Analyzing Aitor Elizegi’s First Year As Athletic Club President
One year ago today Aitor Elizegi became the new President of Athletic in what was the closest election in club history. Winning by a mere 85 votes against continuist candidate Alberto Uribe-Echevarría, Elizegi was seen as the face of change and a man of the people. The famous chef had championed several causes throughout his campaign and now, 365 days after the votes were cast and counted, a full analysis is due.
To begin with, Elizegi emerged as a massive proponent of bringing back the Grada de Animación which was the one of the pillars of his platform. The Grada had been eliminated years earlier in favor of charging more for seats in that area of San Mamés and allowing for more sponsorships for additional revenue. Fans had long been asking for the return of the Grada and Elizegi promised to deliver.
Getting the project started was very difficult for Elizegi’s team. Ticket holders in sections 107 and 108 rejected the club’s offers to move to different seats or remain as part of the Grada and even formed a committee to protest the plans. In the end, Elizegi met with the committee and finally reached an agreement which will allow the plans to move forward.
One major reason why Elizegi was viewed as the candidate that represented the fans is because he proposed ways to make it easier for Socios to have their voices heard. The introduction of Bazkideen Hitza, a regular conference held where Socios can meet directly with Board members, has been a big success. Recent polls also show that Socios feel that they better communication with the club.
Elizegi also promised to continue supporting the growth of women’s football and that Athletic Femenino would have opportunities to play games at San Mamés. Just one month after the election, the Neskak set a Spanish football record with the largest attendance for a women’s match in history when Athletic hosted Atlético Madrid at the Cathedral. Next month, nearly one year later, Athletic’s Ladies will host Barcelona at San Mamés.
Along with supporting the growth of women’s football, Elizegi also made an interesting change to the coaching dynamic at Athletic. In May, successful manager Joseba Agirre was promoted to Sporting Director for women’s football at the club while Angel Villacampa was hired to coach Athletic Femenino. Like Agirre, Villacampa had also won the league title and has the team playing very well at the moment.
Keeping with the topic of coaches, Elizegi backed Gaizka Garitano from the very beginning and has continued to do so since winning the election. In fact, Elizegi has regularly stated that he hopes Garitano continues at the club for his entire tenure as president.
Elizegi shared his desire to see Lezama improved and some changes made while running for office. The biggest guarantee was partnering with former club defender Rafa Alkorta who would become the Sporting Director if Elizegi won the election. Once that happened, the new president explained that he would leave the sporting decisions to Alkorta, right-hand man Andoni Ayarza, and the coaches.
Alkorta hasn’t changed as much at the academy as it appeared as though he would, but bringing in new coaches was by far the biggest alteration. Joseba Etxeberria was hired to coach Bilbao Athletic, Patxi Salinas came on to manage CD Basconia, and Imanol de la Sota returned to Juvenil A. Alkorta also hired a new Head of Methodology in Andoni Bombín as well as David Rincón as the Head of Psychology.
Athletic also made some changes to the scouting department and even the way the club scouts young players. Most notably, Kike Liñero, who served as head of scouting outside of Bizkaia, parted ways with the club. Lastly, and most importantly, Alkorta and Ayarza presented their Lezama Sports Plan in July which laid out the direction that they club will be taking in regards to the youth academy.
A major topic that received mixed results during the campaign was Elizegi’s interpretation of the Athletic player policy. The soon-to-be president wasn’t shy when saying that he believes Basques of the Diaspora should be allowed to play for the club and many thought this take would lose him the election. That wouldn’t be the case, but drama would follow months later when Athletic announced the signing of Bibiana Schulze-Solano.
The great-granddaughter of Athletic legend Belauste, Bibi wasn’t born in the Basque Country and grew up in Germany. To many Socios, this meant that he didn’t meet the requirements of being born or formed in the area although she did train at the Infantil level with local academy Bizkerre FT during the summers.
Along with signing Bibi and several top youth players, Athletic also finalized the transfer of Ibai Gómez weeks after the election and brought in Kenan Kodro at the end of January. Although Elizegi never openly promised to bring Gómez back to San Mamés, he did share on multiple occasions that he would love for the winger to return. At the same time, Elizegi publicly shared that the club would attempt to sign others such as Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez, and Ander Herrera which never materialized.
Quite possibly the most impressive success of Elizegi’s tenure has been the strengthening of relationships with the other Basque clubs. Osasuna had previously broken all ties with Athletic and the two are now in good standing. Elizegi has also managed to build a better association with Real Sociedad, Alavés, and especially Eibar over the past year.
In many ways Aitor Elizegi has delivered on promises. The Grada de Animación is in the process of being introduced, Socios have more avenues of communication with the club, and the growth of women’s football is still a priority. Elizegi has also brought back club legend Andoni Goikoetxea to oversee relations with former players and has given Rafa Alkorta the freedom to make the changes to Lezama that he sees fit. However, there are other, arguably more important, issues that haven’t been addressed.
To begin with, Elizegi was often critical of the former Board’s inability to generate revenue. He promised to find more ways to improve income for the club but so far that hasn’t happened. The president often said that he planned to grow the Athletic brand globally and has taken steps in that direction by launching a social media account in China, though plans to make summer trips to Asia never came to fruition. It should also be noted that the club plans to visit Boise, Idaho again this coming summer for a friendly match.
Elizegi has also been heavily criticized for his Board’s treatment of players like Markel Susaeta who chose to not even listen to a renewal offer after waiting months to find out if the club wanted him to stay or not. Ander Iturraspe and Mikel Rico were also made to wait before being told they would not be receiving new contracts and, at the moment, Mikel San José and Beñat are also living with the same uncertainty. The ongoing contract dispute with Unai Núñez is also a dilemma that Elizegi’s team has been unable to solve.
Lastly, Elizegi pledged to make changes to the Sporting Law at the club because he believes they are outdated. To this point, no alterations have been made and there have been no signs of progress in this area. On the other hand, Elizegi has managed to build a better relationship with the Spanish Football Federation and is a Board member for resident Luis Rubiales, although this has seemingly damaged Athletic’s favor with La Liga president Javier Thebas. Many fans are also unhappy with the manner in which Elizegi has made San Mamés so readily available to the Spanish National Team.
Over the past year Aitor Elizegi has lived up to many of his promises and there has been success on the field for both the first team and at Lezama. However, the lack of financial improvements, treatment of players, and questions over the club’s philosophy have been major issues. Much has been accomplished by the president in his first 365 days in office but there are more important matters that must be addressed in the years ahead.