Unai López “I’m Very Proud To Be Part Of The Athletic Philosophy”
Unai López’s path to the Athletic first team hasn’t been a conventional one. The midfielder made his debut back in 2014 but was unable to earn a role in the squad. After a return to Bilbao Athletic, followed by loans with Leganés and Rayo Vallecano, López has finally become a starter at San Mamés. It’s been a long journey and the 24-year-old is proud of how far he’s come.
“I was very young,” López told Alfonso Herrán of AS while looking back on his debut. “I had good games and others that weren’t so good. Ernesto called on me when he thought I was ready. Things could have turned out better or worse, but it wasn’t a matter of coming up too soon.”
After making his debut, López returned to Bilbao Athletic and played with the Kumeak in the second division. That season in the Segunda didn’t go as planned, but helped several players prepare to take the next step in their careers.
“The year in the Segunda was complicated. We were all very young. Most of us had come from the Segunda B and it wasn’t easy, although it was productive for some of us. Then came the two loans that helped me a lot. I had to live things that to some people isn’t pleasant, but it helped me. I don’t regret anything personally or professionally because leaving on loan helped me.”
In 2016 López left to join Leganés. “Before the loans I had never left home,” he shared. “It was good for me to meet different people, foreigners too, and to live with them. It suited me very well to have to find my own life and make new friends. I needed to mature.”
López may not have been able to prove himself at Leganés, but he certainly did the following year with Rayo Vallecano. The midfielder played a much different style of football at Vallecas and will always remember his time with Rayo fondly.
“We all know that this is a type of football that suits me well, but you have to adapt to what the coach asks of you and to what the team needs. That year with Rayo was fantastic. I was comfortable and the team helped me a lot. We earned promotion and I have a lot of love for Rayo.”
While loans can often end up deciding a player’s future, López was only thinking about having a career at Athletic. “My goal was always to play here, I don’t even need to say it. It seems that this year has been better for me, but experience tells me that I can’t relax in the least. Football can change from one day to the next. You have to work to stay the same or get better.”
After the successful year with Rayo, López returned to Athletic where he was given a new contract and a starting role. However, it didn’t take long for the Lezama product to lose his place. When asked about the disappointing campaign, López admitted that he understood the decision and was still able to learn from the situation.
“I don’t know what went through my head last year. I was excited about the beginning of the season but things ended in a different way. The expected results weren’t there and the manager decided to bet on other players. It was a totally respectable decision, but I had to live a difficult experience. It also helped me learn. My teammates helped me a lot and my family and friends were always there.”
This year López has been able to keep his starting role. He certainly doesn’t view it as starting over, but knew that he had to win the confidence of manager Gaizka Garitano in order to have regular minute.
“This year isn’t starting from scratch because I’m not new here. It can be seen that way but mentally I don’t think so. I had to earn the trust of the coach so that he could count on me on the weekends. There is competition everywhere in the team so you have to know how to handle it.”
In the past, one thing that always held López back was his size. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore and the midfielder says he’s learned how to use his own strengths to find success on the field.
“Football has nothing to do with height and strength. The best player in the world is shorter. Everyone has their own characteristics and I contribute mine. I know when I am substituted it’s not because of my physical ability, but because the coach thinks it’s better for the team. Many times the coach has been right. There will be matches where I will play 90 minutes.”
The partnership of López and Dani García has grown with every passing week. “Dani and I understand each other very well both on and off the field,” López explained. “He’s a great player and he helps me a lot. I’ve struggled with defensive tasks and Dani helps, then it’s my turn to attack. You will never dominate every facet of the game. There are phases where you have to defend to the death and others where you have the ball and can use possession.”
Athletic is one of the most unique clubs in all of football and López is proud to be a part of it all. Leaving Real Sociedad for Athletic was a difficult decision, but the midfielder knows that he made the right choice when he was younger.
“I am very proud to be part of the Athletic philosophy and to be here. This is my family. It was hard to leave Real, it wasn’t easy. I was young, at the Cadete level, so it’s different if you leave for Athletic when you are older. As a child I stood out a little as an attacking midfielder and now I’m playing a bit further back. I’m more comfortable in a double pivot than behind the forward.”
López’s contract will run through 2022 and, when asked about his future, made it clear that he has no plans to leave. “I’m comfortable here,” he answered. “My goal was to play and we will see what happens next. I’d love to be called to the National Team, but I don’t value it at the moment. My dream right now is to continue playing here. I have the level to compete at Athletic.”
López is in an interesting position. The midfielder appears to have taken the place of veterans in the team, but other young players are already close behind. “Beñat and Mikel (San José) are a great players,” said the 24-year-old. “We know what they have contributed here and, I repeat, the competition is healthy. I knew I had to work hard and gain the confidence of the Mister in the preseason. I try to help the younger players. I’ve been through the same thing as Oihan (Sancet). He’s a great player and will be here for many years for sure.”
In closing, López was asked if he believes that Athletic will be able to compete for a place in Europe next season. “Athletic never puts a ceiling on goals,” he answered. “We are doing well. We have to be calm and continue on this line. The San Mamés is a fortress, but we have to try to earn more points away from home.” Athletic will face yet another challenging fixture next weekend as the Lions travel to El Sadar for a Basque Derby with Osasuna.