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Bielsa vs Valverde: Athletic Bilbao’s presidential race narrows to two former coaches

The elections at Athletic Bilbao exploded into action in recent days, as names moved in and dropped out of contention, leaving the Basque club’s socios with a clear choice when voting begins on Friday.

Being president at the San Mames is one of the most prestigious jobs in that region on Spain’s northern coast but the club’s long-standing policy of only using Basque players brings unique challenges and opportunities for those tasked with devising and implementing policies which can help the team compete at the highest level domestically and in European competition.

Three candidates have put themselves forward, and socios are choosing between Jon Uriarte, Ricardo Barkala and Inaki Arechabaleta, three men who have impressive CVs in the business world but not so much direct football experience.

All the presidential candidates have detailed manifestos including ideas for growing revenues, improving Bilbao’s youth system, and modernising their activities.

But for many supporters, the key factor is who each will ask to coach the team from next season if they win the vote.


Which candidate has Marcelo Bielsa?

A campaign which started relatively quietly burst into life on Monday, when Arechabaleta introduced Marcelo Bielsa for his first public appearance since being sacked by Leeds United in February.

Bilbao-born Arechabaleta started his career at accounting group KPMG and has most recently held very senior roles at Spanish media group Vocento, whose daily newspapers include Madrid-based conservative title ABC and El Correo in the Basque country.

Arechabaleta has regularly played up his bona-fides as a football man — he is a qualified youth coach and has been an Athletic socio for 56 of his 63 years. His ‘Datorren Athletic’ — Coming Athletic — campaign has a big focus on improving youth development, and learning from other European academies such as Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Leeds and Shamrock Rovers.

He first reached out to Bielsa in March, a fortnight after the Argentinian had been fired in his fourth season in charge of Leeds.

Until Monday, Arechabaleta was seen as the presidential race’s outsider, but Monday’s presentation got everyone’s attention. Not only in Bilbao but all over the world.


What was Bielsa’s presentation like?

Many Athletic socios will remember 2011, when Bielsa entered the race in a similar fashion, as the coaching choice of then-candidate Josu Urrutia.

His presentation on Monday was similarly thorough – 70 minutes of super-detailed analysis, complete with Powerpoint slides and Bielsa’s trademark precise delivery.

It soon became clear how the 66-year-old has been spending a lot of his time since leaving Elland Road.

“I watched the 45 games of the first team, and 38 of Bilbao Athletic (the youth team/reserves); we could only access four of Basconia (C team) and just two from the Juvenil (under-18s), in the final phase against Barcelona,” Bielsa explained. “These 90 games we have analysed meticulously, to be clear about how we should form the squad. We also watched 380 games from the Spanish league, to give us a global idea of the competition.”

He praised the work of Marcelino Garcia Toral, who has stepped down after a season and a half as the coach, saying the team deserved to finish higher in 2021-22 than their final position of eighth, and claimed he would inherit a better situation than in his first spell as the club’s coach if reappointed, taking over a squad with more quality overall than he did then and players more suited to his ideas.

Bielsa added he had learned a lot from those two years in Bilbao, and also at his various posts since, with Marseille and Lille in France, and especially at Leeds.

He said he now knows better how to manage a squad, and planned (relatively) less demanding training sessions than in those days.


Will the bet on Bielsa work again?

A big difference from 2011 is that Urrutia, previously a long-serving player for the club, was already the heavy favourite to win before Bielsa joined his campaign. Everyone in town also knows the idiosyncratic South American coach well now – for better or worse.

Bielsa’s first season was a whirlwind of energy and excitement among players and fans. His team played some tremendously entertaining football and got some great results, including a famous Europa League last-32 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. “He brought us the best season of this century,” Archebalata said on Monday.

That is only half the story though.

That 2011-12 campaign ended with disappointing 3-0 defeats in two finals in the May — to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League and Barcelona in the Copa del Rey.

The emotional hangover from those losses leaked into a dismal year two, which brought a Copa del Rey exit to third-division neighbours Eibar, while mathematical safety from relegation was only secured in the final weeks. Bielsa fell out with club staff over work at their Lezama training ground, and the dressing room grew increasingly disgruntled about his methods. Everybody knew he had to go at the end of his two-year contract.

