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STEPPING OFF THE PLATFORM at the Abando train station and into its main corridor, you are immediately reminded of where you are. As your footsteps take you through clouds of tobacco smoke and the distinct smell of freshly brewed cortados, you encounter a giant stained glass window. A journey deep into a city’s soul, each piece has been coloured by metallic salts, expertly pieced together in order to tell their story.

The Basilica of Begoña takes centre stage, flanked by the bridge of San Antón, quaint farmhouses, laboured steelworkers, determined fishermen and competitive rowers. Each represents a small morsel of the Basque way of life, and more specifically, Bilbao.

This is a city whose inhabitants bear scars and pain, the likes of which cannot often be viewed by the naked eye. It lingers beneath the surface, cultivated over decades by the worst kind of war and the fascism that rose from the ashes. As a result, strength and perseverance are the ingredients that make up their present day exterior.

Many people label Bilbao as an industrial city, but that fits its inhabitants just fine. When the Basque population was polled by Euskadi for a study on their highest ranking values, family and work topped the list. When describing that work ethic, the study went on: “The Basques have a strong work ethic, which explains their reputation as a hard-working people. A century and a half of industrial experience has developed an enterprising spirit and tenacious discipline among the population, in addition to technical expertise and an appreciation for a job well done and appropriately compensated.”

These are qualities that have permeated through all levels of industry, all the way down to its football club. In a sports world increasingly ruled by globalisation, exorbitant sums of money and the players themselves, Athletic Club remains one of the last still clinging to their identity. They live by their philosophy – Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” – which translates to ‘With homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need imports’.

For 119 years, the only players to have ever slipped on the famous red and white shirt have been born from communities of the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain and the Northern Basque Country in France. The Basques-only policy is not written anywhere in the club’s bylaws, so it is not an official rule. If Athletic’s hierarchy wanted to alter course much like their neighbours at Real Sociedad, which had a similar policy until 1989 – when it was abandoned for competitive reasons – there is nothing there infringing them from doing so. 

It’s a policy many sceptics have argued has held the club back from reaching their full potential, but as one of only three sides to have never been relegated from La Liga – the others being Barcelona and Real Madrid – their resolve is only further emboldened.

With a talent pool roughly the population size of Wales, Athletic’s cantera, or youth academy, serves as the lifeblood of the first team. Much like Barcelona’s famed La Masia, the Lezama nurtures its players normally beginning around the age of 10 through a developmental program centred around the club and its values. Through this development, kids will advance by age group every season through Infantil, Cadete and Juvenil levels, until ultimately reaching the club’s reserve side, Bilbao Athletic. 

For some, this is a path not always travelled, and for one curious boy in San Sebastián, football was once just a figment of his imagination.

 

Planting the seeds

 

Growing up, Aritz Aduriz wasn’t like most of the children his age. While most were kicking footballs or playing with their toy du jour, Aduriz was busy scaling mountains by hand or board. During the summer months, he surfed some of the best waves San Sebastián had to offer and biked for miles throughout the backwoods of Spain.

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These passions were instilled in him by his parents, whose wishes for their son had substituted the traditional family gatherings around Real Sociedad matches for the adrenaline rushes of extreme sports and a sense of oneness with nature. Through years of rigorous training, he had become so good and well-rounded that, at the age of nine, he entered Spain’s national cross country championships.

Matched up against full-grown men, some of whom were three times his age, Aduriz finished in second place. Despite the stunning accomplishment and the apparent talent for it all, the young boy still felt a void. Although he would discover it far later than most, Aduriz’s appreciation for the beautiful game would develop on the windswept shores of La Concha beach.

Due to its unique geography, pitches were often only playable every 15 days when, with the tide sufficiently out for just five hours, the teams slated to play first would run out and get straight to work. Nets and goal frames would be taken from out storage hut’s close by while the player with the largest foot size would use the studs of his boots and his heel to mark out the pitch. For those five hours, Aduriz learned the invaluable lessons of working hard and teamwork.

The team aspect was of particular interest to him, as it was so far gone from the individualism that surfing and biking so readily supplied. Despite his parents’ repeated efforts to convince him otherwise, Aduriz joined Real Sociedad’s feeder club Antiguoko with his beach buddies Mikel Arteta, Andoni Iraola and the Alonso brothers, Xabi and Mikel. “My mum and dad were very sporty but they were never into football,” Aduriz said. I remember I had to persuade them to let me play and even then they insisted that I prioritise surfing over football.”

Playing alongside some of best talent the Basque region had to offer, Aduriz was able to pick their brains for knowledge that was invaluable to his understanding of the game. Their chemistry would eventually become a scintillating mixture to the point that Antiguoko’s matches on the weekends became a must-see event.

As word eventually made its way out from San Sebastián, scouts from all of Spain’s largest clubs were flocking to catch a glance. Real Sociedad became enamoured with the Alonso brothers and believed they had seen enough promise. Subsequently, they were signed to their youth side at the ages of 15. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta was contacted by Barcelona’s representatives and offered the chance to join their youth ranks. He accepted, leaving Aduriz as the only one left.

