It is official, the Cuco Ziganda era has begun at Athletic Club. After a big New Balance kit unveiling on Monday, the real work began as Ziganda led his players in the first training session of the preseason. For the manager this has been a day six years in the making. Ziganda is an Athletic legend who competed in over 250 matches for the Lions and those who know him well have always said that it was his dream to be the manager at the San Mames. When he took over Bilbao Athletic back in 2011 the understanding was that he would be groomed for the first team job and that is exactly what happened.
Cuco was the natural choice, no one else made sense. That is what President Josu Urrutia said when he first announced that Ziganda would be taking over as the first team manager. On Monday Ziganda gave a press conference before the start of training and reiterated his joy at having taken on the new role. “Being the manager of Athletic Club feels great”, he said. “I wouldn’t trade this for any other coaching job in the world”. The comments brought excitement and pride to Athletic fans all across the world, especially because they were heartfelt and absolutely true.
Ziganda has long been known as a coach who is very open and honest with himself and his players. Those who have served under him always highlight his ability to build relationships with his players and the fact that he cares about them and the fans above everything else. Most importantly, Cuco highly identifies with Athletic’s identity and has been quite verbal about it since he first arrived as a player back in 1991. Ziganda wants to help grow Athletic into one of the best teams in football because, to him, the Basque giants are already the biggest club in the world.
On Monday his dream finally became a reality as he led 27 players onto the training pitch at Lezama. The squad is currently set at 30, but Kepa Arrizabalaga and Inaki Williams are still on vacation due to their involvement with Spain’s U21 team this summer, while Yeray is still undergoing chemotherapy to cure his relapse in his battle with cancer. The training sessions was open to the public and Athletic even broadcasted it live for those who could not be in attendance.
While there is already a lot of debate among fans regarding who will be in the squad for the upcoming season, Ziganda has firmly stated that he wants to get a good look at everyone before making any decisions. He doesn’t have a predetermined number of players that he wants in the squad, but 30 is certainly too high for everyone to have adequate playing time and for young stars to continue developing. Still, Ziganda is going to give everyone the chance to prove themselves so no one has been ruled out for the upcoming season.
Regardless of which players make up the squad, the team will be full of talent and highly competitive. “As a coach, having a squad of this quality is a luxury”, Ziganda said before training began. It is clear that the new manager understands the expectations that are now on his shoulders. The Lions have qualified for European competition for four consecutive years and the fans want that to continue. Ziganda laid out the goals for his team in the upcoming year, but also made it clear that he wants this team to represent something special.
What I hope is that when fans see Athletic play they see a club representing them. This team has proven that with hard work we can finish really high in the table. Without almost any reinforcements this team has maintained its level and quality. That is something that we believe in and identify with. We have many goals, but at the very least we want to continue where we have been in recent years. We have to maintain that line, but we really want to improve. We have a demand and brutal ambition. Our goal is to answer the call. This is a unique place and we are proud of our identity. The philosophy and history of this club is indestructible, and it is incredible what the club has done and what I have felt since I came here in 1991.
Athletic will train the rest of this week before flying to Switzerland on Monday. The Lions will stay in the country for eight days as part of the Festival of the Alps and compete in three friendly matches against FC Basel, FC Sion, and Fenerbahce. It won’t be a very long preseason though as Athletic will open their season on 27 July in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier.
The Athletic Club squad for 2017-2018 is as follows:
Goalkeepers: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Iago Herrerin, Alex Remiro, Unai Simon
Defenders: Oscar De Marcos, Eneko Boveda, Inigo Lekue, Yeray, Xabi Etxeita, Aymeric Laporte, Unai Nunez, Mikel Balenziaga, Enric Saborit
Midfielders: Mikel San Jose, Benat, Ander Iturraspe, Mikel Rico, Mikel Vesga, Unai Lopez, Raul Garcia, Javi Eraso, Ager Aketxe
Forwards: Iker Muniain, Inigo Cordoba, Sabin Merino, Aritz Aduriz, Asier Villalibre, Kike Sola, Inaki Williams, Markel Susaeta