Mikel Rico “The Greatest Satisfaction I Have Is Having Played For Athletic”
Mikel Rico’s path to Athletic was unconventional to say the least. Growing up a Zurigorri supporter, Rico got his first chance with the club when he signed with Basconia in 2000. Unfortunately, the midfielder failed to reach the first team and left for Conquense after three seasons. Rico would finally join Athletic in 2013, spending six years as a key player at San Mamés before returning to Huesca last summer.
“I will always be able to say that I fulfilled the dream of my life by playing for Athletic,” Rico told Alberto García during an interview with Mundo Deportivo. “The greatest satisfaction I have is having played for Athletic. I keep with me many memories, moments, games, and many friends in that dressing room. I have always felt the affection of the people of Bilbao, which is important.”
Debuting against Real Madrid on 1 September, 2013 was special for Rico. “A dream day, my debut with Athletic,” he recalls. “It wasn’t as good as I would have liked (3-1 at the Bernabéu). I made my debut as a starter against Real Madrid, but we lost. Nevertheless, when you make your debut with Athletic you always keep a good memory.”
The following week Rico made his San Mamés debut. He would go on to help Athletic finish 4th in the La Liga table and qualify for the Champions League for the first time in nearly 20 years.
“Yes, it was an incredible first year with many comebacks and victories. We qualified for the Champions League and got to open the new stadium. I remember the six years playing at an incredible field which I enjoyed a lot and where I was lucky to score several goals. They were very good years.”
After helping Huesca earn promotion last season, Rico will return to San Mamés this year. “It was the first thing I looked at when we received the schedule, to see when I got to go back to San Mamés and Los Cármenes,” he said eagerly. “I play at San Mamés on 20 December. I wanted to see if it was the first round or second round due to the fact of fans not being allowed back in yet. The game on 20 December will be a special match for me.”
Rico will always be an Athletic supporter and is optimistic about the team’s chances this season. When asked for his assessment, the midfielder admitted that qualifying for Europe is becoming increasingly more difficult for the club.
“I couldn’t see the Granada game because it was on while we were on the bus. But last year in general it was good. Athletic post-confinement was the best. It’s been a little while since the team reached Europe, but staying at the gates of Europe and reaching the Cup final can be classified as a good year. Fortunately, in the last decade we have participated many times in Europe, but we must assess the difficultly in reaching Europe. Nowadays it’s getting a little more complicated because all the teams have more money. Anyone can sign good players and we know that Athletic can’t. I think that competing against that and fighting for Europe is having a good year.”
Like other fans, Rico looks forward to the Cup final against Real Sociedad. It comes as no surprise that Rico wants to see his beloved Athletic win what could be the biggest Basque Derby in history.
“It’s a special and attractive game. The decision of both clubs to postpone it to try to get the doors open seems right to me, even if it means the Cup winner gives up Europe. It’s a Basque football party that people want to enjoy. I hope it can be played soon with the fans. I see both teams with options to win. The level of both is similar and in a final anything can happen. Of course, I would like Athletic to win it.”
Rico spent the prime of his career with Athletic and knows what it takes to succeed at San Mamés. On the other hand, Unai Núñez recently asked to leave the club on loan as a condition to sign a new contract. “Everyone is free to assess their situation,” said Rico. “If they see that they have something better at a sporting or economic level and want to try to leave then it’s their right. Another thing is if the club wants him to stay or not, or that the club he wants to go to pays the clause.”
Raúl García had stronger words when asked about Núñez in a press conference a few days ago, advising the defender to stay and fight for his place. Having played with García in the past, Rico agreed with his former teammate’s point of view.
“What Raúl says is just as respectable. When you are in a club you cannot miss work. Although working doesn’t guarantee success because there are many players who work a lot and don’t play. When Raúl García speaks he always says good things. Normally, he’s not often misguided with his thinking. When he holds a press conference I like to watch him, knowing that you can learn from his way of working, thinking…a bit of everything.”
In his six years with Athletic, Mikel Rico made 176 appearances and scored 14 goals. This season the 35-year-old will face his former club and is excited to see old friends when Huesca visit San Mamés in December.