“Yes Isco, I stopped the silliness.” This was Asier Illarramendi’s first return to Anoeta since he decided to switch the blue and white stripes of Real Sociedad for the famous white of Real Madrid the previous summer. On the Saturday evening of 5 April 2014, on this occasion wearing his new club’s fetching orange away kit, he returned to the place that had been his footballing home for over a decade and had the ignominy to score the opening goal against his former team-mates, breaking the 30,000 Basque hearts inside the ground.
He waved an apologetic hand towards the angry crowd, looking a lot glummer than he had done before the match. As the two teams prepared to head out onto the pitch, he had been all smiles as he embraced his old friends and the Real Sociedad directors, before his new colleague Isco warned him to stay focused. “That’s the silliness over now, right?” the Andalusian asked with an ice cold stare. Illarramendi nodded and would soon prove to Isco that he was ruthless enough to wound his former team with his goal on the stroke of half-time.
Gareth Bale, Pepe and Álvaro Morata would add three more in the second 45 minutes to polish off a comfortable 4-0 win for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, and Illarramendi returned to the Spanish capital content with another three points and, deep down, pleased to have scored his second goal for his new club.
It had been a difficult first season for Illarra at the Santiago Bernabéu. He had been able to put together a few impressive performances, most notably in the second half of the 2013-14 season’s first Clásico when his introduction shortly after half-time made Real Madrid far more competitive in the centre of the park and almost provided them with a route back into the match, one which they ultimately lost 2-1 despite the former Real Sociedad player’s encouraging display.
The calming midfield presence he showed at the Camp Nou was exactly what he had been able to offer Real Sociedad the previous season, as they qualified for the Champions League, while he had done likewise during that summer’s UEFA European Under-21 Championship, which Spain won with him playing in every match. However, he also had some anxious performances to kick off that campaign, with the new arrival struggling to settle into his life as a €38 million Galáctico, the club’s most expensive Spaniard ever.
There was also the added pressure of being dubbed the new Xabi Alonso by every newspaper, every talk show and every Real Madrid-supporting granny in the city. It was an unfair and daunting comparison and was essentially a lazy one, borne out of the fact they were both Basque midfielders born just 30 kilometres away from each other, who had both come through the Real Sociedad academy. Stylistically, though, they were unique. “I’ve not got the long passes of Xabi Alonso in my locker and few players in the world do,” Illarramendi said in an interview with El País. “My game is more about short passing.”
It was like booking Dizzee Rascal to fill in for Adele just because they were from the same patch of land, but that wasn’t going to stand in the way of a simple and clickable narrative, so the player was consistently measured against his fellow midfield colleague, who was expected to leave the capital city club at the end of that 2013-14 season – which he duly did.
Illarramendi, a timid guy from the 5,000-population seaside town of Mutriku, was initially overwhelmed by the attention and, according to La Sexta, club doctors diagnosed him with stress shortly after his arrival. He missed his family and friends, which should have come as little surprise given that he had brought 31 of them along to his Real Madrid presentation, having hired them a coach and having organised for them to enjoy a privileged guided tour of the club’s Valdebebas facilities. “His umbilical cord with his hometown hadn’t broken despite his departure to become a Galáctico,” was the poetic way ABC described it.
Whatever way you looked at it, his arrival was an awkward one, not least when fans unsuccessfully urged him to kiss the club badge during his first day kickabout at the Bernabéu. There was even a sense that neither he nor Ancelotti were actually that keen for the transfer to go through. It was “a move driven by the boardroom more than the training ground”, as Sid Lowe put it on ESPN, while the player’s comments at his farewell press conference at Real Sociedad hinted at an initial hesitation on his part.
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“This was not an easy decision and it took some effort to make it because Real Sociedad has given me everything,” the visibly emotional then-23-year-old said. “I am what I am thanks to this club because I have spent 11 or 12 years here and that is why this was not an easy decision … but in football terms, it is something you can’t turn down.”
The phrase “football terms” was especially interesting, as Illarramendi was clearly swayed by the on-field opportunities Real Madrid could offer him, with the off-field extras not the driving force behind his decision. Some of his language also revealed that there was pressure from agents and advisors, with the player telling reporters that “although it is my decision, it is one we took together”.
He then ended that stirring press conference by promising to remain a fan from afar of the club he had supported throughout his childhood. “I feel the colours of the club and I will continue to do so as I am a ‘realista’ and I always will be.” As if that wasn’t enough of a wink towards a potential return, Illarramendi then spelt it out in simple Spanish guidebook-esque language.
