Josu Urrutia Reflects On His Presidency And The Current State Of Athletic Club
It’s been nearly 6 months since Josu Urrutia left his post as President of Athletic. The club enjoyed immense success under his leadership, both on the field and economically, but now a new era has begun. During his nearly 8 years as President, Urrutia rarely gave interviews. Now that he is no longer serving, the Athletic legend sat down with DEIA for an in-depth interview reflecting on his Presidency and the state of the club.
In a few days it will be eight years since your election as president of Athletic. Does that date seem far away today?
“Yes, but since you remember that date, I will say that in theory the limit of our mandate didn’t start until 7 July and it has not been like that because we take the interests of the club. Elections on dates that coincide with the absence of competition are counterproductive for the planning of the pre-season and the following season.”
That’s something that you have always defended, but not everyone agrees.
“The elections divide and disperse people, so we worry about placing the elections far from the end of the season, when it is still unknown how the team will finish in the end. We invest or cut seven months of our mandate to avoid that coincidence of elections and the end of the season. In 2015, when we were re-elected, they were in March instead of July and then in December instead of March. Both times we had respect to the possibility that there may be no re-election and to give more leeway to the new board. I am sure that these five or six months since December will have been very good for the current meeting to be positioned and start making decisions, some of which it is preferable to address before the arrival of summer.”
But is it possible that holding the election in winter affects the progress of the team?
“Well, the team has not been affected. Not in 2015, when our first term ended with fewer points than in the latter, or in the season that just finished.”
Despite this fact, some people still advocate using the polls outside the competition.
“There will always be diversity of opinions. I spoke on this issue several times and it may happen that despite what the facts say, there is someone who sees it differently, perhaps also because there is someone interested in transmitting a concrete idea, but I think most people have understood it. If there is something I have done cleanly in these almost eight years it’s that the Socios have believed us.”
Credibility is not an upward value.
“The success can be measured by the results, by qualifying for Europe, playing finals, or winning a title, which are all objective data and reflects management. But success comes through credibility, which is something that knows no shortcuts. If the board believes in the president, the president is on the board, the employees believe in the project and the players and the assembly of Socios do too, then success becomes a reality.”
You were a player, a Socio, and then President.
“I arrived at Lezama as a 9-year-old and I was in the first team until I was 35. Then there was an eight-year stage in which I had chances to go to work in the club and I preferred not to. Then I took the step forward. I had never considered being president. I made the decision without having foreseen it because it wasn’t something that I was looking for.”
Now, as a former president, what do you see when you look back?
“If something stands out from our management it’s that we’ve always been consistent, prudent, rigorous, and discreet. I think you can define it like that. I put together a group of people around a basic idea of what I think Athletic is, which would be the trunk of the tree. The tasks in the different areas, sports, social, economic, communicative, would be the branches and as such cannot get away or be removed from the trunk. Everything that is done in any area has to go together with the trunk, adjusting to the meaning of what Athletic is.”
You’ve mentioned communication, which is said to have been especially conflictive or controversial compared to the rest of the areas during your presidency.
“Well, it was clear that Athletic should be above all the media and that was done because we already knew how the club worked in that facet at different times. On the other hand, we were not people of exposure, but management, people of our word. We do not think of our own interests or care about what the media say because everyone acts in defense of their interest and this does not necessarily coincide with the general interest, which is the club.”
That open war would generate significant issues.
“In the novel, ‘To this side of Paradise’ by Scott Fitzgerald, it’s said that ‘For the price of a newspaper they tell you how you have to think’. What I say is that the media tell you what fits with their editorial line. We have to have our criteria. I am aware of the power of the media and, therefore, we assumed how we would operate.”
There have been criticisms of your presidency. What pressure did you face?
“If you take into account that you play six years in Europe, and that is achieved despite the fact that other teams take half a dozen of your starting players and therefore have to make signings…if you start with a deficit of €10 million and leave €200 million in cash, there is not a single exception in the eight audits to which the numbers were submitted, the club is healthy and you invest a lot of money in the restructuring of Lezama…if you make an absolutely transparent move to a new stadium and fully cover the expansion of the roof…If you compute all this, I think the criticism we received should have been, at least, another tone because I don’t think there have really been any major problems at Athletic. The impression has been given that serious problems existed because that’s what certain media wanted to do, create a negative breeding ground. Look, if I think I have to do something for the club, I don’t stop to think about all the responses. Now, on the other hand, there are hardly any problems with the communication of the club and there are no shouts in the back of the field either. But if you explain the balance of our two mandates, what real reasons were there to protest or censure?”
