The Wonderful Rise of Aritz Aduriz

In a sport increasingly ruled by wealthy foreign conglomerates, exorbitant amounts of money and to quite an extent by the players themselves, Athletic Bilbao have remarkably stuck to their identity and their roots. As the Spanish league titles have lurched between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid and back, with Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna producing miracles in-between, Athletic Club have been laughed at for their Basque-only policy, accused of lacking ambition.

But here’s the truly rib-tickling bit – the three teams never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight? FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and, you guessed it, Athletic Bilbao.

Their motto – Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación – which translates to ‘With homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need imports” is one they have lived by for the past 119 years, since the club’s inception. The only players to pull on the iconic red and white shirt have been from the Basque country and Navarre in Spain, and the Northern Basque country in France.

Their Basque-only policy is not an official rule, and it certainly isn’t something they have written in the club’s annuls. They can choose to sign any player outside these regions, they choose not to. They believe in homegrown talent like no club has ever done; Real Sociedad (their neighbours) had their own cantera-only policy till 1989 when they broke away from their century old tradition as they felt they were lagging behind the elite.

According to Athletic’s official website, their player development program is divided into 3 levels – Infantil (starts from the age of roughly 10), Cadete followed by Juvenil. If a kid manages to go through these levels, he is then promoted to their reserve side – Bilbao Athletic.

The Formative Years

Born in San Sebastien, Aduriz was always a late bloomer, both on and off the pitch. The son of a driver father and an office worker mother, Aduriz spent his early childhood climbing mountains and surfing in the summers, his parents’ passions. At the tender age of 9, he took part in a national cross country championship with kids thrice his age, and finished second.

As a kid, Aduriz used to play football on the La Concha beach, where the tide would only really be sufficiently out for a few hours every fortnight or so. Defying his father’s wishes to take up surfing instead of football, Aduriz joined Antiguoko, Real Sociedad’s feeder club, along with a few familiar names – Xabi Alonso, his brother Mikel, Andoni Iraola and Mikel Arteta.

The chemistry and talent on display quickly made Antigoko’s weekend matches a must-see affair, and soon enough scouts from all over the country were flocking in to get a glimpse. The Alonso brothers were picked up by Real Sociedad at the age of 15, Mikel Arteta impressed Barcelona and soon enough had joined La Masia, leaving Aduriz as the last man standing.

Aduriz, his introduction to football having come later than most young players, continued to plough away and eventually, Second Division side Aurrerá de Vitoria snapped him up in 1999, at the age of 18. He went on to score 8 goals in 25 appearances for the club and crucially, 2 of those came away at Lezama, Athletic Bilbao’s training ground.

Many people, who have this stoic belief that the Premier League is one of the most physically intimidating leagues in the world, have not seen Spain’s second division. It is brutal, the ball spends more time in the air than the ground, and for a kid coming through the ranks, it was an eye opening introduction to professional football. Aduriz did not possess much aerial prowess back then, but these were invaluable lessons that he would cherish a decade later in his third coming at Athletic Club.

Athletic Bilbao Debut and Subsequent Years

Athletic signed him the following season, and he spent the next two years ploughing and foraging his way for the reserves. Ninety appearances later, Jupp Heynckes finally called him up to the first team setup. He made his debut against a FC Barcelona side boasting the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and Juan Roman Riquelme.

No one would have blamed him for feeling like he had finally arrived; all those years of hard work were paying off. Unfortunately, Athletic did not feel that way. Two more substitute cameos later, he was loaned out to Burgos. Shipped off before he could prove his worth? That one had to hurt. But Athletic Club, having seen enough of him over the past two years, decided he wasn’t ready for top flight football.

Aduriz scored 16 times in 36 games for his new club but his employer did not want him back – he was sold to Real Valladolid and his talent and hard work was under threat of disappearing permanently in the murky world of third division football.

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Aduriz at Valladolid

22 goals, 52 appearances and one and a half years later, he was back at Athletic; his game had developed enough for the Basque club to give him his shot at top flight football he always felt he deserved. He scored 9 times in the 2006-07 season, including a smashing hat-trick against Real Zaragoza (Athletic still managed to lose 4-3). His playing minutes were severely cut short the following season by the arrival of another Athletic star, Fernando Llorente. Aduriz did score 7 times in 33 league games but his exit seemed inevitable all season and it duly happened as RCD Mallorca came calling.