“Quiero decir un ‘hasta luego’, no un ‘adiós’.” (I want to say a ‘see you later’, not a ‘goodbye’).
Sure, enough, he would eventually return, but not before a few more ups and downs at Real Madrid.
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Just three days after scoring at Anoeta, Illarramendi suffered the worst night of his Real Madrid career. His side travelled to Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion for the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final and, having earned a 3-0 win in the first game, it was supposed to be a comfortable evening for the Spanish side and for their young midfielder. Yet it was anything but.
Jürgen Klopp’s side, the runner-up the previous year, did not consider it a lost cause and subjected Los Blancos to über-pressure, with Illarramendi targeted in particular. He was forced into error after error and when he failed to control a simple pass from Sergio Ramos midway through the first half, the Germans pinched the ball and, one yellow blur of a counter-attack later, they were 2-0 up on the night.
Carlo Ancelotti was unimpressed and hooked Illarramendi at half-time, quite explicitly – and perhaps unfairly – pinning the blame for the first half collapse on him. Isco took his place and the Italian’s men were able to grind out a goalless second half to progress to the semi-final by the skin of their teeth.
From that night on, Illarramendi was hardly seen again in the blockbuster matches. He was trusted to play the final nine minutes of the semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich, but was overlooked for the second leg and was also left out during the final against Atlético Madrid in Lisbon. Even with Xabi Alonso suspended for the match and with Sami Khedira not fully fit, Ancelotti gave the Basque the cold shoulder and left him on the bench, playing the recently-injured German in his place.
In his absence, Illarramendi’s team-mates and the head of Sergio Ramos won him a Champions League medal and he was clearly thrilled to see his club secure La Décima, their 10th European Cup. He sprinted to the corner flag to celebrate the equaliser with as much gusto as the rest of his team-mates and joined in the celebrations at Cibeles Fountain with his own quiet giddiness.
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Yet the fact he had not participated in the match at the Estádio da Luz and the fact he was dressed up as a bull at Cibeles – referencing the moment earlier in the season when he’d been fined after taking part in a dangerous bull run during a holiday – served as a reminder as to how bittersweet his debut season in the capital had been. His name would be written into the club’s storied history as a member of the Décima-winning squad but the sulphurous local reaction to his Dortmund performance suggested there should be an asterisk next to the dozen letters of his surname to remind future fans that he almost blew it for them.
That was the beginning of end for his Real Madrid career. However, to his credit the midfielder refused to give up and, in his typical fashion, he dedicated himself to getting better. He Illarramendishly got his head down and tried his best to make 2014-15 a more successful year, but it was not going to be easy.
Xabi Alonso’s departure may have freed up the defensive midfield position, where Illarramendi felt most comfortable, but club president Florentino Pérez felt the European champions’ squad needed a topping up of its Galáctico balance and Toni Kroos touched down in the Spanish capital. Even though the German wasn’t as natural a defensive midfielder as Illarramendi, he was often preferred by Ancelotti and the Basque was given just 385 minutes of La Liga football before Christmas.
By the turn of the year it was becoming clear that Illarramendi’s future lay away from the Bernabéu. He knew it and the club knew it, which was why Pérez began to listen to offers for his signature, with an asking price of €28 million, while simultaneously bringing in Lucas Silva in the winter transfer window to begin a fresh defensive midfield project.
Athletic Club expressed their interest in signing Illarramendi, with the Bilbao-based club sensing an opportunity to add an elite player to their squad while maintaining their Basque-only signing policy. Loyal to Real Sociedad, the midfielder gave that proposal a body-swerve that his team-mate Gareth Bale would have been proud of and he remained at Real Madrid when the door of that transfer window slammed shut.
He didn’t receive much more playing time in the second half of that 2014-15 campaign, one which ended without any major trophies and one which pushed the player even closer to the exit door. Even with a coaching change in the dugout, the player looked for an exit and was pursued by a number of clubs, with a lucrative move to the Premier League on the table.
Yet there was only one place his heart would let him pick and so, on 26 August 2015, Real Sociedad’s own prodigal son returned home after two years in the big city. This was not, though, giving up. This was a giving back.