Because of the achievements, do you deduce that there was satisfaction with Ibaigane?
“I’m satisfied and proud of the management we did. I don’t want it to sound immodest, but this is football and they qualify you according to whether the ball goes in and if the numbers fit. Those are two questions that go together, and I think that’s the way it has been. When I played, Athletic entered Europe every four years and since football has become very complicated since then it could have been logical that the results would have been very different from what they were.”
Despite what you say, a change was made in the elections.
“The Socios choose and decided there was a change. I do not know the exact reasons and you just have to accept it.”
But was that outcome a surprise to you?
“Yes, the result surprised me and I don’t feel that I’m able to analyze it in depth. I know that there were people who didn’t go to vote because they thought that it was already in favor of the candidacy that finally came out as the loser. The Socios choose the line that they want to govern the club and each Board assumes a responsibility, a complicated challenge. It was complicated for ours and it will be for the current one and the following ones because it’s not easy to maintain the level of sports and economics.”
At this point, after what you have lived, can you know little by little or just be a Socio?
“I gave it all as a player and as president and I still think that I am in debt to Athletic because I have had the privilege of living experiences that most of the team’s supporters have not been able to. Although I have had more luck than most, I am one of those people and I feel comfortable there. I have received criticism from former players over these years who demanded more attention or distinguished treatment. I don’t see it that way. Having some statistics don’t give you more rights than the other Socios. Being a member is vital for the club. The footballer is important, but neither I nor any other player could have done it without the protection of the fans. It is necessary that the fans are there, which is exactly what has happened during the last 120 years.”
During your term of office you only gave a handful of interviews to foreign media, none to those here.
“As a representative of Athletic I was interested in media such as The Guardian or the New York Times that were reflecting aspects of the club that are out of date. That is why they approached me, to understand what the club means, its uniqueness, its history, etc…On the other hand, in addition to the fact that it’s impossible to attend and give interviews to each of the multiple media outlets here or in Madrid, the local media is interested in getting headlines or news referring to the day to day…who will be signed, renewed, standings, rumors…To avoid distinctions, I thought that the ideal formula was to hold a press conference every month so everyone had access to the same information.”
Why did you say yes to this interview?
“Because I can do an interview and now I do it as Josu Urrutia, not as the president. I have tried to not make distinctions or discriminate between the media outlets and, of course, not to filter. Information leaks have been something too usual in the past of Athletic, but not with us. As a leader I was not interested in being permanently exposed. It’s not very consistent with the figure of an Athletic president, in my opinion, to talk with some and not with others or to filter things to get something in return or monopolize focus.”
Some say your Directive didn’t know how to sell, in a good sense, the initiatives and measures that were being done. Activities were hardly shared.
“What is communication? A coach does it by giving the line-up, even if he does not do a press conference. If you don’t negotiate with Bayern, you are communicating. If there are no leaks, you are also communicating. The way to manage is communication. I am not saying that there were no errors in this matter. When the team traveled to Europe, but also to Seville, Galicia, Malaga…we contacted the Socios who lived in those places and we made an appointment with them. With respect to what the current Directive has done, I didn’t think that it should be publicized. It’s difficult to achieve a balance and there will be errors in the day to day, but not of orientation.”
For example, it was difficult to learn how women’s conditions had improved, which is something relevant in these times when everything related to women receives so much attention, and it was because you didn’t publicize it.
“In my first meeting there were four women and in the second meeting there were six. That is a commitment to equality. I didn’t grant the One Club Award the same year to a man and a woman. If you think a woman deserved it, she would win it, period. In the rules of the prize that we instituted there were no distinctions of sexes. If there is a president, does there also have to be a female president? No. Well, on that subject, it’s the same. A large part of the Board managed this area because it was essential to use.”
Is the current state of the economics and the economic future of the club viable without playing in Europe?
“Guaranteeing sports performance is complex. I believe that the economic situation is solid, there is no debt and we left a provision of €76 million to face the annual amortizations of certain signings, those of Iñigo and Yuri. Amortization is not the same as outgoing money because the signings are already paid. That deficit that would affect these years is due to the fact that these reinforcement operations are computed, but I insist that with the provision that we left the club is covered and, of course, there isn’t a structural deficit, as some journalists have pointed out.”
