Rafa Alkorta “I Screwed Up And Apologized To Unai Núñez In Person”
The ongoing contract issue with Unai Núñez continues to be one of the main topics of conversation in Bilbao. Simply put, the 22-year-old wants to play but is currently sitting behind Yeray and Iñigo Martinez who have been arguably the best center-back duo in La Liga over the past two years. Several European clubs have shown interest in paying Núñez’s €30 million release clause and, so far, Athletic have been unable to convince him to sign a renewal.
Several months ago Sporting Director Rafa Alkorta said during a radio interview that he didn’t expect a club to actually pay €30 million for Núñez. This made the defender feel devalued and Alkorta has since tried to clarify the statements in which he was referring to the position and not the player.
“Unai has two more years on his contract,” said Alkorta during an interview with El Futbolín. “I screwed up on the radio with what I said and apologized to him in person, but now I will explain myself better. I think that paying €30 million for a center-back, not just him but anyone, is a lot of money.”
Alkorta would go on to share that he faced a similar situation while at Real Madrid and has spoken with Núñez about how to handle this period of time. In the end, the Alkorta is hopeful that Núñez will continue at Athletic.
“He has great quality but is facing what happened to me at Real Madrid for a year and a half where there were two other defenders that the coach put ahead of me. I’ve talked to Unai in person. I know what happens but, as I said, for me the best place to grow is still Athletic. I hope to have him here for many years.”
The conversation soon turned to Athletic’s interest in Javi Martinez who recently visited Lezama to watch a friendly between the Lions and Eibar. “He returns to Lezama whenever he wants because he has many friend here,” Alkorta responded. “He’s a fantastic person who just went to see friends and the friendly match. Javi is a top player with a valid contract. He’s a great player for Bayern and we wish him all the luck in the world.”
Over the weekend Iñaki Williams made his 133rd consecutive La Liga appearance, setting a new Athletic record. “He’s a force of nature,” Alkorta said with a laugh. “It’s very difficult to play so many games in a row in today’s Primera. Iñaki has spectacular genetics and also takes great care of himself. He’s had the reward in the form of success.”
When asked about the incredible form of goalkeeper Unai Simón, Alkorta shared that the 22-year-old isn’t just a player for the future, but also the present. “Unai Simón is already a reality. He’s a great player who does everything calmly and very well. He also has the help of Herrerín who is a competitive animal. There’s very healthy competition for the job.”
While some fans have expressed frustrations with Gaizka Garitano’s style of play there’s no denying that Athletic have been very good under the manager. Since taking over as coach, the Lions have earned the 4th most points in the league and it’s no accident. “I hope Gaizka is here for a long time, that’s the idea of the club,” said Alkorta. “We understand each other well and are good friends. Hopefully we can renew his contract at any time.”
Throughout last year’s presidential campaigns Alkorta was a proponent for making changes at Lezama. In fact, the soon-to-be Sporting Director had already been working on his own vision for the academy with Andoni Ayarza and the pair have been putting their plan into action over the past 11 months.
“The results will be seen at the end of the season. We have changed some coaches and methodology, but this is going to be a process. We have started well but there are many boys who had been here for a while so the merit isn’t just ours but those who were here before us.”
Of course, results can also be seen on the pitch with Bilbao Athletic having been arguably the best team in the Segunda B this season. Much of the success is due to manager Joseba Etxeberria, but the squad is full of talented young players as well.
“I know what Etxeberria is like and Joseba is pure intensity as a coach, just like when he played. He is a demanding manager. He wants his team to pressure and play on the opposite side of the field. In addition, he also had a good team. Things are going well at Bilbao Athletic.”
Patxi Salinas was hired as the new manager of CD Basconia over the summer and, while it’s been a slow start to the season, improvement has been seen. “Basconia won this weekend, which was needed, and Imanol de la Sota has a very nice team with Juvenil A,” Alkorta remarked. “In general we want all teams to play like this, with the idea of pressing, of being intense, and moving forward.”
Alkorta is proud of the work being done at Lezama and even took a moment to praise his brother who currently coaches the Infantil A team. Oscar Alkorta grew up at Lezama as well but never managed to make it to the first team.
“My brother Oscar has been at Lezama for seven years and was here long before I arrived. Now he has a full day and is working from the start of the morning. He organizes scouts and has a lot to do. He’s one of the best coaches for children, a specialist in this area. He likes what he does and has a very good character. His world is children’s football and has been for many years. He has a lot of experience in his work.”
The life of a Sporting Director isn’t easy. Alkorta went on to share that he has to work long hours but that he’s happy to do so because he couldn’t think of a better job with his passion for Athletic.
“You put in many hours at Lezama and so do Andoni Ayarza and Andoni Bombín who work more than me and I’m here almost more than the first team. The days fly by between meetings and decisions to make. I get to see kids training in the afternoons. We have almost 400 kids here which is something I love. There’s no better job in the world for someone who is Athletic like me.”
Interestingly, Alkorta shared that he’s found himself to be more patient in his role than he expected. In the end, he has to be because he’s the one tasked with making very important decisions on a regular basis.
“I think I have more patience than I thought. I’m learning more about myself. I’ve lost my patience a couple of times and, curiously, more with people I know than with those I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of trust. In this position you have to be calm because you have to analyze everything.”
The ultimate goal of Lezama is to provide players for the first team and it’s only a matter of time before the next generation takes the field at San Mamés. “In two or three seasons there will be new faces, but young players must push the first team where there are already very strong players and experts in the Primera. It’s not easy to know down that door. It all depends on how the first team is doing.”
In closing, Alkorta was asked whether or not club legend Julen Guerrero could return to coach at Lezama. Guerrero is currently the manager for Spain U16 and is said to be happy in his role. Meanwhile, his son is currently a youth player at Real Madrid, though Alkorta admits that there’s always a possibility of coming to Lezama.
“Julen is very happy with his work and he’s doing very well. He’s a calm person with clear ideas. He’s also a good friend. We know his son perfectly and now he’s a Real Madrid player. Nothing more can be said. We’ve seen him in several of his matches and who knows what will happen in the future.”
January could be a very busy time for Athletic and Rafa Alkorta will have plenty of work to do. There’s a very good chance that clubs could come for Unai Núñez while the Lions are also said to be in talks to sign Javi Martinez from Bayern Munich. In the end, this could be one of the most defining transfer widows for the Sporting Director and fans will be watching very closely.