More than ever, the cult of personality is going mainstream in football. Taken in its common political context, that phrase refers to state propaganda creating an idealised and infallible leader; in football that doesn’t translate perfectly. Yet in a media-sphere of soundbites, ‘stans’ and an oscillating narrative which has every manager as a success or a failure, there is definite crossover. Whether it be a brash, rambunctious rebel or the praise-happy idealist, having an easily defined hero as the face and persona of the club is important. Think of the top managers in your league of choice, how many maintain a low-profile? At Rayo Vallecano, perhaps Spain’s most politically conscious fanbase, Andoni Iraola quietly works – the very antithesis of this flourishing cult.
Amassing 543 appearances over a 14-year playing career in Bilbao, he played at least 30 league games in 12 of those seasons. Iraola was a totem of consistency, synonymous with professionalism – “a luxury to coach” according to Joaquín Caparrós.
Always the inquisitive type in Caparrós’ opinion, he spent a season in New York before embarking on a managerial career just six months later at AEK Larnaca in Cyprus. Brought in by Jordi Cruyff, it would be a short and steep learning curve, where he would last just six months. Journalist for the Cyprus Mail Kyri Nicolaou (@NicolaouKyri) points out that he did guide them to the Europa League group stage for just the second time in the club’s history, as well as securing the Cypriot Super Cup. Regardless, the solid start gave way to a run of eight winless games late in the year and he was home just after the Three Kings delivered their gifts.
“Despite this, I remember opinions at the time not attributing full blame to Iraola. There was an acceptance at the time that the AEK roster was in need of renewal and that some players needed shipping out. Of course, club culture is such that the manager is more likely to be shown the door,” observes Nicolaou.
Not dissuaded by this early disappointment, Iraola took over at Mirandés in the small town of Miranda del Ebro, where the hills climb towards the mountains of his native Basque country. Having lost their manager who won promotion to the Segunda, the forecast was not altogether bright, and relegation rumbled in the distance. Iraola began the season with an anaemic squad of just 12 players, less than ideal conditions for a rookie.
Yet it worked. Or rather, he made it work. There was no great commotion amongst the media, nor would there be a clamour about a young manager reinventing the game. Mirandés were good but not swashbuckling, solid without venturing into the territory of turgid. Yet Spain really did have to take notice of the humble right-back as Mirandés found holes in Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal before finally succumbing to Real Sociedad in a historic Copa del Rey run to the semi-finals. In total they found the net on 10 occasions against first-division opposition.
“What we saw then was a team far inferior to their opponents, but one that just knew how to approach the game,” recalls the author of Working Class Heroes, Robbie Dunne (@robbiejdunne). “[Iraola] understood what was required; not just sitting back and defending for their lives, but actually being able to hurt the opposition. That’s very rare and what made it special is that he didn’t just do it once but several times, which would exclude the idea that it was luck.”
Finishing the season in comfortable fashion, Iraola left Mirandés in 11th place; as close to the promotion play-offs as they were to relegation. He was rewarded with more resources and a bigger club in the job at Rayo Vallecano, but neither is it an altogether easy situation. The aforementioned politically conscious support at Vallecas are not afraid to manifest themselves and do so regularly - often against their ownership.
Most recently and comically, their protest took the form of fans arriving in hazmat suits to disinfect the stadium after an unwanted politician was invited by chairman Raúl Martín Presa. This was the latest in a string of actions which have left the club in a continuous civil war as fans rail against ownership. The disinfection incident was a clever and eye-catching demonstration, but a poignant reminder of the strain and pain surrounding los franjirrojos.
“The fans were very hurt with the last spell of Paco Jémez and many thought that it was a necessity to have a manager from outside the Rayo entorno. That way, they would be free of links and relationships to anyone else in Vallecas,” says Marcos Dieguez (@markitulis), who covers the team for Unión Rayo.