So the question is whether the sweet memories of his first year are stronger than the doubts raised by the second one.

The subsequent coaching reigns of Ernesto Valverde and Marcelino were less dramatic, but they both won a trophy.

There are also concerns about giving Bielsa too much control over other areas of the club, especially youth development.


How did the other candidates react?

Until the Bielsa ‘tsunami’, the biggest name hanging over the election had been that of Mauricio Pochettino.

The Athletic can confirm the outgoing Paris Saint-Germain and former Tottenham coach has spoken to candidate Barkala, with the connection set up by long-time sporting director Ramon Planes, who has remained very close to Pochettino since they worked together at Espanyol and then Spurs.

Pochettino has not commented openly on whether he would take the job — he cannot talk about anything until his departure from PSG is finalised. His very close relationship with countryman Bielsa, his manager at Newell’s Old Boys back home in the early 1990s, will be a factor in his thinking, too.

Planes, however, is committed fully to Barkala’s project – turning down offers from clubs including Newcastle and Valencia, since he left Barcelona last year. The Athletic was told he was attracted by the chance to work on a long-term project in the Basque side’s Lezama youth system, introducing more innovation through a new ‘Athletic Lab’.

At 67, Barkala is a well-known figure in Bilbao, a former merchant-marine captain who has been director of the city’s port since 2018. He also has history in local politics and the backing of the influential Basque establishment.

The team behind him includes previous directors in various past Athletic presidencies, as well as new faces including ex-Google senior executive Bernardo Hernandez. They also have an agreement designed to grow revenues by staging non-football events such as pop concerts at San Mames with Legends, a US company that has similar arrangements with Real Madrid and Sevilla.

Barkala would also bring in former Spain Women goalkeeper Ainhoa Tirapu to build up Athletic’s women’s football operations.

That just leaves a first-team head coach to lead the whole project.

As late as Tuesday, Barkala was telling interviewers about Pochettino still being under contract at PSG. Former Roma and Lyon boss Rudi Garcia, Leicester City’s Brendan Rodgers and World Cup-winning Germany coach Jogi Low were also linked to his campaign.

Then, at 9am yesterday (Wednesday), the Barkala group announced that Valverde was their man and will return for a third spell as Athletic coach should they win tomorrow’s vote.


Which leaves Uriarte…

Bilbao-born Uriarte is the youngest of the three finalists at 43, and is presenting himself as the candidate of change.

Son of a former CEO of banking giant BBVA, Uriarte began his career in finance in London with Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.

In 2009, he co-founded ticket portal Ticketbis, which was sold to eBay seven years later for $165 million. That money was invested in venture capital fund All Iron Ventures, which supports numerous start-up companies. Among these is All Iron Sports, an agency whose clients include Valencia left-back Jose Gaya and Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias.


Athletic’s keeper Unai Simon is the undisputed Spain No1 but adding more players of his quality will be tough, regardless of who wins this election (Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Uriarte’s ‘Izan Athletic’ which roughly translates as Be Athletic — campaign has been well organised and operates from office space near Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. It used a mix of social-media smarts and dozens of physical events in and near the city to collect 6,041 signatures of support by the official start of campaigning at the beginning of June. This puts Uriarte well ahead of Barkala with 4,054 and Arechabaleta on 2,987.

His team of executives is generally younger and includes more female members than the others. Surprise support came from Barcelona – where former Camp Nou director Didac Lee has helped prepare a new digital strategy including an ‘Athletic Studios’ project.

Uriarte had also refused to confirm who would be his first-team coach if he wins, while being linked heavily to Marco Rose, the former Red Bull Salzburg and Borussia Monchengladbach manager sacked a month ago at the end of his first season in charge at Borussia Dortmund.

On Tuesday lunchtime, he named Carlos Avina, a Mexican currently working for Belgium’s Cercle Bruges, as his sporting director.

Avina was seen as another coming name in football (Cercle are the other club owned by French club Monaco’s Dmitry Rybolovlev, whose sporting director is widely-respected Englishman Paul Mitchell, who worked with Pochettino and Southampton and Spurs).

Within hours, however, Avina was trending on Twitter in Spain due to sexist and homophobic messages posted to his account in 2012.

