Saint Mammes of Caesarea was born in prison to parents who would eventually be killed for their faith. When he grew up, he was tortured by the Romans, as his parents were, for his steadfast Christian faith. After refusing to change his allegiance standing before the Roman Emperor Aurelian, he was thrown into a pit of lions. With the unique spirit that is now seen as a foundation of Basque culture, he trained the lions and made them docile, and then led them out into battle.
Sitting in the city center of Bilbao is a cathedral named after Saint Mammes, and its guard has been transitioning over the past season, from the aging Gorka Iraizoz to the younger Kepa Arrizabalaga. The 22-year old goalkeeper has experienced a rise in stature, confidence, and playing time for Athletic Club, eventually forcing Iraizoz out of the team. Athletic Club is the pride of the Basque country in the north of Spain, so playing for Bilbao was always the end goal for the young Kepa. After successfully coming up through the hallowed Athletic Club youth system, Kepa made his debut for the first team in September of 2016, keeping a clean sheet against Deportivo de la Coruña.
His rapid growth has turned the eyes of clubs like Real Madrid and Arsenal. Scouts from their respective clubs have turned up to watch his shot-stopping capabilities, by far his strongest attribute. The 6’1 guardian has an impressive frame that is complimented by his impressive wingspan. For opposing strikers, such a big frame limits shot selection and makes it easier for Kepa to protect the fortress. Having the wingspan of Kawhi Leonard would help anyone be a successful goalkeeper, and Kepa makes sure to take full advantage of his physical gift in goal.
Something interesting to always keep in mind is the community atmosphere of Athletic Club: it’s about the whole rather than the individual. All the great Basque players grow up learning about the rich culture in the area, and they learn to play for the badge with pride. They all have a reason to give it their all each match; it’s not just any club they’re playing for; it’s THEIR club. Putting on the red and white stripes represents more than just someone to pay their wages. Playing for Athletic Club is the closest you can get to playing for a national team with a club.
Above all, Athletic Club’s philosophy emphasizes the cognitive side of the game. The technical aspects will come with time and practice, but if you don’t have the intelligence to play smart, then you are at an extreme disadvantage. Johann Cruyff famously said, “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you,” and the people at Athletic Club took that to heart.
Speaking of how players are developed at Bilbao, the director Amorrortu pointed out, “They must understand the game to make to make optimal decisions, not under strict instruction.” The fruits of Bilbao’s strong allegiance to the philosophy can be seen in the in-game decisions of Kepa Arrizabalaga. He brandishes a mix of bravery, intelligence, and calmness between the sticks, a mix that can exude serenity within the defenders in front of him, but can also instill hesitation and fear into the opposing attackers.
Throughout the season, Kepa grew exponentially in all of these areas under the watchful eye of now-Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde. Iraizoz suffered a couple of injuries throughout the season, and as a result, Valverde gave Iraizoz the experience he desperately needed to flourish. Throughout the season, his decision making improved, especially when there was a crowded box on corner kicks. He was jittery and nervous, but grew in stature as the season progressed. He saw his finest performances in the winter, with an extremely impressive performance in a 2-1 win at home against Celta Vigo. He earned the man of the match award after a series of stunning saves that pushed Bilbao to victory. He earned a call up to the Spanish National Team in March to replace the injured Pepe Reina and was on the bench for the World Cup Qualifiers behind David De Gea. Returning to the País Vasco after his first call up, he strung together another fine stretch of performances, culminating on April 1st with five saves against Osasuna in Athletic Club’s 2-1 win. Bilbao as a whole had a drop off in form as La Liga finished up, but the negative results towards the end weren’t his fault.
Kepa has an extremely bright future ahead of him. As a Basque, he might not get as much hype as the rest of Spain’s exciting young goalkeepers, but he could quietly rise to the top of Spain’s pecking order. Having already received a call up to the Spanish National Team, his quality is seen by people who watch La Liga and by the head honchos of La Roja.
San Mammes is Kepa’s fortress now. The cathedral is his to guard, not only for his teammates, but also for the city of Bilbao. Exceptionalism, perfection, artistry, and pride all symbolize Athletic Bilbao, and all of these attributes can be seen in the rising persona of Kepa Arrizabalaga.
By: Christian Candler/@_candler