Why football needs more selfless heroes like Joseba Etxeberría

Why football needs more selfless heroes like Joseba Etxeberría

FANS ARE FALLING OUT OF LOVE WITH MODERN FOOTBALL. It’s an irony that seems especially bitter given the availability of every match in stunning HD and the constant deluge of coverage, but normal supporters are being increasingly alienated by football’s ostentatious largesse. As the tills keep ringing, the soul of the game keeps dying a little at a time.

One of the most common refrains amongst supporters is that the players have no attachment to the clubs they represent. These hyper-tuned athletes care only for their paycheck at the end of the month and, no matter how brazenly they kiss the badge on their chest, it will always be a flag of convenience. The game, fans might argue, needs more players willing to die for the shirt. The game, they might suggest, needs more players like Joseba Etxeberría.

For 15 years, Etxebe represented Athletic Club with blistering, unmistakable pride. Nobody who saw him raid the touchline at the San Mamés could ever have doubted his commitment or professionalism. No supporter could ever argue that, in any of his 514 appearances, he didn’t turn up. But as this legend of Basque football began his career, it wasn’t even clear he’d make it to Bilbao at all. 

Joseba Etxeberría was born on 5 September 1977. From an early age sport was his spiritual home and his bible white and round. A small, wiry child, he seemed unsuited to the rigors of the game he loved. But his father, José, refused to listen, ignoring the calls of his wife Arantxa that their son should focus on his education. José knew that, one day, his son would play for the mighty Leónes of Bilbao.

Despite his small stature, Etxeberría was blessed with improbable technique. As a child he imitated the performances of Real Sociedad legend Roberto López Ufarte, whose potent left foot had led the Basques to consecutive league titles in the early 1980s. Just like his idol, Etxeberría would spend hours on the streets dribbling impudently past his friends, before rifling unstoppable finishes into the net. It was a sight that his countrymen, and his future opponents, would become thoroughly acquainted with.

It was La Real who spotted Etxberría’s talent first, signing the mop-headed young prodigy when he was just 15. Etxeberría found himself being coached by none other than the very player he had grown up idolising, but B team boss López Ufarte knew he wouldn’t be able to rely on his services for long. 

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With Etxebe’s performances for the reserves receiving widespread acclaim, he was called up to Andoni Goikoetxea’s Spain squad for the 1995 World Youth Championship in Qatar. Ostensibly a substitute, he was soon drafted into the starting line-up when Fernando Morientes withdrew with an injury. He took his chance at the first time of asking, blasting seven goals and becoming the top scorer at the tournament ahead of the likes of Raúl and Nuno Gomes. 

By the time he returned to San Sebastián, his name was on everybody’s lips. Real coach Iriarte drafted him into the first team squad almost immediately, putting him on the bench for a game on 4 June 1995. Sporting Gijón were the opponents, and the iconic Molinón the venue. 

Igor Lediakhov opening the scoring for the hosts, capitalising on an error from goalkeeper Alberto to give the home side the lead at half-time. The second half, however, would belong to Sociedad’s number 16. On 54 minutes, Real right-back Imanol drilled in a cross from the right-hand side. Etxeberría stuck out a boot and it was 1-1. His second goal game 10 minutes later, but this time he made his own luck, leaping to head a Valeri Karpin free-kick into the onion bag. 

If Real fans thought they’d found their next superstar, however, they would soon be heartbroken. 

José Maria Arrate made his money in the wine business before acceding to the Athletic presidency in 1994. He immediately began investing in the club, signing Goikoetxea from Barcelona and, more controversially, midfielder Bittor Alkiza from rivals Real Sociedad. The move had caused some consternation in the Basque country, with the clubs previously sharing a gentleman’s agreement that they wouldn’t poach each other’s players. The transfer of Alkiza represented a newer, meaner Bilbao, who wouldn’t hesitate to poach the brightest talents from their rivals. 

