Every great story has a Mythos; something that starts the plot, drives the narrative and provides an obstacle for the main character to overcome. Nick Carraway finds himself in the mysteriousness of Jay Gatsby, Odysseus has to journey home after the fall of Troy, and Pi Patel finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger. These works of fiction tell stories rarely seen in real life, but every once in a while, there is a true story that seems to tell a story with a Mythos equally as captivating.
Yeray Álvarez grew up just outside of the main urban area of Bilbao, Spain, buying into the reverence of Athletic Club from a young age. Los Leones supporters take unprecedented pride in their club due to their Basque-only policy. When the citizens of Bilbao say that they are watching “our club”, it means something more than just words.
Yeray joined the famed Athletic academy aged 13 and worked his way up the ladder. He drew the plaudits and favour of the Basque community, and many saw him destined to be the future centre-back partner to Aymeric Laporte.
Yeray achieved something rarely seen in youth systems, playing in a different team each year from 2008 to 2016. He was present in the five youth levels, rising up to the División de Honor Juvenil de Fútbol, the fourth tier, with Athletic’s farm team, CD Basconia, divisions three and two with the reserves, and LaLiga with the senior team.
Yeray became the definition of a true Athletic man. His competitive debut came on 15 September 2016 against Sassuolo in the Europa League, and his first Liga appearance came in the next match against Valencia in a 2-1 win. The Spaniard became a regular in the backline for the senior squad in the first half of the season, and he was even touted as a future defender for the Spanish national team. Yeray was also linked with Barcelona, but he laughed off the links and displayed some trademark Basque loyalty. “I know it has been mentioned in the press but I take it as a joke. When they told me I laughed. I’m not thinking about playing at Barça. I want to play here and play all the games I can.”
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It was seemingly the beginning of a great career for the youngster in the Athletic defence. His rise from an early age, with his talent talked about in the stands long before he made his senior bow, saw him become something of an icon from his early days, symbolic of the Basque-only policy working. The script, however, had another idea.
On Christmas Eve of that same year, Athletic held an emergency press conference. Yeray Álvarez had been struck by cancer at 21-years-old, his career driven to a halt. There was no guarantee that he would ever play again.
There are moments in all of our lives where we must react. Many strong individuals would crumble under the weight of cancer, but according to Athletic Club President José Urritia, Yeray was “calm and collected” heading into surgery. Amazingly, he was cleared to go back to training as early as February, and made his comeback against Barcelona, going the full 90 minutes against some of the best players in the world.
Yeray enjoyed a stellar end to the season, making 30 appearances for the senior squad even though he missed time due to the cancer. The city of Bilbao rejoiced. Anyone who had any relation to the club would tell you of the character Yeray displayed – akin to a father talking of their proud son – and the city rallied around their local hero, giving him a standing ovation when he returned.
Yeray didn’t let cancer halt his rise to prominence and he continued with a renewed vigour and confidence. After a string of solid performances throughout the campaign, whispers of Spain’s next centre-back hope began spreading through across the nation, with many impressed by Yeray’s composure, positioning and effective distribution.
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The question for many now is who will replace Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué – both the wrong side of 30 – in years to come. Jesús Vallejo and Jorge Meré look like good options, but there is something endearing about the way Yeray exudes confidence, maturity and leadership. Perhaps his best performance of the 2016/17 campaign came in March in the Basque derby against Real Sociedad, where he kept a clean sheet in a solid 2-0 win for Athletic. Indeed, his solid performances in the second half of the season saw Yeray named by the CIES Football Observatory as the seventh-best centre-back in Europe.
The people involved with La Roja were paying close attention too. In late March, he was drafted into the under-21 setup, where he made an appearance in a friendly against Denmark. By season’s end, he had retained his place in the under-21 squad alongside clubmate Iñaki Williams and was set to star in the European Championships. The whole of Bilbao rejoiced at two local stars forcing their way into perhaps the world’s best under-21 team. Yeray, it seemed, was set for the big time.
Around this time, the defender went in for a routine check-up and the cancer was unfortunately back. He would need more chemotherapy. In bullish fashion, he wrote on Instagram: “Stay calm. I’m going to win this battle.” He would have been forgiven for lamenting his luck, displaying a sense of sadness and frustration at yet another setback – but not Yeray. With the support of Athletic and the city of Bilbao, Yeray rose to fight again.
Bilbao, as a whole, poured their cups into Yeray. He became the focus of the investments, prayers and good fortune. Yeray might have isolated himself while he recovered – we all would – but the heart he had won were beating with greater passion than ever for one of their own. It’s this unique mentality that makes Bilbao such a special place.
A month after he was given the bad news, Yeray visited the Athletic Club training ground. When he turned the corner into the dressing room, he was greeted by the whole squad, each one of them with shaved heads to stand in solidarity with their recovering teammate. It was the most emotional moment of the LaLiga summer, especially for anyone connected to the club.
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The recovery went on, with Yeray growing in stature, maturity, bravery and strength. The cancer wasn’t defeating him; it was moulding his character. He knew he would come back stronger and better than ever. In late September, Yeray made his return to training, smiling from ear to ear as he went through a light workout with Rafa Alkorta, one of his idols from childhood who now worked for the club. Two months later, on 27 November, manager José Ángel Ziganda announced that Yeray was to return to the team’s training sessions and was available for selection. The choir at San Mamés could sing his name again.
“It will be the best moment of the season,” a worker at San Mamés proudly stated about when Yeray makes his comeback appearance, and that seems to be the general consensus of all Athletic supporters. They’ve been waiting for this moment in eager anticipation. When Yeray was named on the bench and warmed up on the sidelines during Los Leones’ match against Alavés on 7 January, he received a standing ovation from the raucous crowd.
While he didn’t make it onto the pitch, it was still a symbolic victory for the defender. He had beaten cancer and chemotherapy – again – and he was ready to play. When Yeray was at his lowest, the city came together to lift him back up in one of the best displays of support from a fan base that football has ever seen. They may not be the greatest in number, but for an Athletic Club supporter, that doesn’t matter.
While Ziganda’s first season hasn’t necessarily gone to plan, the stronger that Yeray has become, the better that Athletic have played. The Basques pride themselves on their strength of character, and Yeray has epitomised this in his fight against cancer.
Despite his illness, Yeray’s career is only just beginning, and the only way is up. He wants to play for Spain, and he’s certainly talented enough to do so. One of the most remarkable things about his battle with cancer is that it seems to have strengthened Yeray’s resolve, and will ultimately make him a better player in the long run. This has been a story of determination and victory. The Mythos of Yeray’s story didn’t defeat him – it only made him stronger – and it will be a joy to see how high he will be able to rise in years to come.
By Christian Candler @Candlerbility