José Ángel Iribar “In My Day We Thought About Playing, Not Contracts”
When José Ángel Iribar speaks, everyone listens. The greatest player to ever wear the Zurigorri colors is still very much involved with the club at 76 years old and has a unique perspective on everything from Lezama to San Mamés. El Txopo is always willing to discuss Athletic and, with 2019 coming to an end, offers his opinion on several topics in an interview with Iñaki Ugalde of Mundo Deportivo.
“The beginning of the year was complicated, but then we have done well,” said Iribar reflecting on the past year. “Frankly, it’s been wonderful. I’ve always seen the glass half full. With the strength, characteristics, and players at this club one must always be optimistic. It’s very important to convey that too. We always talk about Athletic being a big family and it’s true, but you have to convey positive messages because there is the ability to manage all kinds of situation at this club with success.”
Iribar has worked alongside many presidents throughout his decades at the club and currently aids Aitor Elizegi who won the election last December. The legend believes that the past year has been a period of success that should have everyone encouraged moving forward.
“Josu (Urrutia) had already finished a formidable, fantastic, and successful era. Now it’s a new year, with a new directive that is trying very hard with great enthusiasm to continue doing things very well. There have also been results that encourage us to obtain goals in sports and socially because Athletic reaches many places.”
It’s been six years since the inauguration of the new San Mamés, but Iribar remembers the original stadium with fondness. While he still prefers the old ground, Iribar says that the fans are the ones who create the magical atmosphere.
“I still prefer the old San Mamés. We live all our football life in the old San Mamés and we continue to miss it, at least the former players. The truth is that where it was built and how it has been done, the new field is the best thing that could have happened. I’m very happy with what I’ve experienced both on the field as a player and as a coach and everything else. This is a new field and fields are made by the fans, the people who are there. The fans are the same at the new field, the best fans in the world. They understand the game very well and know when to cheer, when to demand, and when to clap.”
If the fans have made the new stadium just as special, what is the need for the Grada de Animación? “It comes in handy and is an issue that’s being addressed,” answered Iribar. “Let’s see if we can improve in that aspect. The demand, encouragement, and applause of the fans are the same as always in any case. Depending on the match and opponent, the Grada de Animación can be a greater or lesser benefit. That has always been the case.”
While fans have been very supportive of the team, they are also demanding. Iñigo Córdoba has been whistled at times this season and Iribar was asked about the situation.
“It also happened in our time,” he responded. “These are issues that are somehow corrected very normally because there is another group, the majority, that understands that players must be encouraged.”
The question has always been raised whether the team is responsible for getting the fans excited or if the fans should be the ones to give the player energy. Iribar says the two should go hand in hand.
“The important thing is communion between the two. There are matches where the players feel they have to take the initiative, but each match is different. Our fans are formidable and fantastic in both attendance and support. I’m at San Mamés and I see Athletic. We are unique in our way of playing and fielding a team. Our philosophy remains unique in the world and we are proud of it.”
Athletic’s unique player policy has long been a crucial part of the club’s identity, though many outsiders have questioned if it can stand the test of time. Iribar is confident that, while football is constantly evolving, Athletic will be able to remain successful.
“The Athletic model is sustainable over time and I’m very optimistic in that regard because we work very well with this base and the academy. Yes, it is always difficult to continue competing like this, but we are ambitious. It helps us to make things better. It’s always a stimulus to be able to compete against the best teams that are becoming more complete and competitive.”
Lezama has also been another key to the club’s success and is widely regarded as one of football’s top youth academies. There have been some changes under new Sporting Director Rafa Alkorta and Iribar is happy with what he’s seen. “I think the academy is doing well, very well,” he says. “We try to innovate and be a spearhead in terms of ways of training. Many coaches come to see Lezama and observe how we do things.”
One of Lezama’s most recent talents to make the first team, Unai Simón, plays the same position as Iribar as has been one of the best goalkeepers in La Liga this season. “No, I’m not surprised because he is very good,” answered the legend when asked if Simón’s performances were unexpected. “Luckily we have a guarantee in the goal and Unai, as well as Herrerín, always plays well. We have the goal very well covered.”
Lezama has often been referred to as a goalkeeper factory for the way the academy regularly produced top players at the position and Iribar has played a major role in that success. After retiring, Iribar became a youth coach and worked alongside others to implement a specific way to train goalkeepers differently from other positions.
“We began training goalkeepers in a specific way with the approval of Piru Gainza. I started coaching when I finished playing and combined training goalkeepers with training teams at the lower levels. At that point we believed that goalkeepers weren’t being trained specifically so Gonzalo Beitia and I went to see how others did it. We analyzed the kinds of exercises, systems, and materials others used and we took some details to add to our own program. Since then there have always been goalkeeper coaches at Lezama for each team.”
Always a supporter of Lezama and the club, Iribar took a moment to note that everyone who works for Athletic is important. Former players have returned to different roles, as well as others from outside, and Athletic’s success wouldn’t be possible without everyone involved.
“Everyone is important at the club, from the masseuses and physios to the coaches and players. When you talk about the club, it’s everything. Everyone contributes a lot because we are lucky that Athletic is a feeling that reaches everyone: the fans, those who work here, people from outside who come to work with us and feel very identified with the club. It’s an added value that we have and many former players contribute many hours.”
For the remainder of the interview, the conversation turned to modern football and how Iribar views things today. “Football has changed a lot,” he admitted. “There is a lot more money, many temptations, and so many intermediaries. We never had agents or representatives.”
Iribar went on to explain that during his era players were more concerned with their performances and than money. Representing the club was the biggest prize.
“In my day we thought about playing, not contracts. If you trained well you played and that was your reward. We felt very identified with everything: the club, the philosophy, and the fans. That filled us and we were always trying to please. The mentality was to play well and for the fans to leave happy. ”
Money now rules football in a way that no one could have foreseen. That being said, Iribar is proud that Athletic pays competitive wages to the players, which he says was also the case during his own career.
“Athletic pays well, and they did so before too. In the 70s contracts were arranged and it was very good for everyone. All of that was done between us because there was no one to represent us. We represented ourselves. That is unthinkable now, although lately there have been magnificent details of our players renewing such as signing without a release clause.”
Loyalty is becoming more rare in football and even some Athletic players have chosen to leave the club over the past few years. “It’s a sign of the times, that football has changed a lot,” Iribar responded when asked about the recent departures. “The environments and money that move football are very different in the sense that the can tempt you to think about changing clubs at any given time. Athletic, as I always say, is the best club in the world for our players.”
Looking back, Iribar shared that the players decades ago wanted nothing more than to spend their entire careers at Athletic. Seeing some players leave the club in their prime is strange but the majority remain devoted to Athletic above all else.
“We, both the goalkeepers and other players of my time, were thinking that we wanted to finish our careers with Athletic. Many players still think the same. If you couldn’t that’s when players thought about exits if they were still at the age to play. Some players have left. They have made money outside the club and played phenomenally, it’s that simple.”
In closing, Iribar was asked a very simple question. What would he like Olentzero (the Basque version of Santa Claus) to bring Athletic this year. “Since it didn’t happen this past year, I would ask for Athletic to be in Europe next year,” he responded. “That would be fantastic, I’d ask to be back in Europe.”