Aitor Elizegi Reflects On His First Year As President Of Athletic Club
Aitor Elizegi celebrated his first year as President of Athletic on Friday, exactly 365 days since winning the election last December. While addressing the media in a press conference Elizegi looked back on the club’s success over the past 12 months, answered questions about several current issues, and shared his pride in the work that has been accomplished to this point.
“This day last year was a time of cold feet and standing many hours on the asphalt of Ibaigane, but it was a privilege to share it with many people who also want Athletic to remain true,” began the president. “This is a club that continues to dream of competing with its own in the 21st century.”
Elizegi went on to praise the work that his Board and others have done since taking office last year but admitted that there is still much to be done. “We are proud,” he said. “It’s been a long and beautiful year, but we aren’t satisfied. We defend the effort, perseverance, and commitment on a daily basis and we have transmitted it in all areas of the club. We live everything with responsibility and intensity.”
While the current directive have done many things well, Elizegi admits that hasn’t been the case in every area. During the last General Assembly the Board misinterpreted a statute that would have required a second assembly to approve the club’s budget which was later clarified as a mistake.
“It’s in our DNA to work hard and we’re a self-demanding team. Sometimes we haven’t explained the project well. We didn’t know how to handle the assembly with the necessary brilliance. It was our first time, but it’s an obstacle that can be better.”
In terms of the budget, Elizegi shared that work is being done to improve the club’s revenue and income. The ultimate goal continues to be growing the Athletic brand globally, fielding a strong team, and developing the future at Lezama.
“We have complied with the budget and it’s our obligation to improve it. We will continue investing in a competitive sports team, a Lezama of the future, and to build with ordinary and extraordinary income in order to be closer to the big brands in Europe. There is pride in our way of communication, in the Foundation, in the strategic plan for the economic area, and for the new Lezama that will become a center for the future. Our interest is in grassroots football and developing youth players.”
Most youth teams at Lezama are either at the top of their respective tables or in contention as one of the best teams in their group. Elizegi highlighted the on-field success at the academy and praised Bilbao Athletic and Athletic Femenino B who are currently preparing players to make the step up to the first team.
“Each team at Lezama has been able to compete and we have reinforced the women’s structure. We’re sowing to collect in the future. For example, the two projects that are close to the first teams, those of Iraia and Etxeberria, are working and forming the future. We see players with a future for the first teams and there is coordination among everyone. Building the residence for young players is also a priority. We wish to recognize the work of Alkorta and Ayarza and for their ambition to raise the level of Lezama and the club.”
Throughout his campaign Elizegi championed the goal of making the club more accessible for Socios and he believes that has been accomplished. There have been regular meetings with Socios and the club offices have been opened to the public.
“We have focused on the Socios and opening spaces to work with them. Ibaigane is open constantly, every day. It’s wide open. The focus has also been placed on reforming the Grada de Animación and I feel personally responsible for it. It’s important to reunify the stands so that the fans can support the team the same way as in other European stadiums. San Mamés is one of the premier fields and we wish to make it a reference in European football.”
The president also wanted to recognize the Athletic Foundation which is now led by Juan Carlos Ercoreca and is tasked with making an impact on the local society. “The Foundation must be our guide,” said Elizegi. “We must praise the results, projects, professionalism, and commitment in giving back to the society. It’s a perfect tool.”
Of course, Elizegi also spoke at length in support of Gaizka Garitano and Angel Villacampa who have always had the president’s confidence. Moving forward, he expects even more success from the Men’s and Women’s teams.
“I cannot miss the opportunity to thank Villacampa and Garitano for steadily leading their teams, for not doubting, and for believing in the club and in us. They have put their teams where they deserve to be, competing and making San Mamés and Lezama unique fields. We must wish them a very similar 2020. They have recovered Athletic in strength and in name.”
While Elizegi was not the president at the time that Garitano was promoted to coach the first team, he has supported the manager at every step. Looking back, the president remembered how important it was for Garitano to take the team out of the relegation battle last season and guide the Lions into the top half of the table.