In short, you returned home in peace?
“I think the club is in the best situation, at least in the modern era. Now it has to be maintained and improved, which is difficult because I have already said that the economic and the sport go hand in hand and what happens on the field is decisive and always has a cost. If you are in Europe in six of eight years, that’s the goal. When we came to the club there were already high contracts and the television money was incomparably lower than what is currently being paid.”
What about the departure of Markel Susaeta?
My directive, the Sporting Director, the General Manager, and the coaches, including Garitano, know my opinion about Markel as a player and as a person.
Well, some are blaming you for his decision not to renew as with other players.
“When we made those renewals in December, nobody alluded to Susaeta about not being renewed. Now that he has left the club, messages or allusions have come to me. We placed Susaeta and Aduriz in an identical status. No one is more important than anyone and I don’t want to be contradicting, but the situations are not the same. Both De Marcos and Balenziaga, even at another level, deserved to be rewarded with renewals. Both had earned it and their future could be at risk, a circumstance that wasn’t contemplated in the cases of Aduriz and Susaeta. We were convinced that any of the candidacies were of this opinion and that both would be offered the option to continue. I never thought I had to give any explanation about this because I never thought that Aduriz and Susaeta would not continue.”
You signed a good number of players and many of them came well, but the case of Aduriz has been special. It was unimaginable that he would give such performances.
“I think it’s been everything. Aduriz has given a bestial performance, which was not expected. I could think that he was a player capable of scoring fifteen goals a year and he has doubled that number. He influences that football is a team effort. Aduriz plays up top, as a finisher, and Athletic has been a team that has come to the opposite end of the field and served him many balls.”
It’s clear that the battering ram depends a lot on teammates.
“Yes, well, you can’t play at 38 years old if you do not have great confidence in yourself, if you don’t take care of yourself and if you don’t have a great ambition. But, seeing the number of goals that he’s scored, you must also say that the team has played at a very high level.”
What can you tell me about those who wanted to change clubs?
“If you asked me what has been the worst of these eight years, I would say that the departure of those players who preferred to leave Athletic. The priority is to believe. We will not be the best, there are better players than ours because our garden is small. The fact of having less is a benefit for those who want to be an Athletic player, but you have to believe that for this club to have continuity, it requires a commitment from the club and the players, especially from the players when they are well valued on the economic level. If everyone, although they have been formed here, sees another horizon more attractive than Athletic and respond as some did, then we will not have Athletic. That is why you have to be uncompromising with this type of issue.”
Is that reflected in demanding the full payment of clauses?
“We didn’t want these players to leave and that has made them have to adjust what they put in the contract. When we arrived in 2011, no one followed the clauses and we created a school. Other clubs, even those more powerful, have understood the harm of losing players.”
At the time, would seeing Javi Martinez, Herrera, Llorente, and Amorebieta leave have generated doubts and fears.
“If you would have told me that in a matter of two years these players were going to leave and then also Arrizabalaga and Laporte I would have chosen to not get involved in this mess because of the current requirement to compete. But that’s what happened and we knew how to handle the issue. Athletic has to defend an idea and needs the commitment of the players. I came as a kid and got into the first team. If I take that and then leave, that speaks to a total absence of commitment.”
These months there has been speculation about the possible return of Llorente. How do you see it?
“I’ll tell you one thing – I forgot about Llorente at the same moment that he forgot Athletic. I would say the same about the others. I know there are people who understand this type of behavior and could understand it from a personal perspective. I could also be here drinking a beer with Llorente, but from the Athletic perspective, no, because you have to respect the club and the club can’t lose dignity. We would be questioning the model, putting it in danger. Athletic is not only defined by titles, but by the way the club competes with our own and how we do it.”
What would you say to someone who says that these players are well-off or very spoiled?
If the squad was like that, had no ambition and didn’t work, they wouldn’t have given this level of performances over these years.
You were very close to the players. Was it because you were a former player?
“I do not know if it’s because of that, because of my way of being or that of the group, or of everything together, but you can tell them that there has been a connection and that they have believed in the directive. Sometimes the excess of closeness or presence gets the opposite effect and there are coaches, like Ernesto, who from a distance had a great closeness with the squad. I wanted to be natural, accompany the bad times and also celebrate success. You have to be consistent if you want them to trust you. I spent three decades on the other side as a player. There may have been teams with better players or people with bigger names but none have achieved what we are.”