La Liga Lowdown
How Athletic Club’s Circle Of Life Approach Develops Spain’s Best Goalkeepers
Written by Sam Leveridge
You don’t have to be an expert about Spanish football to know that there’s something special about Athletic Club. You don’t even need to be an expert in football at all to recognise it. The videos going viral of blocks of flats in Bilbao with balconies draped in flags and scarves, or residents singing the club anthem, say it all. There’s something in the water in Bilbao. And that something in the water makes for good goalkeepers too.
In 2019/20, three of LaLiga’s top goalkeepers have all begun their careers at Athletic. Unai Simón is the one to don the shirt for the club where all three have come through the ranks, whilst Alex Remiro is excelling at rivals Real Sociedad after a controversial move last summer. At Levante, Aitor Fernández has been one of the surprise packages of this season, making 131 saves to date, 32 more than his nearest competitor.
That is to be added to others. Kepa Arrizabalaga left the club for Chelsea for an €80 million fee to become the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, whilst the likes of Iago Herrerín are other examples of veterans who are still playing at an elite level in the twilight of their careers. All of that follows the rich history of top-class goalkeepers like José Ángel Iribar, Andoni Zubizarreta and Gorka Iraizoz.
“Success does not happen by chance over so many years. Great goalkeepers have distinguished Athletic over its history,” explains Gaizka Atxa, President of Mr Pentland, Athletic’s UK-based supporters’ club. Defensive strength has been the basis for all of Athletic’s recent success, and building out from the back is where it begins, starting with an elite goalkeeper. But just where do Athletic get so many brilliant shot-stoppers from?
Beginning as kids
Dan Parry of La Liga Lowdown and The Txoko Pod, believes that it’s in the blood. “A lot of traditional Basque sports like pelota, aizkolaritza, barrenak and especially harrijasotze, all focus on certain physical attributes that make good goalies: power, speed, bravery, discipline.”
Indeed, the typical Spanish stereotype of a Basque man is just that. Big, burly and bearded. These sports fuel that stereotype. Pelota, played with a long, curved glove to catch the ball and rebound it against a wall, is attributed to the good reflexes and reaction times of many Basque goalkeepers who come through. Others, like aizkolaritza and barrenak, involved the chopping of wood, whilst harrijasotze involves lifting huge stones onto your shoulders. Strength is key.
There is no better example than Julen Lopetegui. The now-Sevilla coach began his playing career as a goalkeeper at neighbouring Basque rival, Real Sociedad, but grew up with a sports star of a father. José Antonio Lopetegui was the Lionel Messi of harrijasotze, lifting a 100-kilogramme rock 22 times in a minute.
One study, by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, points to the Basque Country as the only area of Spain to have such a strong concentration of genes from the Iron Age. This genetic make-up is what the study argues has led to the greater physicality of Basques than when compared to their compatriots.
With the DNA in their favour and childhood sports which further drive home the key attributes required to be a top goalkeeper, there is plenty of potential for many youngsters who break through. Athletic do what is required to nurture those talents and turn them into some of the best goalkeepers in the game.
With the perfect upbringing
Great goalkeepers don’t simply walk off the pelota court and on to a football field, though. Nestled in among the mountains of the Basque Country, just a 20-minute drive from the famous “Cathedral” of football, is Lezama, Athletic’s famous training ground.
Youth teams and the first team train side by side, with a strong link between the two. There are in fact 17 teams across both sexes and ranging from the age of 11 to the first team who train within distance of one wayward shot. Coaches will often work between the two, and two of the last three managers in the San Mamés dugout have come directly from the club’s B team to leading the first team.
Between 2013 and 2020, €26 million was invested in Lezama by Athletic and this investment plan only looks set to step up. The club’s Basque-only transfer policy may limit their options, but it means that many of the transfer fees they receive are invested directly into the youth system which helps to produce the next generation of talents.
State-of-the-art technology and approaches are used as big data is collected even on training sessions. Coaches insist on a focus on conditioning and nutrition, developing the strengths that are required to become talented players who can sustain the challenges of the modern game.