Uriarte’s campaign announced in the small hours of Wednesday morning that Avina was no longer part of their project. “Everyone on the Izan Athletic team is 100 per cent committed to equality, diversity and full respect for all persons,” said their statement.

Another dramatic statement came at 9:07am yesterday, confirming that Valverde had also agreed to be the coach if Uriarte becomes club president.


How does Valverde match up to Bielsa?

As a player, Valverde scored 50 goals in 188 appearances for Athletic from 1990-96.

In two spells as their coach, 2003-05 and 2013-17, he oversaw 306 games, more than anyone in club history. He delivered European qualification in each of his last four seasons, including for the 2014-15 Champions League. His side also beat Lionel Messi’s Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate to win the 2015-16 Spanish Supercopa.

His teams tend to play pragmatic rather than thrilling football, but they get results. He also won three Greek championships in two spells with Olympiakos, and the La Liga title in the only two seasons he completed as Barcelona’s coach.

The 58-year-old does not have Bielsa’s charisma or eccentricities but is a very capable and determined character.

He also knows Planes well, after working together at both Espanyol and Barcelona, and many of the staff and players at San Mames and Lezama, so does not have any relationships to rebuild.


What new players might the next president and coach sign?

Presidential elections at Barcelona and Real Madrid are generally won by whoever convinces the voters they can deliver the bigger-name players. That famous Basques-only policy means this is less of a factor at Athletic.

All the candidates plan to sign two or three players in this summer’s transfer market, and a ‘war chest’ of around €80 million is available from past sales of players including Kepa Arrizabalaga and Aymeric Laporte.

Spending that money is not so easy, though. Archebalata said this week that there are “only a handful” of Basque players anywhere who would really improve the current XI.

Neighbours Real Sociedad’s two best players, Spain internationals Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino, have both turned down advances from Athletic in the recent past. France star Antoine Griezmann falls within the Basque-only policy as a product of Sociedad’s academy, but the 2018 World Cup-winning Atletico Madrid forward would not join his boyhood club’s biggest rivals.

Fellow Basques Osasuna’s 24-year-old midfielder Jon Moncayola will be a target, whoever wins this election, while Real Madrid’s unwanted right-back Alvaro Odriozola, 26, is going to move somewhere this summer.

A surprise name to emerge is Valencia’s defender/midfielder Hugo Guillamon, who was born in San Sebastian but has spent 20 of his 22 years on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

Julen Jon Guerrero, the 18-year-old son of the 1990s Athletic midfielder of the same name, is currently starring in midfield for Real Madrid’s youths and Spain’s under-age teams.


What is the mood like ahead of the vote?

Outgoing president Aitor Elizegi was not very popular, even though the team reached four finals during his reign.

Beating Real Madrid and then Barcelona to win the Supercopa under Marcelino in January 2021 was a huge success, but has not been built upon.

Losing the long-postponed 2019-20 Copa del Rey final to Basque rivals Sociedad in April of last year was very difficult for many in Bilbao to take. Whoever takes over will be under pressure to do better than the neighbours an hour along the coast in San Sebastian, who continue to make excellent progress with a team featuring exciting home-produced players.

Athletic do have their own decent crop of players in their early 20s or younger coming through. Unai Simon, 25, is currently the national side’s first-choice goalkeeper, while Dani Vivian, Oihan Sancet, Unai Vencedor, Nico Williams and Nico Serrano could form the core of a team over the next decade.


So how does the voting work?

The election has traditionally taken place at the club’s beautiful Ibaigane Palace offices but this year’s vote is being held at its modern San Mames stadium, from 9am to 9pm tomorrow (Friday).

Athletic’s 43,425 socio members all have a vote each, although turnout at the last elections in 2018, when Urrutia won by just 85 votes, was only 46 per cent.

Bielsa’s involvement was a huge boost for Archebalata early in the week, younger voters had been enthused by Uriarte’s campaign, while Barkala’s establishment backing could be important, given the average age of the voting socio is near 50. 

The result should be known by late on Friday evening – and the new president will start work immediately.

Either Bielsa or Valverde will have to be at Lezama sharpish too — the first team are due back to begin pre-season training on July 5, and friendlies against Borussia Monchengladbach and Duisburg in Germany and Newcastle United at St James’ Park are already arranged.

(Top images: Getty Images)

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