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“I came to Real Sociedad as a boy and I leave as a man,” Illarramendi had said at his farewell press conference two years previously. Yet a more accurate comment would have been: “I came to Real Sociedad as a boy, I leave as a young adult and I will one day come back as an experienced and battle-hardened Champions League winner.”
With Real Madrid keen to move on from what they considered a failed experiment to replace Xabi Alonso, Real Sociedad paid €23 million less for Illarramendi than they received for him in 2013, even though they were welcoming home a more mature footballer than the one they had waved goodbye to.
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As a 25-year-old with a two-year internship at Real Madrid on his CV, Illarramendi was a hot property that summer, but he rejected the advances from the cash-rich Premier League sides willing to line his pockets with their TV money in order to dedicate his prime years to Real Sociedad by signing a six-year contract.
“When I had the idea of leaving Real Madrid, my only intention was to return to Real Sociedad and I am where I want to be,” he said upon his return, having taken a pay cut in order to come back to Anoeta and having rejected the higher salary Athletic Club had offered him, according to Basque media outlets El Correo and COPE Gipuzkoa.
“There were several options for me to consider, but my decision was quite clear,” the player said of his selection process. “Returning home is never a backwards step and I saw a return to Real Sociedad as a great opportunity. I’ve always seen it as a great club and I’ve kept in contact with my former team-mates. I do understand that people that were upset about me leaving. I came through the youth ranks here and I’d initially wanted to stay here for a long time, but there was a unique opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. People will see that I’m going to give 100 percent for Real Sociedad on the pitch.”
Elaborating further on what he believed he could offer the team, Illarramendi explained to fans at the press conference held to mark his triumphant return that his development at the Bernabéu had made him a better and more-rounded player. “Over the last two years I’ve matured a lot, I’ve had new experiences, I’ve won four trophies, I’ve met new people and I’ve trained with the best players in the world,” he said.
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Real Sociedad fans – who flocked to the club shop to buy his shirt, suggesting he was quickly forgiven – were similarly optimistic as to what he could offer then-coach David Moyes. “His return shows ambition and should help us take the next step,” one fan explained in a bar next to Anoeta before Illarra made his second debut against Sporting Gijón. “He can control the tempo of a game,” said another. “Well, he might not solve our goalscoring problems, but he’ll protect us at the back and we’ll probably draw 0-0 today,” proposed one other fan, who turned out to be completely correct in his matchday prediction.
There were several more results as disappointing as the Sporting stalemate before the local superstar’s homecoming proved to be the kickstart that the club had hoped for. David Moyes was shown the door in November 2015 after a tricky start to the campaign and was replaced by former Barcelona B coach Eusebio. The Txuri Urdin went on to win nine of their 19 matches in the second half of the LaLiga season once the new man’s methods began to take hold, setting La Real up to fight for a European spot in 2016-17.
That is exactly what they have been doing, with Illarramendi and his midfield sidekick David Zurutuza the engine room of a team that has won eight of its first 15 league games of the campaign, claiming the scalp of Atlético Madrid in the process and even playing Barcelona off the park in a 1-1 draw in November.
Lining up in the centre of the midfield in the team’s 4-3-3 formation, he plays like a basketball point-guard, always offering his team-mates a pass out of a sticky situation and then spreading it forward to his colleagues. Everything they do goes through him. In attack, Illarramendi is the messenger who receives the ball from the defence and who passes it forward to their front three, while out of possession he is the queen bee who leads their swarm of pressure, cutting off the opposition’s passing lanes.
He is clearly a is a cut above the rest in this successful Real Sociedad team, but he doesn’t play with the air of superiority of other players who have left superclubs like Real Madrid to play at B-grade or C-grade clubs. The most obvious explanation for that is the fact that Illarramendi has chosen to be at Anoeta. His goal is not to be the star, but to use his star-calibre talents to help his boyhood club.
He did not return to Real Sociedad with his tail between his legs, begging to be taken back because he had given up at Real Madrid. No, he returned to San Sebastían to give back to the club where he considered it an honour to wear – and kiss – the badge. There were plenty of other potential landing spots when he decided to leave Los Blancos behind and, according to Vicente del Bosque, he could have played for any team in the world.
But he chose to play for his team, for his Real Sociedad. Many players return to their former clubs, but most do so when there’s not much left in the tank to offer. Asier Illarramendi, on the other hand, is 26 and in the prime of his career, and he’s proudly wearing the shirt he always dreamed of wearing. That is to be commended, not sneered at.
By Euan McTear. Follow @emctear