Julen Guerrero is an Athletic Club legend and a player that fans will never forget. After growing up at Lezama, the midfielder went on to become one of the best to ever play at the San Mamés and even went on to coach at the youth level. Today is a member of the media covering La Liga, among other things, but his love for Athletic has never diminished. He recently gave an exclusive interview with Juanma Mallo of El Correo and spoke about many topics. To begin with, it has been almost 25 years since he made his first team debut at Athletic and Guerrero says that it was a moment that he will always remember. He also said that football has changed and that it is difficult for an 18 year old to play such a big role at a club now.
“As you can imagine, that was a day that I will remember all of my life. It was a day that I fulfilled my dream, to play with Athletic in an official match at the San Mamés. I went to Lezama at 8 years old and spent every day fighting for that day. Before leaving the dressing room and going downstairs to the field I stood in front of the door and said “At last my dream will be fulfilled, not I have to enjoy it and take advantage of this opportunity”. A dream was fulfilled but another one began, to earn a place in the first team. It is difficult [for a young player to debut] but not impossible. There are many clubs where the academies are being used well and from time to time you have cases like that. But it is true that football has changed. The transfers of players each season is huge and that prevents opportunities for the homegrown talents. Fortunately, Athletic is still different and every year there is a player who not only earns a first team debut, but stays in the first team.”
Guerrero was asked if he believed at the time that he was going to have such an impact in his first season and go on to become an idol at the club. The former Lion said that all you can think of when making your debut is the importance of taking advantage of the opportunity.
“At that moment what you expect to do is take advantage of the opportunity; every training, every match, every minute. It was a nice year. I was also very aware that I had to be in touch with the fans, with their passion, with their way of identifying with Athletic. It is exactly what I had lived when I was on that side, as a fan. Now it was my turn to enjoy Athletic from the inside, but knowing what it feels like to be a fan on the outside. The fans at the San Mamés have always been very affectionate and, at the same time, demanding. I think I understood it and what I tried to do every day was return the affection that they showed me. Even today I am very affection and I like to stay close and in touch with the fans. I feel privileged, because everywhere I go they welcome me with open arms as if they have known me all of my life and that is a very beautiful thing.”
When asked about how transfer fees have grown recently, Guerrero says that it isn’t surprising due to the fact that football generates so much money. However, he does believe that clubs buying and selling so many players each summer makes it very difficult for fans to connect their teams.
“The figures are crazy, but it is clear that football generates a lot of money. Today there is strong economic control and it is difficult to keep up with. What I do find totally exorbitant are the high fees that break and destabilize the market. That is where I think there should be some control to keep things settled. The essence of football of the past has been lost for years. When you see teams signing 12 or 14 players every year it is impossible to identify with the club or for those clubs to maintain their style and identity. Before the summer you know the players on each team, then you have learn all new names that make up most of the lineup.”
Guerrero went on to say that it is vitally important for Athletic to continue following their values in today’s world when money is king. He believes that players are privileged to play for the club and that it is special for fans to continue identifying with the team as football changes.
“Athletic have to maintain the values that have always made them unique, different, and a strong team. It is necessary to maintain the passion, the identity, to know that you are defending a club where every fans feels a part of the club. You are privileged to play for Athletic, but there is also a responsibility of knowing that you are defending the passion with which the fans feel connected to the club. The club is a living entity and has to stay in motion and Athletic has to be attentive to the changes of football. Television contracts, worldwide expansion, advertising, merchandising…these must continue to grow. Athletic has generated a brand that is worth a lot.”
Not surprisingly, Guerrero was asked if he would ever consider returning to Athletic. He said that the club is on his mind every single day and that his love for Athletic will never go away. He went on to say that Athletic is so special for everyone involved because it is a family that you connect to and that can’t be taken away.
“Athletic is on my mind every day, but that happens to all of us who love Athletic, whether or not you have played for the club. Going back is always an option. From my first day in Lezama I learned to fight for Athletic on the field and on the bench and I always did so with the sam illusion. That is something that I’ve never lost. Athletic will always be special to me. I spent 25 years at the club and Athletic has been a part of my life since I joined Lezama at eight years old. The club is one more member of my family. I feel huge pride belonging to Athletic, which is something that has been a constant and that is still alive in me today as my first day in Lezama. The reason is that Athletic is something that unites us above all else. I think that everyone could give a different answer or opinion, but in the end we all would conclude the same thing: It is Athletic.”
In closing, the Athletic legend was asked to discuss the differences between former manager Ernesto Valverde and new Mister Kuko Ziganda. He responded by saying that Ziganda is more passionate and animated which is a big difference. Guerrero wasn’t able to give his favorite memory from his time at Athletic, instead saying that every single day was a special memory.
“From the beginning there have been differences. From the outside Kuko looks more passionate, more animated, and gives the illusion that he is closer to the players. Every manager has his own style. There are so many good memories, it is impossible to choose one. From the day I took my test to join Lezama until my very last day, everything was a special memory.”
*This interview was conducted by Juanma Mallo of El Correo and has been translated in its entirety.