Iñigo Martinez “We’re A Different Team With Our Fans”
Six days from now Athletic will take the field for the first time since football was brought to a standstill three months ago by the pandemic. Teams have been training for the past few weeks in preparation for the return of the season, but no one really knows what to expect. With all games set to be played behind closed doors things will be very different, but there’s confidence that Athletic can challenge for a top seven finish.
“We’re all doing well, wanting to finish the season and finalize the details,” said Iñigo Martinez during an interview with Robert Basic of El Correo. “The training rhythm has been good and physically we are getting better and better. Mentally? We’re better than we are physically. It’s what is saving us. We want to compete and do it at a great level.”
The return of football is exciting, but also odd. In addition to not having fans, players will be medically tested every three days while also being quarantined to hotels when traveling.
“It’s going to be strange. Every time we go to Lezama and then we leave everything changes. We strictly follow all of the rules. When you get out of your routine you hit the street and you find another one. We are 100% committed because health comes first.”
When asked about the security measures in place at Lezama, Martinez explained what a normal day is like now for training. The most important thing is being cautious about distancing and touching.
“When we arrive we park and then go to a bathroom where we have masks, gloves, and sanitizer gels. Then we go to the doctor’s room where we are weighed and our temperature is taken. Then we go to the locker room. We change and have breakfast, the cook already has everything ready. He places everything and you can’t touch anything. When you finish your glass and your plate, which are cardboard, you throw it in the trash. We keep distance between us so that there are no infections and then we train.”
The defender admits that with so many measures in place it’s sometimes hard to just focus on football. Adapting quickly will be crucial to having success.
“With all the measures it can be complicated to think clearly about football. It’s difficult, especially when we first started back, but it has to be done and we hope that all of the teams adapt to this new situation as soon as possible. If we want to end the season up there near the top we have to acclimate.”
In total, teams will have been training for five weeks before returning to action. Martinez was asked if it’s enough time to properly prepare to which he responded that players won’t be at their best.
“I don’t think so, no. Physically we won’t be as before, not at all, and then we will be playing without fans. It will have a cost. The intensity won’t be the same but we are professionals and we have to adapt to everything. We know that it’s not easy to play behind closed doors, even more so for us. With our fans we tighten and push more. We will have to learn to play like this. The first test is against Atlético, a tough opponent, but we hope to live up to it.”
Athletic will be back in action on Sunday when the Lions host Atlético Madrid at San Mamés. Despite the stoppage and all the changes, the defender isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We expect them to be as strong as usual, maybe something else, because we will play on an empty field and won’t have the help of San Mamés. Atlético will be Atlético as usual, a well-structured team that doesn’t give any nonsense. We will have to do very well to beat them. We’ve trained to deal with any team.”
The Lions currently trail seventh place by 5 points with 11 games left to be played. A full 33 points will be on the line, but projections suggest that Athletic will need to win 7 games to overtake Valencia.
“Anything can happen in these 11 remaining games, a thousand things. There will be many surprises. Hopefully there will be good surprises for Athletic. We want to end the season well and in Europe. It’s difficult. Winning seven of eleven is usually difficult and more so seeing the opponents that we have left, but we’ve done more complicated things before. We’re eager, excited, and confident. If the win the first game that could give us a boost to keep moving up. We have to be consistent and chain a few wins in a row.”
Every team will suffer from not having fans in the stands. However, the loss will likely be much greater for Athletic. San Mamés has always been a fortress but without the fans it won’t be the same.
“San Mamés without fans worries me a lot. We’re a different team with our fans, we win a lot and it gives us points. It won’t be easy. We have to face it as a challenge. Playing atSan Mamés with our fans always helps a lot and we won’t have that factor. Therein lies the challenge. We have to start well and get the good feelings as soon as possible.”
As part of the changes coaches will be allowed five substitutions each game instead of the usual three. Martinez agrees with others that it will benefit the stronger teams the most.
“I’ve read some coaches saying that it will hurt. Obviously, and we all see it this way, the five changes will be much better for the bigger teams than for the rest. They have benches with a lot of potential and being able to change out five players will help them a lot.”
The Basques will also have to adjust to life without Aritz Aduriz who announced his retirement a few weeks ago. Martinez explained that no one is as dangerous in attack as Aduriz, so there will be big boots to fill.
“He’s a very important player for the team, not only on the field but also in the dressing room. He contributes a lot. He has experience that we will miss. He’s always given us so much in the area. Any defenders knows that with Aduriz up front he can create many problems at any moment.”
The rest of the season will be strange, odd, and maybe even awkward. In the end, Martinez is optimistic that football will eventually return to normal and he’s looking forward to it.
“Hopefully it comes back to the way it was before. Nothing is the same without fans. It’s hard for me to watch the Bundesliga games. They have no emotion, there’s no intensity, there’s a lack of rhythm. It’s not nice to see football like that. Hopefully it will be back to normal quickly. Football like this doesn’t make much sense.”
Iñigo Martinez has been one of the best defenders in La Liga since joining Athletic, but he’s still looking for his first goal with the team. “I’ll save it for next season,” he said jokingly. “I’m going to leave my first goal for next season because there are no fans and I couldn’t celebrate it.”