He finished as the top scorer of the club in the 2008-09 season but his tally stood at a paltry 11. He marginally improved it to 13 the next season but by now, he had developed a reputation as a mediocre striker, someone you couldn’t really rely on to be the cornerstone of a club. He was already 29, and supposedly at the peak of his career. He had not shown any prolific goalscoring prowess yet and his prospects in the top flight were dwindling. Valencia decided to take a chance on him ahead of the 2010-11 season and shelved out €4 million in the hopes of eeking out whatever was left in his prime years.

The Valencia manager, Unai Emery, already had Roberto Soldado on his books (this is before he joined Tottenham and his career fizzled out) and Aduriz found himself on the bench yet again. To add to his woes, Valencia brought in another striker, Jonas, in the January transfer window. Due to a lack of suitors, Aduriz stuck around for a second season at Los Che and inevitably, saw his playing time plummet spectacularly.

The Third Coming

Now 31, he was desperate to close out his career on a high note. And for the third time in just over a decade, Athletic came back for him again.

However, his problems had not yet deserted him. Llorente was still at the club and in Aduriz’s absence, the club had already reached the Europa League final under Marcelo Bielsa and the future looked decidedly youthful for them. By a stroke of luck/fortune/fate, whatever you want to call it, Llorente got into a dispute with the club over his contract was sold to Juventus.

At this point, everyone, including the fans, expected Aduriz to struggle to fill in Llorente’s giant sized goalscoring boots. Instead, he finally fanned the flames of a career that was threatening to fizzle out. He lit a fire and boy, did it stay lit.

In his next three seasons, he scored 18, 18 and 26 goals respectively. That third season saw the club make a dash to the Copa Del Rey final, only to be brought down by a Lionel Messi masterclass. The Athletic fans had prepared a boat to sail the Basque shores with the trophy; sadly, the boat remained moored to the shore.

At a time when Pep Guardiola and his players were redefining how the game was played with interchangeable positions, here was a traditional number nine, harking back to old school football. Those invaluable lessons he had learned in the third tier were coming full circle now. Little did we know, he was only just getting started.

The following season, they faced off against Barcelona again, this time in the two legged Super Cup final to kick off the new season. Barcelona were coming off winning a treble, what chance did Athletic Bilbao really have?

Plenty, as it turned out. Aduriz scored a career defining hat-trick in the first leg at San Mames as Barcelona were dismantled 4-0. He roared like a lio when he scored his third, and 50,000 Basque roared with him. But there was still the small matter of a second leg trip to the daunting Nou Camp left and with Messi in the opposition, anything was possible.

RIght on the stroke of half-time, Messi duly delivered and even with the aggregate score at 4-1, the nerves were jangling. It had been 31 years since the Basque club had won their last major trophy, trepidation was to be expected. With Barcelona peppering Athletic’s goal, the Basques broke forward and Oscar De Marcos found Aduriz one on one with Claudio Bravo. His initial shot was saved by the Chilean but the rebound was swept home and as Aduriz went to the corner flag, the entire Athletic bench cleared and piled on top of their hero. At the end of the game, Aduriz looked heavenward and smiled, knowing he had indelibly etched himself into Athletic Bilbao’s history.

He went onto score an incredible carer high 36 goals that season including 5 goals in a Europa League match against Genk, a tournament record. In the round of 32 game at Marseille, he scored an absolute belter of a goal. With Iago Herrerin’s goal kick dropping out of the sky, Sabin Merino’s header found Aduriz, who decided to let one fly from 40 yards without letting the ball drop. It flew over Steve Mandanda’s head and into the back of the net. So much for a non-flashy, hard-grafting, old-fashioned centre forward, eh?

With a paucity of striking options, Aduriz was called up for his Spanish debut at the age of 35. Right on schedule, he scored on his maiden appearance against Italy as Spain snatched a 1-1 draw. Later that season in a Euro 2016 qualification game against Macedonia, Aduriz would break a record that had held since 1930. At the age of 35 years and 275 days, Aduriz’s goal made him the oldest player to score for Spain.

After over a decade of struggling and playing second fiddle to more flashy strikers and young upstarts, Aritz Aduriz, much like Athletic Bilbao, stuck to his principles, kept his head down and believed in himself. Until his third stint with Athletic, Aduriz was averaging 0.29 goals per game. Since his 31st birthday, he has averaged over 0.55.

What a player, what a story.