Exteberría’s stunning debut had been followed by five scoreless fixtures, but it did little to dent the interested parties who had scrambled throughout Spain for his signature. Real Betis were credited with an interest, but as soon as Athletic made their move, the transfer was as good as done. 

Arrate convened a meeting with Real president Luis Uranga, at which he confirmed that his club would be paying Etxeberría’s £3 million release fee. The transfer would cause an immediate schism between the two neighbours, with Uranga so incensed that he broke off all contact with the Leónes for two years. La Real fans would be even less forgiving. When Athletic ventured to the Anoeta for their next league fixture, Exteberría was given a pardon from the squad. A pity, then, that he didn’t get to hear the craven cries of pesetero from the stands. 

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At first, it had seemed Real would be ready to fight tooth and nail to keep their prized asset. The move was contested in court, with the club claiming the transfer was invalid as Exterberría’s father and legal guardian hadn’t signed the contract. Reluctantly, though, Uranga knew it would be pointless to keep hold of a player who had spent his whole life supporting their rivals. 

The transfer saw Extebe become the most expensive Spanish teenager in history, with El País decrying the move “for what it is and what it means”. Almost immediately, however, Exteberría would prove the doubters wrong. 

Athletic coach Dragoslav Stepanović had initially been reluctant to start his new number 17, with concerns that the youngster might wilt under the excoriating pressure of his move. Etxeberría insisted he was ready to play, and his performances in training meant his inclusion in the starting line-up against Racing was inevitable. He scored after just 34 minutes, but the dream was about to get even more vivid. 

As they do almost every season, Real Madrid began 1995/96 as favorites for the title. Etxeberría and Athletic were the visitors to the Bernabéu for matchday two, with the home side boasting Iván Zamorano and a cherubic Raúl in attack. When the latter opened the scoring on 49 minutes, a rout appeared forthcoming. Instead Athletic rallied, with Etxeberría latching on to a hopeful ball 10 minutes from time to hook in a deserved equaliser. When Cuco Ziganda rifled in a header on the counter-attack seven minutes later, the floodlit stadium went silent. Madrid were beaten. 

It would prove the highlight of a difficult season in the Basque country, with Athletic finishing just above the relegation places and Stepanović being sacked in March. The next year would be better, with two Frenchmen inspiring a finish in the UEFA Cup places. Bixente Lizarazu and manager Luis Fernández made a massive difference, but few could have predicted the heights that Athletic would reach in the following campaign. 

The season didn’t start well, with star centre-back Aitor Karanka being sold to Real Madrid. Aston Villa rubbed salt into their wounds, knocking the Basques out of Europe courtesy of goals from Ian Taylor and Dwight Yorke. 

With no European distractions, however, Los Leónes got down to business domestically. Just two defeats were recorded in their opening 10 games, with Etxeberría scoring a crucial winner in an early fixture against Atlético Madrid. The team hardened around diamonds like Roberto Ríos, the mercurial Julen Guerrero, and striker Ismael Urzaiz, but it was Etxeberría who remained the team’s undoubted reference point. In Athletic’s centenary year, his 10 goals meant they were on the cusp of qualifying for the Champions League. Beat Zaragoza at home on 15 May 1998, and second place would be guaranteed. No prizes for guessing who scored the winner in the 1-0 victory that followed. 

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Athletic couldn’t push on from that glorious day at the San Mamés, however. Five consecutive mid-table finishes followed, with Etxeberría struggling to inspire a team coming to the end of its natural cycle. Fernández departed the club in 2000, but despite Txetxu Rojo and Jupp Heynckes arresting the decline, it was clear the club needed new blood. Enter Ernesto Valverde

The results were immediate and breathtaking. Valverde inspired Athletic to a fifth-placed finish, and Etxeberría enjoyed the most prolific campaign of his career with 14 goals. Yet again, though, fate would conspire against his and Athletic’s chances of trophies. With the death of club president Javier Uría, Valverde lost a significant ally. Uría’s replacement Fernando Lamikiz saw fit to stamp his authority on the team, offering José Luis Mendilibar the manager’s job in 2005. One win and nine games later he was gone, plunging the club into a period of disarray that saw them churn through three managers in two years. 

