Since 1912, the side from northern Spain have adhered to an unwritten rule of only signing players with some kind of connection to the Basque region – the semi-autonomous region of Spain where Athletic Bilbao are based. Despite the policy not being included in the Athletic Bilbao handbook, the restriction has become a deeply ingrained part of the club’s tradition and identity, and continues to this day.

The club’s motto for the cantera policy is “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” which loosely translates to “with home-grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners” in English.

It is a policy not without controversy and unfortunate consequences – such as Athletic Bilbao having not fielded a black footballer until 2011 – but has also been praised for the work it does in helping develop local talent.

In principal, all players to wear Athletic Bilbao’s famous red and white shirt should have either been born in the Basque country, have strong familial links to the region or have “learned their football skills at a Basque club”. While the Spanish top division side has been criticised by fans of stretching that last definition at times, the club has always largely stuck to the signing policy, giving the team a clear identity and helping train the region’s young prospective stars.

However, while maybe best known, Athletic Bilbao aren’t the only club to have implemented such a system.

CD Guadalajara, or Chivas as they’re commonly known, are a Mexican first division side who similarly adhere to a self-imposed restrictive policy when it comes to their players.

The club has a policy of fielding exclusively Mexican footballers – the only top-flight team to do so in the North American country – and spends much of its time developing homegrown talent. Many internationally-successful Mexican footballers, including Omar Bravo, Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, all began their careers at Chivas.

In Ecuador, CD El Nacional are also noteworthy for having a tradition of only ever fielding Ecuadorian players, since the club’s inception back in 1954.

All three clubs have taken significant, and drastic, steps to help develop homegrown talent, but they have been successful along the way too. Both Athletic Bilbao and Chivas were founding members of their respective countries’ top-flight divisions. Neither have ever been relegated.

Bilbao are joined by just Real Madrid and Barcelona in being the three sides ever-present in La Liga, and while the club are not necessarily competing at the same level each season as those top two sides they have won the Spanish top flight eight times since 1929 (the fourth most times of any club), and the Copa del Rey a remarkable 23 or 24 times – with the official number disputed – which is second to only Barcelona.

Chivas are no less impressive, either. As one of only two Mexican sides never relegated from the top division, alongside their rivals Club America, they have lifted the trophy 12 times and are one of Mexico’s most successful clubs.

Even El Nacional have had a remarkable history, having won the Ecuadorian top flight 13 times (one less than the top club) and having represented their country in the South American Copa Libertadores competition 22 times – more than any other club in Ecuador.

Clearly, there is some success to be found in cantera policies, and while its not a policy that would suit every club or every fanbase, the existence of these clubs is a welcome and important reminder to the modern game not to forget about the homegrown talent that is available all around major clubs.

Athletic Bilbao, Chivas and El Nacional have all taken extreme methods to ensure they spend the time and resources developing those youngsters, but they are a testament to other clubs just what success you can have when you do just that.

Especially in a modern game ruled by astronomical transfer fees, much can be said for shifting perspective and focusing some of those funds into a club’s academy and development programmes.

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