El Txopo, The Eternal Captain

No player has had a bigger impact on Athletic Club than the eternal José Ángel Iribar Kortajarena. Born in the Basque coastal town of Zarautz, Iribar loved football from a young age and was destined for great things. He spent time at the youth academies of Salleco and Zarautz before becoming a professional at CD Basconia in 1961, over 30 years before Basconia would become Athletic’s feeder club. After just one season, which included knocking out Atlético Madrid from the Copa, Athletic purchased the goalkeeper for 1 million pesetas, a record at the time.

Iribar got his chance to shine in October of 1963 due to an injury to Carmelo Cedrún and the rest is history. El Txopo, as he was affectionally nicknamed, was an instant star. His large frame, exceptional positioning, and quick reflexes made him unbelievably great in goal and opponents often said that he was an intimidating figure to face. Iribar became one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world during his career and is still considered by many to be one of the top ten to have ever played the game. Talent aside, he was also held in high esteem for being a wonderful person and leader on and off the field.

Throughout his 18 year career at Athletic, Iribar’s accomplishments were impressive. In the 1970 season he went 10 straight games without surrendering a goal, setting the record at 1,018 consecutive minutes. He would also help lead the team to two Copa Generalísimos, now known as the Copa del Rey, and the final of the 1977 European Cup. To many, Iribar is unquestionably the greatest Athletic Club player to ever put on the Zurrigorri shirt.

Even with all of his success, his most historic and impactful moment came on 5 December, 1976. Less than a month after the death of Dictator Francisco Franco, Athletic played a match against Basque rivals Real Sociedad in what will always be remembered as “The Derby of the Ikurriña”. Before the game started, Captain Iribar and Real Sociedad Captain Inaxio Kortabarria carried the Ikurriña (Basque Flag) onto the pitch. It was the first time the flag had been publicly displayed since Franco had banned it in 1938 and at the time it was still illegal.

José Ángel Iribar brings out the Ikurriña in 1978 (AS)

During his career Iribar also represented the Spain National Team, featuring in 49 matches. He played an integral part in Spain winning the 1964 Nation’s Cup and was also the starting goalkeeper for La Roja in the 1966 World Cup. The Captain of Spain’s 2010 World Cup winning team, Iker Casillas, has called Iribar a legend that he had always looked up to and one of the best players that the country has ever produced.

Iribar would eventually retire from football in 1980 at the age of 37, having featured in an Athletic Club record 614 matches. Although no longer a player, El Txopo has never been able to stay away from his beloved Athletic. In 1983 he became the manager of Bilbao Athletic and three years later he oversaw the first team for one season before returning to the reserves. In 1988 he was named as the manager of the Basque National Team for one year and then took over the same role once again from 1993 through 2010.

“I’m very happy with what I’ve experienced both on the field as a player and as a coach and everything else,” Iribar said in an interview last year. Today, at the age of 77, Iribar is still a big part of Athletic Club, serving as an Ambassador and traveling with the team to matches. He has attended many special events, such as the farewell game at the old San Mamés, and is regularly seen around the Lezama training facilities visiting the team and talking with fans. El Txopo is a living legend, the Eternal Captain, and a reference for every player that wears the Athletic shirt or steps onto the field at the San Mamés.

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