By the time Joaquín Caparros was appointed in 2007, Etxeberría’s lustre was beginning to fade. Fran Yeste looked like a natural successor from deep, whilst Fernando Llorente was showing signs of developing into a quality marksman. With both still learning their trade – and with Aritz Aduriz yet to discover his bloodyminded thirst for goals – Athletic and Etxebe laboured to an 11th-placed finish.

Etxeberría would be even more peripheral the following year, registering just two goals – including another against Real Madrid – from seven starts. Athletic qualified for Europe once more, but increasingly it began to feel like the club was outgrowing one of its best ever players. His isolation was compounded by a devastating loss to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. After being outclassed by the sumptuous Catalans, Etxeberría wept openly on the pitch, a last chance for glory spurned. 

Whilst his influence on the team dwindled, Etxberría’s magnanimity remained: “You have to be aware that you’re not just a player when you train and when you play,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with Spanish media. Indeed, respect and loyalty were two qualities that the Basques had come to appreciate in their talismanic forward, who had rejected Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich throughout the course of his career. 

Not once in his 14 years with the club could Etxebe be heard denouncing his teammates in public. On zero occasions was he seen canoodling with leggy blondes in a shady nightclub at 3am. Here was a man who, in his hundreds of appearances in an Athletic shirt, used every minute to fight for the cause. Even when his team called for him less regularly on the pitch, his presence and influence in the dressing room remained absolute and untouchable. 

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“There are not enough words to thank such a gesture,” crowed Fernando García Macua. The Athletic president was speaking to reporters after Etxeberría had announced that, for the final year of his contract, he would be donating his salary to the Athletic Club Foundation. It was a gift, he said, to the fans for the support and love from a city he called “my second home … [that] breathes football”. 

Etxeberría’s final season was spent largely on the bench and in the stands. Despite being just 32, his legs had become heavy, whilst his spot in the team had come under significant threat from a player who had idolised him in his youth. Just Like Etxebe had with Roberto López Ufarte, a young Iker Muniain had watched Athletic’s number 17 with a mixture of shock and awe. That he was succeeding him in the team was an enduring honour for veteran and starlet alike. 

Etxeberría’s seventh league start of the season would also be the final one of his illustrious career. The game against Deportivo was immaterial – the San Mamés cared only for the rapturous farewell they intended to give a man who, on over 400 occasions, had come to embody the industry, fervour and determination for which the club had become famous. It was a privilege, he would later admit, to “be a part of this great family”. 

On 73 minutes, Caparros brought on Gaizka Toquero for the moment that everybody had been waiting for. Etxeberría walked solemnly towards the touchline, embraced by members of both teams as La Catedral united one last time in adulation. Overcome by the emotion of the moment, he broke down in tears. 

“Fans think we are a part of them, of their life, of their family,” Etxeberría once suggested in an interview with Mariann Vaczi for the book Soccer, Culture and Society in Spain: An Ethnography of Basque Fandom. It was a message he understood only too well, a creed he had managed to live by, even through the 11 managers he played for in his 15-year stay, and the various disappointments, such as the lack of a trophy that befitted his extraordinary talent, especially having come so close in 2009. Who could blame the Athletic fans, then, for wanting to say goodbye one more time to the man with the third-highest number of appearances in their history?

So it was, that on 18 May 2010, Etxeberría donned the red and white stripes for perhaps his toughest test yet. He had faced Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 and José Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, but the formation of 20-60-17 would have even Europe’s most adroit tactical minds scratching their heads. ‘The Impossible Match’ saw Athletic line up for two 20 minute halves against a team of 100 boys and girls from the club’s youth teams. Despite the youngsters taking an early lead, only one man restored order to the chaos with two goals in a 5-3 win. For the 20,000 sons, daughters, brothers and fathers in the stadium, it could only have been him.

By Christopher Weir  @chrisw45

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