Unai Simón “In A Decade I Would Like To See Myself Where I Am Right Now, At Athletic”
Unai Simón is the golden boy of Bilbao. After unexpectedly making his first team debut last season, the 22-year-old has quickly established himself as the starting goalkeeper at Athletic and won the hearts of fans in the process. On Thursday, the Lezama graduate sat down for an interview with Robert Basic of El Correo where he explained how he originally started playing the position.
“As a child we rotated in the village team and the coach, Gotzon, ended up putting me as the goalkeeper because I was the one who did it the best. I didn’t have many expectations. I studied and as I grew up I defined what I wanted to be. I wanted to be an astronaut or a firefighter, I just enjoyed being a kid. Little by little I saw that I had chances of being a footballer.”
While many goalkeepers have their own superstitions, Simón is quite different. The shot stopped explained that he doesn’t believe in doing certain things in order to play a good game.
“I’m not superstitious. There are some who have their traditions and if they don’t do them then they don’t do well. It’s not like that with me. Each game is different, each play is different, and it doesn’t alter the course of the game if you tie your gloves one way or stepped on the field with your right foot or left foot first.”
Looking back on his life, Simón was happy to grow up in Murgia where he had the chance to play football. He was always kicking a ball in his free time, even if he had to do so by himself.
“I was lucky to live in Murgia. Moving there was one of the best decisions my parents made. When I finished my homework I went to play with the ball. Sometimes I was with my friends and sometimes I was alone, but the ball was always there. I don’t know who bought me the first one. Whoever it was gave me the right gift.”
Despite his incredible talent, Simón didn’t start taking football seriously until his final season at Bilbao Athletic. He was always dedicated to his studies and still hopes to earn his degree at some point in the future.
“Many times I had to consider choosing between football and studies. I knew that I wanted to finish my Baccalaureate and that’s what they always told me at home. I started taking football seriously in the last year with Bilbao Athletic when I made the decision to leave Physiotherapy. I liked physiotherapy. Gaizka Larrazabal is studying it now. It required too many hours and I had to stop. I started focusing on football but until the age of 20 I was more obliged to study.”
At first glance, Simón can come across as a serious person. Even when he gets excited on the field he chooses to withhold his emotions in order to stay focused. However, those who know Simón well see a different side of the player.
“I’m shy with people that I don’t know. People always tell me that I’m very serious at parties. Well, the games are not just about having fun either and we talk about having 90 minutes of concentration. I have my moments of joy, like when we score a goal or I make a stop, but I keep my emotions inside. It’s a way of transmitting sobriety to the team. I’m cheerful, a joker, with the people I know and those who are close to me.”
Breaking into the first team last year forced Simón to grow up quickly. The goalkeeper is proud of responsibility he has in representing the club and wants to make the fans happy with good performances.
“Yes, football has made me mature faster. I’ve noticed that this is like having a job, it’s serious. There’s a responsibility when playing at San Mamés with the fans surrounding you. They are the people who push you and the ones who help you make saves, but you also have the responsibility to be calm and make them happy. That makes you mature.”
For a club with a rich goalkeeping history, Simón was no doubt aware of the position he was stepping into last season. The nerves would eventually go away, but the 22-year-old will always feel the importance of his role in the team.
“At first I thought about how many players have been in this position. I fulfilled my dream and didn’t want to throw it away; I wanted to take advantage of it. Now I’ve adapted and I see that people support me and encourage me. Little by little I’ve gotten rid of the nerves, although the responsibility is always there.”
After finding out that he would start the first game of the season last year, Simón revealed that the only people he told were his family. He didn’t want to be distracted by so many people knowing and was happy to play a good game and win the match.
“No, I didn’t even tell me friends, just those at home. I told my father and my brother. If I started telling more people I would be overwhelmed with everyone congratulating me. It was a good game. I went onto the field telling myself ‘Don’t get scored one, don’t make a mistake’. I had a good save and then I had to get the ball out of the net, but in the 93rd minute Muniain won it for us. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
When asked which goalkeeper he believes is the best in football, Simón mentioned three that impress him. The starlet wants to learn from them and highlighted individual strengths of each one.
“There are many goalkeepers that I like. I love the tranquility that Oblak gives and how Ter Stegen can play with his feet. There’s also Kepa who I was always around. They are top goalkeepers. Each one has his own strengths and very few weaknesses, maybe none. I watch them, learn, and try to be like them.”
Simón may have overtaken Iago Herrerín for the starting role, but says the two have a great relationship. The 22-year-old has seen the negative criticism directed at Herrerín over the past two years and doesn’t like the personal attacks.
“Iago and I have a professional and personal relationship. We understand that last year the coach chose one and now another. He wasn’t to blame for me not playing last year now am I to blame for him not playing now. It’s the coach’s decision. It can change at any moment. We get along really well. I understand that people can think certain things about a player, but for them to take it to personal threats and insults isn’t healthy. It’s not life and death. I try to always support him.”
At the moment, Simón leads the race to win the Zamora Trophy but isn’t really concerned about the award. He recognizes that the success is because of the entire team and is proud to play behind such a strong group of defenders.
“I don’t give it any importance. We start with defensive solidity, organization, and the success isn’t just because of me. I have the best defense in the world. There is a central block with Yeray, Iñigo, Núñez, and Vivi (Dani Vivian). They are all guarantees. Against Villarreal it was my turn to help, but in other games they protected balls everywhere.”
Last weekend’s draw with Villarreal was Simón’s best performance for the first team to date. His four incredible saves helped Athletic keep a clean sheet, but Simón was also proud of the way he performed in other areas as well.
“Yes, I think the game against Villarreal was my best game for Athletic, although I do remember a few better matches in the lower levels. It was my best with the first team not only because of the saves, but also because of the percentage of good passes and other actions. Goalkeepers aren’t only there to make saves but to manage the area, protect the air, have good footwork, and keep the defense attentive. There are games that we win 2-0 and I’m angry because of the bad decisions that I made. The sensations were very good against Villarreal.”
Unsurprisingly, Simón’s excellent performances this season have caught the eyes of other clubs. Real Madrid are reportedly interested in signing the goalkeeper but Simón wanted to make it clear that he has no interest in leaving Athletic.
“When things go well it seems that everyone would love to have you in their team. Nothing has come to me. Nobody has called me or told me anything and, even if they did, I’m very comfortable here at home. I have always said that while trust me and bet on me I will be grateful. I will continue here as long as they want me. In a decade I would like to see myself where I am right now, at Athletic.”
In closing, Simón says that he wants to play an important role at Athletic throughout his career. He loves the club dearly and can think of no better way to repay Athletic than by giving his best every game.
“We would all like to leave our mark on an era at Athletic. The club has given me everything. It’s not a professional issue, but a personal one. They have done everything for me, they’ve helped my family and my parents. What better way to thank the club than by playing well at San Mamés.”
Unai Simón has been at Athletic since he was 14 years old and wants nothing more than to succeed at his boyhood club. The start to his professional career has been incredible and on Sunday the young goalkeeper will have the opportunity to continue his terrific form as Athletic look to take all three points against Levante at San Mamés.