I’d just got back from the Basque derby between Real Sociedad and Eibar, jumping off the late bus with my neighbour and scout Vicente Biurrun into the fangs of a howling gale. Biurrun is an ex-professional – and suitably prepared for inclement weather as all good goalies are, he’d opened his brolly into the gale and beckoned me into its protection, but the wind got the better of the situation and almost wrenched it out of his large keeper’s hands. Biurrun packed in the game in 1995, the year my son was born, a year that produced an extraordinary crop of midfield players in the Gipuzkoa region of the Basque Country, several of whom are now playing at the top level. Another of this crop had just made his debut, coming on for Eibar in the 60th minute, replacing Kike with the score at 3-0 to Sociedad.
As we dodged under awnings and outcrops to avoid the sheets of cold rain, I asked him what he thought of the kid’s debut. ‘He did well’ he replied. ‘Kept it simple, balanced the middle more and kicked hell out of Illarramendi, ha ha. Eibar improved when he came on, and Real lost control of the ball.’ I shouted out my agreement into the wind, adding that when he’d come on, I’d got quietly weepy. The player, Imanol Sarriegi, was making his league debut in the top flight, but the moment brought to bear the strangeness of perspective in sport –since for most of the watching public and those on television it was just another substitute – but for a certain group of people the moment couldn’t have been more special, given the strangely emotional framework that surrounds football.
Way back in the mists of time, 2004 to be precise, my son and Sarriegi were spotted playing for the school team in San Sebastián, at the tender age of nine. Real Sociedad’s feeder team, Antiguoko, had a certain reputation in Spain by that time, having produced Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta, Aritz Aduriz, Andoni Iraola, Javi de Pedro and many more full-time pros, and if they came in for your kid, it was tricky to say no – despite the reputation of the fearsome training regime and a certain hard-nosed attitude towards discarding players along the way. The vintage of 1995 was a particularly good one, and my son duly turned up to measure himself against the best of the local scene, albeit at a ridiculously tender age. His friend Sarriegi failed to show, and when I enquired at the school the same week, it transpired that his father thought it was too soon, and that he preferred him to play basketball anyway.
I was impressed that he’d resisted the Sirens’ call, whilst I’d had no hesitation in untying my son from the mast and letting him swim away to the island. Five years passed and Sarriegi retained his low profile, finally joining Antiguoko as a defensive midfielder, still unknown to the local public. That’s him looking cross (below left) with my son Harry (centre), playing for Antiguoko in 2010 in deepest Bilbao.
After that, his upward progress was swift –signing for Real Sociedad and playing for their youth sides until he was 18, at which point he was surprisingly discarded. He embarked on a brave attempt to prove his detractors wrong, wandering off to play for Mallorca B, Peña Sport and finally CD Vitoria, subsidised by Eibar as their new feeder team, after so many years of being used by the bigger local clubs for the same purposes. Xabi Alonso and David Silva were just two famous figures farmed out to Eibar to toughen them up, in the days before the club made their fairytale step-up to the big time.
Extraordinary then, that Sarriegi should make his debut in Anoeta, against the side that discarded him, four years before. With Dani Garcia suspended and Gonzalo Escalante injured, he got his chance, albeit starting on the bench. When he came on in the 60th minute, all I could see was the skinny kid who’d played with my son, who’d been the artifice of the ragged-arsed class team that asked me to coach them in an international tournament, that we almost won and which I wrote about on ESPN some years ago. Sarriegi is the ‘another kid’ from the first paragraph, who ended the tournament with a torn hamstring.
On Sunday night, as he intercepted a pass from Diego Llorente and set up a counter for Eibar, it struck me that we never lose this sense of wonder about sport, about the way it can lift you or drift you, depending on circumstances and how we deal with them, of course. So many people just give up, or simply don’t have the means to carry on trying, and we never get to hear about them. There are thousands of silent tragedies in sport, partly because we ascribe so much importance to it, but also because so many people genuinely feel that they have a chance, but then don’t make it. Whether it’s an indecent fantasy or not, many of us have had that indulgent little dream, only to have to shrug our ways into a future that didn’t quite conform to our little secret – which is why it’s so powerful when someone you know steps up and nails it, particularly after having a series of setbacks that must have eaten at their self-belief. And whilst there is still no guarantee that this latest debutant will even secure a full-time contract at the end of this season, at least he’s had his 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol put it.
Well – he actually got 30 minutes out of the game, and helped Eibar to pull a goal back, although the 3-1 defeat leaves them hovering dangerously above the relegation places. The win pushed Real Sociedad back up into 7th spot and confirmed that they could still be a force to be reckoned with this season. Adnan Januzaj, the man with the unpronounceable surname, finally got onto the scoresheet and was the more obvious focus of attention during the game. The ex-Manchester United man, also from the crop of 1995 and thus the same age as Sarriegi, has nonetheless lived a very different professional experience so far, indulged from an early age and told incessantly that he was the next big thing – to the extent that he has never really been able to just be himself, pounded by the weight of expectation and criticised for having an allegedly poor attitude. As Bowie remarked, ‘Fame – what you get is no tomorrow’.
It’s the other side of the coin. Sarriegi now sees a slope to climb, with the horizon full of possibilities. Januzaz, at the same age, is at the bottom of the slippery slope and has just got up off his arse, if you’ll excuse the expression. Strange how two such distinct destinies can meet in the same game, and you’d never really know. Nevertheless, the Belgian is clearly an extraordinary talent. Real Sociedad took a risk on him, especially after the player’s failure to shine at Sunderland last season, but there’s a sense that the Spanish game suits his guile better, as does the patient possession game that Real Sociedad are perfecting. Spanish players seem to be more on his wavelength, and vice-versa. His ability to beat a man from a slow standing position, and his range of passing are quite extraordinary. He has an obvious problem with finishing, which is why Sunday’s goal (although he almost missed it) will do him good. He panics defenders into mistakes, and conjures danger out of nothing. The Anoeta public are starting to take to him, and you can see that he’s enjoying being liked again. Confidence eh? Think Peter Pan. ‘The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.’
I don’t think Januzaj doubts that he can fly, or Sarriegi for that matter. But there have been moments when others clearly did doubt them. To see them both playing at the top level on Sunday night, one already accustomed to fame and the other newly wriggling his toes into its shifting sands, you couldn’t help but conclude that football may be civilisation’s greatest achievement so far, apart from sliced bread of course.