IT IS THE EIGHTH MINUTE and Athletic Club have just been awarded a free-kick after Mikel San José is fouled. Their number 10 takes the resultant set-piece, bending the ball around the wall and into the net to make it 2-0 to Los Leones. The crowd roars in appreciation, but their star man is far from done.
Forty-nine minutes later, after repeated attempts on the Las Palmas goal, the ball is scrambled outside the area by a defender; the playmaker sees his chance and blasts a volley from 25-yards out. The ball does its best space-rocket imitation en route to making it 4-1 to Athletic.
After the game, if you could have interviewed the ball in his armpit, it would have spoken about explosions of panache and venom. If you asked the irate Las Palmas defenders, they might have run out of expletives to hurl at their tormentor. For the right foot of the man known as Bart Simpson, though, it was business as usual.
Born in the Navarrese region of Pamplona, Muniain progressed through the ranks at UDC Txantrea where, even with his career in its infancy, his huge potential was clear for all to see. Many liked what they saw. As it often is with a special Basque talent in Pamplona, it didn’t take long for the conveyor belt that is Athletic to come knocking on the 11-year-old’s door. Lezama beckoned and resistance was futile.
In the mountains of Athletic at a club whose unwavering policy is of loyalty to young Basque talent, Muniain found the perfect place to hone his considerable skills, alongside daily appearances of his idol, club captain Joseba Etxeberria, in the flesh.
The little Navarrese quickly set about stamping his mark on Lezama, cutting to pieces older boys twice his size with his audacious dribbling, jet-powered heels and velcro-like control. Where his feet called, the ball followed. Naturally, word soon began to be spread around the San Mamés of the discovery of their most exciting talent since none other than Etxeberria, causing the powers-that-be at the Basque outfit to pay close attention.
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After a few months of scrutiny, Athletic manager Joaquin Caparrós had seen enough and in March 2008, a 15-year-old Muniain was called up to the first team, impressing in a friendly against neighbours Amurrio, quickly followed by another outing in April. After a surprising first half, which had seen Athletic trailing to lowly Portugalete, Muniain equalised early in the second, before midfielder Carlos Gurpegi put the seal on the win. The Muniain progress train was in full throttle.
During the ensuing season, the youngster was called up to train with the first team and made his Segunda División debut at the turn of the year. It was the 2009/10 season, though, that cemented the 16-year old’s place as the jewel of Los Leones. Caparrós, signalling his growing confidence in the teenager, included him in the squad to face Young Boys of Switzerland in their Europa League qualifiers.
Ever one for the big stage, Muniain took over from Agustín Gaínza as Athletic’s youngest ever competitive debutant as he came on for Gaizka Toquero in the first leg at the Mamés. There was little he could do about the scoreline, however, which stayed in favour of Young Boys. The return leg saw the 16-year-old prove himself a man, netting the winning goal in Switzerland three minutes after coming on for Markael Susaeta.
The onlooking egg-heads at Athletic saw it as a portent of things to come and drew up a lengthy contract, which the boyhood fan promptly signed. A month later, Caparrós unleashed his precocious attacker on Espanyol, making him the club’s youngest league debutant in the process. Two weeks later, he scored in Europe against Rapid Vienna in a 3-0 victory and ended the season with six goals in 35 appearances.
Praise from his hero, Etxeberria, quickly followed: “A footballer of this class integrates themselves very well. Football has only one language and Iker has mastered it.”
The 2010/11 season was a resounding success for the player. Displaying the irreverence that has come to typify his game, he routinely tore apart defences en route to scoring nine goals in a whopping 58 appearances, wowing the fans with step-overs, drag-backs, nutmegs and no-look passes that brought neutrals to their feet and shot defends off theirs.
Ultimately, his performances that season culminated in the La Liga breakthrough talent of the year award, the Bart Simpson moniker for mischief – bestowed by Fernando Amorebieta – and the inevitable Lionel Messi comparisons.
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It wasn’t his goals that made everyone sit up and take notice, though: it was the manner in which he went about everything. On his day, the impish playmaker is a creature of fantasy, escaped from the lost and forgotten grimoires of the beautiful game, as he shimmies around the pitch, taming experienced defenders and making them sit. The spectacular readily comes to him and to watch him play is to see a myth in the flesh; a good old-fashioned entertainer in modern football.
As the player himself so confidently put it: “When I take to the pitch, I try to enjoy myself. Just because I am playing in the first division, doesn’t mean I have to change my style of play. I am a player who drives a lot with the ball and opponents try to stop me however they can.”
The beginning of 2011/12 saw Caparrós replaced by Marcelo Bielsa. Under the tutelage of football’s most exciting coach, Muniain began to show sides of his game that had hitherto sputtered. Manning the left prong of attack in El Loco’s 3-3-3-1, the forward often drifted inside to swamp opponents when out of possession, displaying his eye for a killer pass and surprising tenacity, which came to the fore in his obliteration of Rafael in their famous 3-1 victory at Old Trafford. It was a game in which he was the chief protagonist on a pitch that contained Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez and Wayne Rooney.
Europe was enthralled, and the next morning saw every journalist and his dog proclaim him as Messi’s heir, although a more dedicated observer might have opined that the Spaniard’s style of play more closely mirrored Russian maestro Andrei Arshavin in his pomp.
Be that as it may, two finals awaited El Loco and his band of entertainers, both against Spanish opposition. The Europa League final against Atlético Madrid ended with an inconsolable Muniain breaking down in tears after Athletic fell to a 3-0 defeat in Bucharest. The Copa del Rey final against Barcelona ended similarly. Messi, who starred in the final, was uninterested in an heir just yet, and a season which had promised much saw the Basques finish a disappointing 10th, with no trophies to their name.
The forward was off to London in the summer, ostensibly to shake off the disappointment with Olympic football in a star-studded Spain side. Unavailable for the shock loss to Japan due to injury, he started against Honduras, where his only notable contribution was a moment of petulance that saw him shove the ref in response to Spain not being awarded a penalty, as the pre-tournament favourites exited at the group stage. It was just the beginning of a tricky period.
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Back home, the flat finish to the previous season and the allure of Bayern Munich were enough to convince Javi Martínez to pack his bags for Germany in a €40 million transfer, while 29-goal forward Fernando Llorente stalled over signing a new contract. With these issues casting a pall over San Mamés, club and player ended up having a stinker of a campaign that season – and again the following – which saw Bielsa leave, to be replaced by former Valencia boss, Ernesto Valverde.
Football is ever the ficklest of kingdoms and, after a couple of seasons of indifferent form, alleged involvement in a sex scandal and a propensity for riling Osasuna – a old rival of Muniain – the journalists who blanketed “Messi’s heir” in superlatives swiftly disinherited the player; branded him an enfant terrible and placed him atop the footballing dung heap. Such are the vagaries of the inheritor.
Thankfully, the autonomous Basques have little use for kingmakers and Athletic staunchly stuck by their champion. A return to form last season, punctuated by performances like the one against Las Palmas, has ensured that while Iñaki Williams and Aritz Aduriz make do with the headlines, thanks to his otherworldly play, Iker Muniain – still only 24 – is once again the toast of the San Mamés faithful and purists the world over. Never has heirdom been more redundant.
By Voke Fabikun @VokeAf