Athletic Bilbao is both an identity and a club. A representative of a region, a culture and a way of life. It was only fitting that as Ernesto Valverde, a man who has spent two long stints at the club as both a player and a manager, took his leave this week, Cuco Ziganda stepped into the void that was left.
Ziganda is part of the club’s furniture, having spent the last six years coaching Los Leones’ B side. After managing Osasuna and Xerez in the past, the 50-year-old pitched up home at their Lezama academy, the conveyor belt of talent that is the heart of Athletic’s project. Given their staunch policy of using solely Basque personnel, it is imperative that young players’ upbringings go smoothly.
With Valverde at the helm of the club as first-team coach, Ziganda has been another important part of the anatomy. The hand that feeds the mouth, providing more than 20 players to top-flight match day squads across his tenure.
“This was a natural decision,” explained club president Jose Urrutia, at Cuco’s unveiling. “We didn’t think about anyone else. Valverde, Ziganda and myself worked as a team. No other manager made sense. Ziganda is part of the success of the first team because of his work with Lezama.”
Lezama is the be all and end all for Athletic. Huge amounts of money have been invested in their youth academy, with big transfer fees for players such as Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez of little use to a club that can only purchase from a very small talent pool. Instead, they must create and nurture that talent in-house.
Just as Valverde has poured time into the youth aspect of Athletic, their new coach is happiest when out on the training field. Other positions may have responsibilities that mean that managers focus on their own squad, it is perceivable that what happens at youth level escapes them.
In Lezama, it is the first-team coach’s business to understand the situation from top to bottom – it is a far more reliable source of talent than the transfer market. “Day to day in Lezama is incredible,” Cuco explained to the press, a man after the fans’ own hearts.
“All of this has made me better and it shares what I feel inside. I am very happy. There hasn’t been a day where I didn’t want to come into work, or that I didn’t want to smile, all of this has made me improve transmit this happiness in what I do. Lezama is important and you have to follow it and understand what it represents.
“I consider myself the happiest person in the world in Lezama, all of this made it possible to be here today, I hope that it will be a long stay and that we can make everyone happy. I won’t close the doors to anyone, you have to look at any way in which we can improve the team.”
It was clear as Ernesto Valverde announced his teary goodbye from San Mames that spending four years at a club with which you can identify, can only lead to a deep-rooted empathy and connection with everyone involved. At his farewell meal all of the board members attended, as did the players, completing a sizeable sporting family.
Any replacement had to understand this brotherhood between a very Basque group, that represents a very proud history both on and off the pitch, inside the stadium or outside. With six years already under his belt for the B team, Cuco Ziganda already has it in his veins.
“I believe in the teams that give out a feeling,” he went on at his unveiling. “We have to do that. It gives me shivers to be able to feel the fans’ response. It give me goosebumps to know the news and that the club trusts me, I have always said that whatever happens will be good, to continue at the B team or to step up. ”
“Athletic are able to play well or badly, but this is a team that never gives up. We have to maintain this unit. It is an advantage to know the club, San Mames, the players, I know that they can do what I ask.” Cuco is already a respected coach that should make the transition from close ally of Valverde to first-team manager seamless. As Urrutia highlighted, it is the natural and organic progression that Los Leones required.
YOUTH TAKE PRIORITY
“We are going to take advantage of the fact that we have young players,” Ziganda announced. The likes of Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain have been the long-term hopes in attack, with the pair enjoying a season that boasts promise for the future, but it has been young goalkeeper Kepa and centre-back Yeray Alvarez that have burst onto the scene this season.
Kepa has already secured his place as third-choice shot-stopper for the Spanish national team, while Yeray will be a key piece of La Roja’s U21 side this summer in their European Championships in Poland. The constant stream of youngsters must continue for Athletic to thrive. “The players are young and have a whole world ahead of them. I am tough and they know it. We will work hard. I am a Lezama coach no matter where I am.”
Four years under Ernesto Valverde have ensured a near-constant exposure to Europa League football, with Los Leones hoping that Barcelona will beat Deportivo Alaves in the Copa del Rey final this weekend to earn the extra European qualification spot that will come available.
With or without European competition, Athletic have made the best possible decision to safeguard their long-term sporting success. Cuco Ziganda has the ability, as well as the empathy, to make San Mames the home of a team of which their fans can be proud.