Mikel Balenziaga “This Final Can Only Be Played With Fans”
Football is one step closer to returning in Bilbao. On Sunday the Athletic first team was back in training at Lezama, albeit it in individual sessions, and the players hope to be allowed to work together in small groups in the days ahead. Before the session, Mikel Balenziaga spoke with Iñaki Ugalde of Mundo Deportivo were he shared his thoughts on what it been like to stay at home during the last 58 days.
“I’ve handled it as well as I can. It’s been almost two months of staying in the house and I’m thankful for the club’s trainers who sent us exercise plans each day. It made it more enjoyable. Having a morning and afternoon plan was good, but the truth is that I prefer to be training at Lezama.”
Ahead of returning to training, a total of 29 players underwent medical screenings with no one testing positive for the virus.
“On Thursday we did a PCR test and then two more tests at Lezama. From there we are able to start a normal routine, but we are going to have to gradually move towards normality. We’re still very far from the usual routine.”
Balenziaga was then asked about the situation at nearby Eibar where several players have admitted to being scared about coming back given the health crisis. The defender acknowledged that there are many questions at the moment.
“I understand that there are many players have concerns because there is uncertainty and this is a new situation for everyone, a totally strange situation. We have protocols from La Liga that we have to follow and in the end we will see if it’s effective or not and if we will be able to resume the season.”
La Liga hopes to resume matches by 20 June with the season ending on 26 July, but the Copa del Rey final will wait until fans can safely attend. Balenziaga agrees with the decision to postpone the final and believes that Athletic can lift the trophy against the club where he spent his childhood.
“It’s what we both, the club and the team, wanted and had talked about together. We wanted the final to be played with fans and it was a good decision for both clubs. A final is always special. Playing against La Real, of course it’s special, both for the players and the fans. This final can only be played with fans. We are convinced that we can win it. It’s true that in the last final, against Barcelona, we had options but it didn’t happen. Let’s try again this time.”
A few weeks ago Athletic announced that the first team players had agreed to a wage decrease in light of the football stoppage. “We talked to the club to see how things were and in the end we reached an agreement,” explained Balenziaga. “Both parties were satisfied.”
Looking back on his career, Balenziaga shared that his start to life in Bilbao wasn’t easy. The left-back would only spend two years at San Mamés before leaving and eventually returning in 2011 from Real Valladolid.
“It was a bit strange because I was signed to Bilbao Athletic, but from the beginning they told me me that I was going to stay in the first team. After a year in the first team I was sent to Numancia on loan. I spent a year there and when I came back after the loan I didn’t play much so I went to Valladolid for two years. Those were the two seasons with Bielsa.”
Balenziaga’s goal has always been to play for Athletic. Although he thoroughly enjoyed his two years with Real Valladolid, spending nine years with Athletic has been a dream come true.
“In the end you never know. Each coach chooses those who he believes will give the best. In that aspect, when Bielsa came he was already clear about which players he wanted to stay. Myself and a few others had to leave. It worked out well for me in the two years I spent with Valladolid. We want up to the Primera and in the second year we stayed. When Valverde signed I returned to Athletic and I’m still here today.”
The past few years haven’t been easy for Athletic. Since the departure of Ernesto Valverde the club hasn’t been able to qualify for Europe, but Balenziaga has been very happy with life in Bilbao.
“Honestly, I’ve been in this club for nine years and so far I’ve not had a bad year personally or otherwise because I’m at the club I’ve always wanted to be. We’ve achieved a lot of great things. We won the Super Cup, we played in several finals, the Europa League, Champions League…I can’t ask for more expect to win the Cup final next year. I’ve played fewer minutes than other years, that’s true, but honestly in terms of competitiveness and enthusiasm my way of training and coping hasn’t changed.”
Yuri Berchiche’s arrival has made chances hard to come by for Mikel Balenziaga. The 32-year-old still has one year left on his contract with Athletic, which could mean next season will be his last unless he manages to convince the club that he deserves to continue at San Mamés.