“The daily work, the weekly work, and how he understands each match is important. I have unforgettable moments that I will never forget and Garitano created them with the team. Goals, fans, scarves in the wind…these are moments that I can’t forget and that moved me to my bones. These moments have come from the hand of this man who took the club during a dark time, a depressed and crestfallen moment, and turned things around.”
Although failing to qualify for Europe last year was disappointing, Elizegi believes that it has helped Garitano take the team to a higher level by having more time to train and prepare for games. That being said, qualifying for Europe is now one of the team’s top goals this season.
“We have pride in the way he has created a space to work, of loyalty and respect, to recover a team that was hurt. There is still sadness that the team isn’t competing in Europe and that Iñigo Martinez’s shot his the crossbar in Seville, but it has allowed Garitano to renew the squad by playing in just two competitions and continue building a truer path.”
Elizegi’s confidence in Garitano has never wavered and the president explained that it’s also been important to sign top players to new contracts to ensure they will continue with the manager. Iñaki Williams, Yeray, and Raúl García all signed improved contracts during Elizegi’s first year as did a number of young stars.
“We can only recognize the DNA of our coach, how he understands the projects and feels Athletic. We have valued it and will continue to do so. We have ensured that Williams, Yeray, Raúl García, and Unai Simón are part of the project that will continue with him. It was an obligation that the spine could continue with him hand in hand. It was imperative that he had these players.”
The current Board signed two players during the last January transfer window – Ibai Gómez and Kenan Kodro – and are open to the possibility of adding others this year. “Athletic always sees the transfer windows as an opportunity and we are always open to possible signings,” admitted Elizegi. “We always think that there are players within the philosophy that want to come, that would like to train under the umbrella of Athletic and Garitano.”
Along with the possibility of strengthening the team, Elizegi must also contend with the chance of Unai Núñez leaving the club. The young defender has refused to sign a new contract due to lack of playing time and will have options to leave in January if he chooses to do so. Elizegi shared in the player’s frustrations, but still believes that staying at Athletic is the best decision.
“January will begin the window during which there will be 30 days. We told Unai the same thing in the first part of the season and in the summer, that he is one of ours and that this is his club. It’s difficult to find a defender with his characteristics in the market and we aren’t interested in looking for another. He’s here at home. He’s 22-years-old and has many aspirations. Ambition is good for a football player.”
Elizegi went on to commend Núñez who has played at a very high level despite not having regular minutes. While the 22-year-old already has offers to leave Athletic next month, the president is hopeful that he will stay at San Mamés for years to come.
“It’s not easy when you play little, but he’s been exceptional every time he’s been asked to play. The club and Gaizka have also demonstrated the importance he has in the team. Few can battle like he did at the Bernabéu and few in Europe can be in that lineup and endure all those minutes. He’s one of those who is creating a legacy and is one of the best in Europe. In the summer I would like to see him at Garitano’s orders again and dreaming of greater achievements.”
The current directive have also been heavily criticized for the treatment of Markel Susaeta last season. After being forced to wait for months to find out if he would continue at the club, the captain grew tired and chose to leave without even hearing the renewal offer.
“Markel is a captain and an important piece of this club’s history,” said Elizegi. “We don’t need to remind you about his worth or the success he has written for the club because it’s unforgettable. It’s not good to speak badly of the shield, of a captain, or of the colors. We didn’t do it inside and we won’t do it outside. We offered him a future within Athletic.”
In addition to announcing that the club has formally filed a complaint with La Liga for the recent scheduling issues, Elizegi also explained that Athletic are working to become better represented in European football.
“In UEFA, as in the league and Spanish federation, we haven’t stopped raising the voice of Athletic with our words, messages, and way of doing things differently. We aren’t going to give up being at those tables. Athletic needs to be represented. We have recovered that aspect and we want to continue influencing.”
Much has been accomplished during Aitor Elizegi’s first year as president though there are still several issues that must be addressed. For now, the Lehendakari is proud of the work and growth that his team has had and is looking forward to the next year of success both on and off the field.