“He’s very unassuming. You have a manager who was raised in Bilbao and so has a sense of calm and stability rather than chaos. Iraola has done a good job of separating himself from Presa; it’s almost as if Rayo the football team are separate from Presa and what is going outside of it,” commends Dunne.
Iraola might not be as idiosyncratic as his peers, but he does have a look. As he is quizzed in press rooms, he exhibits a quirk: squinting as he focuses his gaze on the question being put to him. Sometimes on a pitch, you can see the moment a player realises which pass to play or move to makes, like being granted the briefest of glimpses into the mind of another. Similarly, when Iraola scrutinises with his eyes, you can see the care with which he uses his words, the conscious consideration of the matter at hand. Carefully, he has managed the not insignificant feat of remaining apolitical.
Returning to this lionisation of managers and this need for their personality to define the club, Iraola remains anomalous. Both Dieguez and Dunne reference Paco Jémez and Míchel as managers who were unable to resist the political battlefield of Vallecas.
In decades past, it was the players who provided the personality. The stars themselves made a team relatable or admirable, they were the method of identification with the fans. Best exemplified by Diego Maradona’s Neapolitan adventure or George Best’s Mancunian antics, with today’s players cowed by the potential loss of financial incentives, it has been left to the Jürgen Klopps and José Mourinhos to play this part of the pantomime.
People like to see a simple set of attributes to which they can attach themselves and to be able to see themselves in their football teams. Sociology describes football fandom in much the same way that it does religion and like religion, football prefers identity to be as concrete as possible on the surface.
Yet both on a personal and a footballing level, Iraola shrouds himself in nuance. Last season Rayo beat Iraola’s former employers Mirandés 2-0 with 38% of possession, before promptly losing the following week with 63% of the ball. With Iraola there is no sacred style he prioritises above all others. There are tenets of play visible in his Rayo; good pressing, fast ball circulation and bravery in possession. Still, none of these take preference over what the game itself demands.
He is one of the few managers to have been coached by Marcelo Bielsa yet to be labelled as one of his ‘disciples’. In the followings of Bielsa and Maradona, perhaps football comes closest to theology. In contrast, perhaps the closest comparison we could make to Iraola, if we had to, comes in the form of Ernesto Valverde.
“You’re probably in the right neck of the woods,” agrees Dieguez. “In character and in public, he is respectful, polite and jovial like Valverde, a lover of order in terms of play but he has a little of all [his former coaches]. From Bielsa, he takes the boldness and is highly demanding, and from [José Luis] Mendilibar he has a nobility.”
“He said coming into the season that you’re going to see a very different Rayo this year, one that is going to have to sit back, to suffer, to defend against the better teams,” recalls Dunne. “At times when they’ve gone ahead, they’ve been able to see it out… in times gone by Rayo would have got nervous or capitulated, but they’ve been solid. I think that’s all on Iraola – it’s not because a specific player or group, it’s just they look really well-coached.”
“You notice his experience as a player,” says Dieguez, delving deeper into the man. “Looking from the outside, he looks after his players and cuts a trusted figure, who transmits calm to everyone. What I’m sure of is that he must be very demanding and very hard-working, that he doesn’t like attracting attention. Stability and calm.”
Doubtless there is an earnest aspect to him. Putting together the puzzle from the clues available in press conferences and anecdotes, Iraola doesn’t feel like a person who would suffer fools lightly. Yet he does so without an excess of drama. Iraola appears to prove you can maintain high standards without the puritanism or tyranny the footballing public is accustomed to from their managers.
In his ‘Diary of a Journey Through Spain’, German geographer Alexander von Humboldt wrote that "The Basques are courteous and agreeable and have a trustworthy bearing. Their houses and their clothes are clean and their customs make their land a pleasant place.” While always being suspicious of generalisations, one can imagine Iraola’s football team is pleasant to play in and his house is clean. On a wider level, it’s reassuring that there is room for an Andoni Iraola in today’s football; that there is still space for balance, that not every personality must be loud in this very noisy sport.
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