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  • Writer's pictureLouis Scattergood

Iker Muniain: The Lion King

It has been 90 seconds and it’s already getting heated on the pitch, but Dani García has the composure to take the ball out of the sky after a loose ball from Jordi Alba and send it back over the head of the full-back. Nico Williams has pace to burn and races beyond the recovering Barcelona defender, sliding a fizzing ball across the Barcelona box. Oihan Sancet has made a darting run into the six-yard box, but the ball flies beyond him, Ronald Araújo and Dani Alves. Iker Muniain finds himself with the ball and he already knows what he wants to do, he only needs three touches of the ball: control, out of his feet, and finish. With ethereal composure, he lofts the ball over Marc-André ter Stegen from an impossible angle and nestles the ball into the bottom corner. This is Iker Muniain.

Bilbao has forever upheld a deeply idiosyncratic culture and as a beacon for their people, this unsurprisingly bleeds into their football. Many football fans across the globe have come to know of and respect Athletic Club’s Basque-only policy that operates within the realms of identity and economy, maintaining multifaceted repercussions despite the philosophies around the club evolving and shifting with time.

Just over 155km southeast of Bilbao, in the city of Pamplona, a young Iker Muniain would grow up and progress through the youth ranks of UDC Txantrea, a small team currently in Tercera División RFEF, the fifth tier of Spanish football. However, by the age of 12, Iker was packing his bags and saying his goodbyes to those at the small Navarrese club as Athletic Club had been knocking on the boy’s door and resistance was not an option. Albeit only narrowly qualifying for Athletic Club’s strict recruitment selection, Iker was never going to pass this opportunity up.

Muniain rapidly made his mark on Lezama, building excitement around San Mamés with his gravitational control, electric on-the-ball movement and incalculable confidence. Fast forward to early 2008, a 15-year-old Iker Muniain found himself in the first team and shining in a friendly against local neighbours Amurrio.

His first-team debut came in July of the following year as Gaizka Toquero made way for Muniain in the 59th minute of a Europa League qualifying match against Young Boys. At the time, Iker became the youngest player in 94 years to wear an Athletic shirt in an official game at 16 years, 7 months and 11 days old. The return leg against the Swiss outfit saw the boy enter the club’s record books once again as he netted his first goal, scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory just three minutes after replacing Markel Susaeta. At this point, he was the joint-second youngest player to be on the scoresheet for Athletic.

By the end of the year, Iker had racked up another two impressive accolades, becoming the youngest Athletic player to feature in LaLiga (in a 1-0 home victory against Espanyol in August) and the youngest player to score in LaLiga (in a 2-2 draw at Real Valladolid in October).

The world began to compare the Navarrese talent to Lionel Messi as Muniain picked up the LaLiga breakthrough talent of the year award at the end of the 2010/11 season after enjoying a campaign of bringing fans to their feet and rooting goalkeepers to theirs. Joaquin Caparrós, the coach responsible for supporting Muniain’s breakthrough in the first team, was replaced by Marcelo Bielsa and from the left side of El Loco’s swashbuckling 3-3-3-1 formation, Muniain looked even more at home than he had before.

On 8th March 2012. the Basques make the treacherous journey to Old Trafford to take on one of the world’s most formidable and dangerous sides, Manchester United, in the Europa League. Nobody that entered through the turnstiles of the Theatre of Dreams that night or tuned into the television coverage of this game expected to be brought to their knees by the performance of a 19-year-old Navarrese talent when the likes of Wayne Rooney, Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente, Óscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera were on the field.

Despite only losing 3-2, the Red Devils were comprehensively dismantled and outplayed by Bielsa’s brilliant Basques, and Sir Alex Ferguson went on to admit that they were lucky to have an in-form David de Gea on that night. The Champions League runners-up and reigning English champions had been completely torn apart by a fearless, beguiling youngster who capped off a statement performance with a winning goal in the closing minutes.

Now at 29 years of age, San Iker has featured for Athletic Club on 496 occasions, scored 71 goals, provided 64 assists, maintained the captain’s armband for countless seasons and inspired the next generation of an already historically rich sporting institution.

However, ignoring the obvious statistics for a second, there really is something unequivocal about Muniain’s importance to Athletic beyond his leadership and output in front of the net. To put it into perspective, in the current LaLiga season alone, Muniain (59.6%) has a higher percentage of successful dribbles than Vinícius Júnior (49.6%), a better percentage for accurate passes than Yannick Carrasco (85.5% compared to 80.2%) and a higher xG than Nabil Fekir (6.96 versus 5.43).

To epitomise Iker Muniain’s passion for representing Athletic Club and its fans, the sport of football itself and being the captain of an extremely exciting group of players, then all you need to look for is Iker’s actions upon losing a final. In 2021, Athletic came up short against their eternal rivals, Real Sociedad, in 2020’s rescheduled Copa del Rey final. with his teammates heading down the tunnel, Iker stood and watched the entirety of La Real’s trophy lift and celebrations, applauding for the majority of it.

In the following season, Athletic would qualify for the Supercopa final after seeing off reigning LaLiga champions Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals but would fail to repeat those heroics against Los Blancos in the final. Muniain, once again, stood and took in the post-match celebrations of Real Madrid on his own.

The laws of biology state that it’s impossible for a lion to be cold-blooded, but there is no form of evidence that suggests Iker Muniain isn’t one of the most recognisable in the business when it comes to potency in attack. Systematically, Athletic Club have been struggling with finding the net over the past few seasons and have been in need of an adequate outlet for years, but Muniain has been one of the only bright sparks in this conundrum as the individual quality that he possesses is undoubtedly second-to-none.

If you display a footballing calibre that earns you the status of ‘the heir to Lionel Messi’ and you couple it with the heart of a lion, then you have one of the best captains that you could ever desire, otherwise known as Iker Muniain.

To track Muniain's leadership and that magnificent beard, follow us at @LaLigaLowdown on Twitter.

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