Eventually, Segunda División club Aurrerá de Vitoria would come calling. By no means was it his first choice, but with opportunities few and far between, Aduriz took on the challenge. Playing in 25 games that season, he managed to score a grand total of eight goals. Fortunately for him, two of those would come in a 3-2 away win at Lezama, the hallowed Athletic Club training ground.

Although his introduction to the sport had come later than most, Aduriz was able to continuously show progression. The Segunda in Spain, particularly in the Basque region, is notorious for aerial attacking play. Some say the ball spends more time in the air than the ground, oftentimes leaving the players with the best heading skills to thrive. For Aduriz, it wasn’t a talent that came naturally at first but in the end, the lessons proved to be vital.

As he prepared for the upcoming season, a call would finally arrive that he had always been hoping for. Only it wasn’t from his hometown club Real Sociedad – it was from their arch rivals.

 

A dream finally realised

 

Stepping off the bus for the first time, Aritz Aduriz didn’t recognise his surroundings. The facade of the building was adorned with an intimidating lion decal, supported by a massive Athletic Club sign above that was coloured in their rich and famous red. He was now 19-years-old, the elder statesmen if you will, but none of that mattered. The only thing Aduriz saw was an opportunity.

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Ninety appearances and two long years later, Aduriz was promoted to the senior side with German coach Jupp Heynckes handing him his debut game against Barcelona. Lined up against the likes of Xavi, Carles Puyol and Juan Román Riquelme, Aduriz had finally arrived. Then he left again.

Three appearances for a total of 54 first-team minutes was all he would get before he was packing his bags, loaned to Burgos. One season there would see him score 16 in 36 matches before he was sold to third-tier side, Valladolid. A year-and-a-half and 20 goals later, he was on his way back to Athletic. More refined and game ready than his initial stint, he scored 22 goals in over 82 appearances.

Unfortunately for him, there was a younger and more well-regarded striker already at the club — Fernando Llorente. Minutes became harder to come by and the writing slowly revealed itself on the wall. Manager Joaquín Caparrós thought he was covered with Llorente and Ion Vélez, and with the club needing money, Aduriz was shipped to Mallorca. Athletic supporters protested the decision on its own but it was only made worse when Mallorca, in administration, didn’t pay the €5 million owed.

Finally given the chance to man a line of his own, he managed to be the team’s top scorer in the two years he spent there; scoring 11 goals in the first and 12 in his second year. The second year also saw the Balearic side finish fifth and secure qualification into the Europa League. Still, Athletic weren’t impressed.

He was now 29 and at the supposed peak of his career. A player whose pace had always been questioned was now worse off and his nomadic travels only further plummeted his value. Valencia seemed impressed enough, though, and they soon brought him to the Mestalla for about €4 million in 2010.

Little did Aduriz know, there was already a forward in the squad that Valencia coach, Unai Emery, preferred. Again back in the shadows behind a younger, more highly-rated Roberto Soldado, Aduriz persevered. He scored 14 goals for Los Che in his debut season, despite the club purchasing another striker in the winter window in Jonas. 

Due to Emery’s preference for a single striker attack, Aduriz’s playing time plummeted in his second campaign. Now at the age of 31, he was once again back on the market. It was the classic case of the hard-working, no-frills player, who had constantly lost out to the hype-machine, more flashy entity.

 

Third time’s a charm

 

Whether by pity or an attempt at improving public relations, he was back once again. This time for a fee of around €2.5 million and on a three-year contract. Athletic were three times a cup semi-finalist in his absence, and in addition they had reached two finals, including the Europa League.

Llorente was still there and seemingly not going anywhere. He had become a beloved figure in his own right and the club was headed on an upward trajectory. Fortuitously for Aduriz, contractual scuffles and Juventus’ persuasive flirting forced Llorente out of Athletic and away to Turin. While many anticipated a downgrade, Aduriz lit a fire. Still tinged by regret that this chance came later than he’d have liked, he was more determined than ever to prove he belonged.

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While Barcelona and the national team were innovating new ways in which the Spanish game was played, including use of the false nine, variations of formations and goalkeepers positioning themselves on the half-way line, Aduriz was taking it back to the old-school. With lessons learned all those years ago on the solemn pitches of the third tier, he embraced the simplicity of a traditional number 9.

His strength when holding the ball up would become unmatched by any other forward in Spain’s top flight, while his aerial ability would play like a beautifully timed orchestra. His goal tallies over the next three seasons would read 18, 18 and 26 across all competitions. His third season was highlighted by Athletic’s improbable run to the Copa del Rey final, with Aduriz having scored in the semi-finals, quarter-finals and the last-16.

The Lions would end by falling to Barcelona that night and it had appeared the heroics of one man had finally reached their apex. Little did they know, he was just getting started.

 

Silverware at last

 

Sensing the incoming cross, Aduriz paced forward into an advantageous position. As the ball approached by the millisecond, the 34-year-old left his springboard, the San Mamés pitch. Continuing to climb into the starry Bilbao night, his head met the ball, detonating it into the bottom left corner behind a helpless Marc-André ter Stegen. The alpha lion roared in response, as did the 50,000 others in the pride, shaking the very foundation of Basque Country’s footballing temple. He would send two more into the back of the net that match, all in the span of 15 pandemonium-filled minutes.

