35. Yeray Álvarez
He turns the corner and walks into the dressing room. It’s Yeray Álvarez’s first day back at San Mammes after undergoing further treatment for his testicular cancer. The doctors shaved away his flowing locks for the chemotherapy. He was supposed to be with the Spanish U21 team at the Euros, his first call-up of any kind to the Spanish national side. As he walks in, he’s met with a chorus of the most beautiful thing he could’ve heard at the time. His Athletic Club teammates surround him, all of their heads shaven as well. Every. Single. One.
Yeray Álvarez grew up in Barakaldo, Spain, just on the outskirts of the city of Bilbao, where Athletic Club resides. Like any other young Basque, he was surrounded by regional pride. All of the history and Basque nationalism is shown to him every day. Basque flags hang from balconies and windows, red and white shower the city. Pride in the city and the club’s Basque-only policy, means putting on the red and white stripes is like putting on a national team kit. You play every match with fire in your heart and courage in your soul.
He has always been highly thought of in the region, but over this past season he has earned recognition throughout the league. Ernesto Valverde had seen his growth through the youth ranks, and used the 2016-17 season bring Yeray into the starting XI. With Aymeric Laporte struggling with an ACL injury at the early parts of the season, Yeray took advantage and became a mainstay early on for Bilbao as a central defender. Showing composure on the ball, he was a silent leader whenever he was on the pitch. Being part of a transitional defense consisting of an up-and-coming goalkeeper in Kepa Arrizabalaga, the young defender had a calming presence that not only steadied the back line, but improved Kepa.
Every story has a “Mythos,” something that starts the plot and transforms a story. It’s a start of something bigger, a conflict to resolve. Every professional athlete has to overcome obstacles to play at the highest level, and Yeray faces one of the most formidable predators anyone could ever face. In December, Yeray began one of the longest, coldest winters one can face, after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. As if it was a fairytale story, the biggest struggle he has ever faced came during the highest point of his career. The Basque community, known for the collectiveness, gathered around Yeray during his treatment, but if there’s ever a sucker punch to the gut, that’s as clear as it gets.
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” –Winston Churchill
Remarkably, that’s not where the story ends though. After three months of treatment, Yeray put the red and white stripes of the Bilbao kit back on and lasted 90 minutes against Barcelona, albeit in a 3-0 loss. The three months away hadn’t weakened him; Yeray went through the fire and came out the other side stronger. Bravery, strength, and the immaculate mental composure he possesses helped him get through the most difficult time of his life. The city of Bilbao came together and lifted him up, like a warrior. Yeray was universally praised in his community when he returned to the battlefield. A silent guardian over his field, the story of Yeray’s battle with cancer was scarcely covered in the media.
Once he returned, his growth both mentally and even physically was tangible. His best performance came in the Basque derby, with a 2-0 win over Real Sociedad on March 12. Remarkably, his cancer battle only made him stronger, fitting every cliché of the classic saying. Yeray’s story is befitting of a novel, and the Basques got to celebrate his triumph in real time. Athletic Club as a squad may have fallen as the end of the season progressed, but Yeray’s projection was only upwards and onwards.
After a solid string of performances throughout the campaign, whispers of Spain’s next great center back began spreading through Spain all the way through Andalusia. Sergio Ramos and Piqueé aren’t getting any younger, who would replace them? Jesús Vallejo and Jorge Meré look like good options, but there is an enigma around Yeray that exudes confidence, maturity, and leadership. For such a young professional, he carries himself with dignity befitting of a warrior. The Spanish national team came calling, with Yeray getting a call up to the Under-21 squad for the Euros at the beginning of the summer. It was the culmination of his hard work, the next step of a promising career.
When he showed up to the camp, Yeray went to have a routine check up for his cancer. It was back. He had to leave the squad and return for more treatment. Another moment where instead of celebration for his progress, there was only greater hardship. After returning back to Bilbao, he was greeted by his Bilbao teammates in the locker room. The entire squad shaved their heads in honor of him, in a stunning showing of what community means to the beautiful game. They may not have nine-figure budgets, and they haven’t won the title in decades, but playing for Bilbao means more than playing for anywhere else in the world.
After a season full of ups and downs, Yeray’s trajectory is still only up. He was given the number 5 kit for next season, a statement of confidence from the coaching staff that he will return again better than ever. The central defender has earned the right to play at the San Mammes, a stadium named after a legendary Roman hero. He is a hero for the city of Bilbao. At the age of 22, he is already a role model for kids to look up to, a national hero for the Basque Country. His story of perseverance and bravery is one to be told for generations, and his story is only just beginning.
By: Christian Candler/@_candler