“You stand before the footballing gods!’ ethereal voices boom in unison. “Your task, if you should accept it, is to offer a candidate for the best player whose surname begins with the letter ‘Y’. If you are successful, we shall permit his ascendency into our great hall.”
“Hmm, okay.” I think to myself.
“Specifically one who competed between 2000-2010!” the voices add.
“Slightly more complicated then.”
“If you won’t do it, we’ll find another.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll do it.” I reply. “But I won’t lie, the pickings are slim. There is, however, one candidate who might be worthy: Francisco Javier Yeste Navarro of Athletic Club. If you will allow it, I shall make a case for him.”
A moment of silence…
“Thank you, my lords.”
Over the course of his career, Fran Yeste and his exquisite left peg frustrated and delighted the San Mamés faithful in equal measure. His unpredictable and somewhat inconsistent form meant that after a game he was just as likely to receive boos and whistles as he was rapturous applause.
Born on the outskirts of Bilbao, in Basauri, Yeste was brought into Athletic Club’s famed relentless player-making factory, Lezama, at the age of 12. Oddly enough, he was first spotted by scouts at Lezama itself, when he competed for his school’s under-12 team in a friendly against the academy side. It didn’t take long for all in attendance to realise that they had unearthed a gem. By the end of the game he was a member of the Athletic youth system.
In February 1999, he made his debut against rivals Racing and, in the early 2000s, he established himself as the Bilbao club’s most important attacking outlet, effectively ending the career of another legend, Julen Guerrero. His off (and on) field behaviour, in the form of his controversial ‘aventuras nocturnas’ – his perceived bad-boy persona and prickly character – prevented him from becoming the universally beloved player that his exceptional talent merited.
El País’ Athletic correspondent, Eduardo Rodrigalvarez, likened Yeste to James Dean: a rebel without a cause. Every two weeks he would sport a different hairstyle, he wore his collars up and he had a particularly hostile disdain for the press.
Yet, despite all his issues, his ability as a footballer was never in doubt. He might well have been the most naturally gifted Spanish player of an entire generation. In fact, in 2005, Sid Lowe, after Yeste had finished ripping Real Madrid in a 2-0 victory at the Bernabéu, stated that Yeste was “fast becoming Spain’s most talented playmaker”. Not Xavi, not Iniesta, not Valerón: Yeste.
Of course, he cannot compete with his aforementioned compatriots in terms of what they went on to become, the trophies they lifted, or what they achieved in their careers. But, for a season or two, he was up there alongside them.
“Now I would like to present some supporting evidence to advance my argument.”
“Very well, go ahead.”
Exhibit A: 2003/04
Originally, Yeste burst onto the scene at Athletic as a left-winger. His ability to whip in precise crosses from the left flank was of utmost importance for the club and its burly target-man striker, Ismael Urzaiz. However, when Ernesto Valverde took over the reins in the summer of 2003, he quickly recognised that the Basque side would be better off with Yeste as a more central figure. Valverde turned the man from Basauri into a true number ten and built the side around Yeste’s precocious left foot.
As an advanced playmaker, Yeste was unshackled. Free from worrying about all that pesky defending or tracking back, he was able to roam and take up advantageous attacking positions. He quickly became Athletic’s sole creative force. He scored a career-high 11 LaLiga goals as he fired Athletic into fifth place and the UEFA Cup, their best finish since 1997/98.
Exhibit B: Golazo against Real Madrid in 2009/10
The 2009/10 campaign was tough for Fran Yeste. He was in the midst of an ongoing contract dispute with the club, his form suffered, he wasn’t manager Joaquin Caparros’ cup of tea, and his place in the side was under threat due to the emergence of another unruly but supremely gifted number 10 in the form of Iker Muniain – the Lezama conveyor belt seemingly never stops.
Yeste’s magic touch seemed to have deserted him, but the maestro still had a trick up his sleeve. In the penultimate game of the season, at the Bernabéu, Yeste left the Real Madrid defence for dead, scoring a world-class goal.
Midfielder Ander Iturraspe pings a ball out to Gaizka Toquero, who heads the ball down into the path of Yeste. He sprints towards Sergio Ramos on the edge of the area, dips his shoulder and cuts inside, leaving Ramos flailing; Fernando Gago slides in and Xabi Alonso tries to stop him but it’s too late. Other defenders come to close him down but, before they can get close enough, the playmaker slots the ball past an utterly bewildered Iker Casillas.
Unfortunately, it didn’t do too much to help Athletic in this particular game. The Basques capitulated in the final 20 minutes and Real stormed to a 5-1 victory. Yet it was Yeste’s last goal in Athletic’s notorious red and white stripes, a final moment of magic. Moments such as this had become infrequent in his final two seasons at the club, but it was a powerful reminder of his talent nonetheless. The circumstances of his departure meant he was never given the send-off he probably deserved for his service to the club, but going out with a goal like that isn’t the worst way to bow out.
Exhibit C: Free-kicks
In the 2000s, conceding a free-kick against Athletic within 25 yards of the goal could be fatal. Yeste’s cultured left foot caught many a goalkeeper flat-footed. His free-kicks would send the old San Mamés’ crowds into a state of pandemonium.
Take his goal against Osasuna in January 2005, for example. With 60 minutes of the game gone, Athletic were down 3-0. But Yeste had other ideas. First of all, a fine right-footed finish from the Basauri native put Athletic back on the scoreboard. Four minutes later, Osasuna conceded a free-kick around 30 yards from goal. Up steps Fran.
It’s just a touch out wide, towards the right flank – the perfect place for him. With a two-step run-up, he strikes the ball with sublime technique, generating enough power for the ball to go over the wall and practically carry on in a straight line all the way into the top right corner. The keeper stood completely motionless.
‘Athletic, Athletic, Athletic!’ the crowd now whipped into a frenzy. Yeste rushes back to the semi-circle beckoning the fans to make more noise as he goes back. It was the catalyst that inspired one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Spanish football: Athletic won 4-3.
What is it about left-footed mavericks? Some fans adored him, others loathed him. Some managers attempted to restrain him within a system and force him into a rigid structure, others wanted to free him and let his ability run wild. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t.
Undoubtedly, his light shone brightest under Valverde’s direction between 2003 and 2005. He still competed to a fine level for the rest of the 2000s, and remained an important figure at San Mamés, but injuries, different managers and a seemingly natural inconsistency meant he never hit those sort of heights again, or at least he only did so intermittently.
If Yeste had been born by a different name, would he be in this list? It’s hard to argue that he would displace any of the other players in terms of trophies or achievements. If Yeste had been more focused, or moved to a bigger club, where his genius wouldn’t have been restricted by circumstance, would he manage to get into this series under another name? Maybe. Is he equal or superior to most of the other players on the list when it comes to sheer, unadulterated talent? Yes. Is he better than all the other Ys? Undoubtedly.
When El Correo, the Bilbao-based newspaper, asked ex-Athletic captain Carlos Gurpegui to name the player who had impressed him most in his career, he was unequivocal: “Technically [Yeste] was the best… when he decided he fancied it in training, and was well, he was a step above the rest of us.” As Eduardo Rodrigálvarez states in his book 100 Jugadores del Athletic: ‘When Athletic signed Yeste as a child, they knew what they were in for. Nothing was going to be easy with him, except the playing of football.’ Yeste’s stats for Athletic Club speak for themselves, 353 games, spread across 12 seasons, 59 goals.
“I rest my case.”
By Dan Parry @DanParry_