Perfect strangers embraced, letting out a combination of tears and chants in beautiful unison. When all was said and done and the referee blew his final whistle, Athletic Club had beaten Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg of the Spanish Supercopa. As the result made its way to the ears and eyes of the world, many were stunned. After all, Barcelona had just come off a treble-winning season and had added to their trophy collection just a few days prior with the UEFA Super Cup. Still, excitement was tempered by the fact that the lions still needed to go into one of the world’s fiercest dens for the second leg.

After waves of sustained pressure, Lionel Messi finally broke the deadlock right before half-time with an expertly taken volley. It was only one, but a sense of trepidation swept through the minds of the hundreds of Athletic supporters nestled into the nosebleeds of the cavernous Camp Nou. After all, it had been 31 long and arduous years since Athletic had last lifted a major trophy.

But then, with the crowd restlessly groaning and Barcelona peppering the Bilbao net, a special side of luck was heaped on the lions. After the ball was skied forward from the back line in a desperation clearance, Óscar De Marcos glided to his right in an effort to find a clear pocket of space. Stepping up in front of a sleeping Jérémy Mathieu, he expertly timed his jump and headed his pass to a wide open Aduriz. With just Claudio Bravo standing in the way of unmitigated glory, the Spaniard fired a venomous strike that the Chilean was able to block down to his left. Before you could blink, the ball found its way right back to Aduriz who had nothing to do but tap it in.

As he ran to the corner flag with arms extended, the bench cleared, joining the other 10 already on the field. They hugged their hero like never before, for it was he who had brought them to heights that rarely seemed imaginable. Aduriz put his hands on his head and all he could do was smile. He had made history, the likes of which would never be forgotten. 

 

A season of magic

 

The 2015/16 season would end up being the most fruitful of Aduriz’s career. He was able to play in 55 games across all competitions – the most in a single season for his career – and this game time saw his best return of 36 goals. His 10 goals in the Europa League included some of the finest highlights any player in Europe could offer.

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In a group stage match against Genk in November, Aduriz would score an astonishing five times; a record for the most goals ever scored by a single player in a Europa League match. Then, in the last 32 against Marseille, Aduriz would score the type of goal that would make even the Ronaldos and Messis of the world blush.

After Sabin Merino got his head to goalkeeper Iago Herrerín’s clearance, the ball dropped from the sky to Aduriz from close to 40 yards out. Rather than letting it land on the pitch, he rushed the ball and smashed an audacious volley looping it high in the air before dropping over the hopeless Steve Mandanda. The goal would instantly become a Twitter sensation with thousands of retweets and likes. The old man was now amongst the cool kids, a footballing hipster’s dream. Athletic would eventually fall in the next round to Sevilla, but Aduriz’s spectacle was all anyone could talk about.

His performances in the league were nothing to blink at either. In a March match against Deportivo, the Spaniard scored a hat-trick, becoming only the sixth La Liga player to do so beyond his 35th birthday. If that wasn’t the icing on the cake, he also became the first Athletic player to win the Zarra Trophy (La Liga Player of the Month). His club again qualified for the Europa League, marking the third successive season in which they would feature in Europe.

The noise surrounding his play had reached a fevered pitch. Chants for Aduriz were now not just emanating from the San Mamés, but instead bellowed in unison from an entire country to the once deaf ears of national team coach, Vicente del Bosque.

Finally relenting, Aduriz was called up to the national side for upcoming friendlies against Italy and Romania. He went on to score in his first match against the Italians, securing his spot on the Euro 2016 roster. The fact it took so long was baffling, considering he outscored Diego Costa, Paco Alcácer and Álvaro Morata put together.

Later that year in a friendly against Macedonia, Aduriz would break a record that had lasted since 1930. At the age of 35 years and 275 days, Aduriz’s goal made him the oldest player to ever score for Spain. A story that had once seemed finished now continued to produce new chapters.

In an era of Spanish football where foreigners are the ones consistently leading the scoring charts, Aduriz has restored a sense of pride for the Spanish forward. With his 142 career goals, he is now the highest scoring La Liga player ever from the province of Gipuzkoa. It’s a figure made even more remarkable by the fact that up until his third stint with Athletic, Aduriz averaged 0.29 goals a game and since his 31st birthday, he has averaged over 0.55.

While this trend defies most people’s logic, count Aduriz as one who always knew this existed somewhere: “People say goals are innate but that’s debatable,” Aduriz said. “In football, like in life, I think you’re learning continuously. I was always a late developer.”

In sport, father time remains unbeaten. The diminishment of one’s skills is often a gradual and painful process experienced from the world’s longest tenured bench-warmer, all the way up to living legends of the game. Aritz Aduriz has been able to combine endless determination, dedication, selflessness and humility to find his fountain of youth. It’s a fountain made of a vintage wine, and boy, it has never aged better 

By Justin Sherman    @JShermOfficial