The right guidance
Another element key to the success of bringing young goalkeepers is the experience on offer. That starts with Athletic’s circle of life. The presence of legendary goalkeepers like Iribar who take to the training ground to coach and work with youngsters. Athletic encourage former players to take sessions with youngsters, helping them to get their coaching badges, and that’s a route that many goalkeepers have gone down. In fact, many past players were involved in the renovation of facilities at Lezama.
“Since his retirement as a professional footballer, Iribar has remained involved in Lezama, and early on he helped develop the club's goalkeeper-specific training, which even includes a mini-field at the top of the hill,” explains Ander Sahonero of Peña Athletic Club California.
“Former players are always happy to support Lezama training programs. Sharing this knowledge is key to passing it on to new players,” adds Gaizka Atxa of Mr Pentland.
Leading that effort is Aitor Iru. He came through the ranks as a goalkeeper at Athletic himself, playing for Bilbao Athletic, the club’s B team, before eventually moving on to play in the lower leagues, featuring in Segunda for the likes of Almería and Eibar. “Iru comes from a pure football family. His brother was a goalkeeper at Athletic Club, his son is a goalkeeper currently with Bilbao Athletic, his nephew is a footballer and if I'm not mistaken his father-in-law played for Atlético Madrid,” Dan Parry explains.
As soon as he turned to coaching, the solution was clear. He began at Bilbao Athletic, returning to the club in 2008. Whilst also scouting local goalkeepers across the Bizkaia region and running weekly clinics for youngsters in his free time, he impressed with his work on the training ground. In 2011, Marcelo Bielsa arrived and promoted him to the first team, where he would remain under the Argentinian and Ernesto Valverde.
Kuko Ziganda’s appointment saw him bring his own staff but Iru did not consider abandoning ship, instead returning to Bilbao Athletic, working with youngsters, until he would again return to the first-team set-up when Gaizka Garitano, his former Eibar team-mate, was appointed in 2018.
“He's been a constant presence in Lezama for over 10 years and has trained every goalkeeper in the club's top teams,” Ander explains. This approach, with Iru having worked with Fernández, Kepa, Remiro and Simón, has been key to the progression of talent, providing the connection from the club’s academy right through to the first team. It’s a step up that many have found easy to make at San Mamés.
Stars reaching the top
“The goalkeepers get chances whenever the first team requires it, regardless of our policy. We have built it in our DNA to always first look at Lezama, rather than what's elsewhere in the market,” Gaizka Atxa insists. The last goalkeeper that Athletic signed was Herrerín, who joined eight years ago in July 2012, having left Athletic for Atlético Madrid only two years previously. Before him it was Iraizoz in 2007.
“That sends a visual message to the youth players that if you're coming through the system, you'll get every opportunity to make it all the way up the pyramid,” says Ryan Maquiñana, president of Peña Athletic Club California.
The circle of life continues, too. When Athletic made the short trip to face minnows Sestao River in the Copa del Rey, Simón fell ill and third-choice Jokin Ezkieta was unable to travel. It was Iru’s son, Ander, who stepped up to take a place on the bench.
But that is simply the beginning for goalkeepers at Athletic. The chance will come to those who are good enough, even if the flow of quality players means that some, like Fernández, are forced to look elsewhere. Those who do make it, don’t stop there.
David de Gea’s inconsistent form for Spain and Manchester United, whilst Kepa and Simón have risen to the fore, means that Spain could be looking at having a Basque number one for the first time since Zubizarrieta, who registered 126 caps, the highest figure for a goalkeeper until Iker Casillas overtook him. Given that only one year of those caps came while with Athletic, the prospect of Athletic’s number one also donning that shirt for his country is one that excites fans.
“For me Simón is by far the best Spanish keeper in La Liga at the moment. He's certainly in better form than de Gea and Kepa,” Dan Parry claims. The postponement of Euro 2020 has given his rivals another chance, but it may well have given Simón the chance to prove his credentials to Luis Enrique.
Kepa, Simón and Remiro are the leading lights of the latest era of Basque goalkeepers and more could soon follow in their footsteps. The work of Iribar, Iru and Athletic’s focus on creating a spiral of talent and knowledge-sharing has created a sustainable approach that looks set to last for some time. Athletic are in safe hands. Soon, Spain could be too, thanks to the work done at Lezama.
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