BARRY HATTON

The Associated Press

BILBAO, Spain (AP) - Before home soccer games in this Basque city, local fans wearing their team's red-and-white jersey cram into bars and streets around the San Mames stadium and chant, full-throated, Athletic Bilbao's traditional call to arms.

"Athletic, let's go!" they roar in the Basque language, "You're in all our hearts, the people love you, because you were born of the people!"

That's no idle boast.

Spain's top soccer league is one of the best and richest in the world, with teams like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona enjoying seemingly bottomless reservoirs of cash to assemble - and just as swiftly scrap and remake - dream teams filled with the most talented feet on the planet.

Against such titans, Athletic Bilbao is a scrappy underdog that manages to keep its place year after year in the top league, lovingly shackled to a unique charter: The team hires only players from Basque Country, a proud and often troubled patch of Europe with a population of just 2.1 million.

The policy is all the more astonishing considering the mind-boggling transfer fees and dizzying team-hopping that characterize the elite leagues.

This summer Real Madrid spent a world record $130 million for superstar Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo. Barcelona's stable is a mishmash of locals and foreigners, including two Frenchmen, a Malian, an Icelander, a Mexican, an Ivorian, a couple of Argentines, a hat-trick of Brazilians, and a Swede.

Bilbao's policy stands in stark, and perhaps refreshing, counterpoint to growing cynicism about rich clubs "buying" championships and players ditching fans for the highest bidder. It also goes to the heart of the complicated history of this Delaware-sized region, where separatists have waged a long and bloody battle for independence from Spain.

Amid 21st-century globalization, on a continent that is scrapping its borders, Spain's Basques remain passionately rooted in their culture and identity, long suppressed under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco but now enjoying broadly autonomous government.

And while most do not support the violent Basque campaign for independence, they overwhelmingly see Basque land, sloping from the Pyrenees to a rugged Atlantic coast, as a nation unto itself.

As Spanish league play gets under way Sunday, Athletic Bilbao's 97-year-old player policy remains an expression of uncompromising allegiance to the Basque credo of stand-alone fortitude and fierce loyalty.

Besides Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao is the only club in "La Liga" never to have been relegated to the second division. However, its glory days of the 1980s - when it won both the Spanish league title and the cup - are gone, and the team these days muddles along in the lower half of the table.

Nonetheless, fans say they'd rather be sent down to second-division purgatory than allow "foreigners" - and by that they mean Spaniards, too - into the ranks of their soccer idols.

The sentiment comes loud and clear from 28-year-old Raul Villarino, slurping "kalimotxo," a local brew that mixes red wine and Coca-Cola, ahead of a preseason game with Barcelona. "We have to stick with (the Basques-only rule) till the end, all the way," he says.

Athletic Bilbao's principles overlap with the wider Basque cause which is based on "a cultural premise of Basque exceptionality a country within a country," says Joseba Zulaika, a professor with the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"The core argument is that it is a very special team, an exceptional team, and that this is part of Basque exceptionalism," Zulaika said in a telephone interview.

Basque nationalism has inspired violent rebellion, recognized with fear among Spaniards by three letters: ETA. It's the Basque-language acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque Homeland and Freedom.

Since it launched its offensive in 1968, the separatist group has killed more than 825 people. (Basque territory extends into France, where a much milder nationalist movement campaigns for political rights but not full-blown independence.)

ETA has been weakened by the arrests of its operatives in recent years. Its cause also suffered a political setback in March regional elections which brought in a pro-Spanish Basque government for the first time in nearly 30 years.

The radicals, though, are reluctant to unclench their fists. This month, they claimed responsibility for attacks that killed three people and wounded 60, including a July 30 bombing in Mallorca that killed two police officers.

In games at the Athletic Bilbao stadium, a group of a few hundred hard-core fans calling themselves "Herri Norte" (Basque for "People of the North") hold up ETA banners and sing "Let's kill a Spaniard" to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching in." (They sing it in Spanish, so Spaniards get the message.) This thuggishness never turns into brawls, however.

In last May's Spanish Cup final, Athletic Bilbao played against Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, another region that balks at Madrid's dominance despite having won extensive autonomy. The 45,000 spectators were united in one thing: they jeered King Juan Carlos and whistled throughout the Spanish national anthem.

Athletic Bilbao director Sandra Aurtenetxe says political associations with the club are "inevitable" but not encouraged.

Aurtenetxe credits the Basques-only policy with creating bonds of kinship that account for Bilbao being able to stay in La Liga since the league was created in 1929.

"It's where our special strength comes from," she says. "We have the passion, the drive to defend our interests, like a family."

And although players must be Basque, the rule set in 1912 does not extend to the team's coach, Joaquin Caparros, who is from Seville, at Spain's southern extreme.

Aurtenetxe explains that the Basques-only policy is an unwritten rule, "more like a philosophy." Thatallows some wiggle room when considering the eligibility of a player born outside the region but to Basque parents. It also perhaps shields Athletic from claims that it violates anti-discrimination laws.

European Commission employment spokeswoman Chantal Hughes said Brussels officials had received no complaint about Athletic's restrictions and aren't considering any action against it.

Officials at FIFA, world soccer's Zurich-based governing body, said they could think of no other team in the world with a similar policy. Athletic's restrictions don't contravene FIFA rules.

Still, they might seem odd for a club that was international by birth. It was founded 106 years ago by British workers at Bilbao's shipyards and Basque students returning from studies in Britain, which is why the team spells its name "Athletic."

When Athletic won the Spanish league and cup in 1984, 1 million people - about half the Basque population - lined the banks of the River Nervion, which cuts the city in half, to cheer the players who cruised along in a "gabarra," one of the old boats used to bring iron ore from the mountains.

That success on the field coincided with the decline of Bilbao's steel, iron and shipbuilding industries. Since then Bilbao has modernized and flourished, broadening its economic base to include services and tourism.

The long-standing player policy, however, shows no sign of weakening.

The club is owned by some 34,000 club members who pay annual dues, elect club officials and regard the Basques-only policy as a badge of honor.

Caparros, who has been a coach for 27 years, thinks the policy may be a signpost to the future. "Due to the financial crisis and clubs' mounting debts, there will be more and more pressure to develop local players," he said.

Athletic's entire annual budget of around Ǩ50 million (US$70 million) is only a fifth of what Real Madrid spent on players in the summer offseason.

The club has struggled in the last three seasons, but the tough times pulled local bonds tighter and attendance grew as relegation beckoned.

Basque history ensures one thing - Athletic Bilbao won't go down without a fight.