When Thibaut Courtois went down with his anterior cruciate ligament injury in August, Kepa Arrizabalaga dropped a potentially permanent offer from Bayern Munich to head to the summit of Spanish football on loan at Real Madrid. The former Athletic goalkeeper, still the most expensive in the history of football, is finally where many predicted him to be.
Not least the first scout that saw him. Peio Agirreola played for Athletic Club, Kepa’s first team, for three years before returning to the club after his playing days. Agirreola says that he spotted Kepa on the beach where he lived.
“In the town, from the beach, when he was a kid before going to Athletic. You saw him play and you said: ‘Look at this guy save, look at this guy save!”
And despite his young age, those around him could see that he was destined for the top level.
“You never know but in the town he was seen playing on the beach, that kid stopped much more than the rest. The club’s recruitment arrived, they saw him and took him to Lezama. And in his second year, Juanjo Lasuen and Inaki Bergara, who is also from Ondarroa, said that he was going to play for the first team and he was only 11 years old. Some called us crazy, but he had something different from everyone else.”
“Technically he is very clean. Kepa, since he was a child, has been technically very good and that has helped him take all the steps in Lezama and to achieve what he has achieved. And he is another hard worker. All goalkeepers are hard workers. In training they get some beatings and it’s never too much for them.”
Even as a youngster, Kepa was difficult to improve, making him a tricky prospect to coach.
“There is an anecdote with Juanjo Lasuen when Kepa was at a young age. He corrected all the goalkeepers except him. Kepa went home one day crying and his teacher asked him what was wrong: ‘The coach doesn’t say anything to me. He speaks to everyone else and he never says anything to me,’ he lamented. Kepa was worried. After two weeks, in the first game he played in Lezama, his father went to the coordinator and told him what had happened: ‘The boy came home crying saying that they don’t pay attention to him and he doesn’t correct anything.’ And he tells him: ‘The problem is that he does almost everything right and I don’t have to correct anything’.”
But above all, Agirreola told Relevo that the best attribute Kepa has is the head on his shoulders.
“For me, the decisive thing is who is there first of all, what coach they have in each phase. Kepa went through many great goalkeeper coaches and he has learned something from all of them. But he has also been privileged mind. At 17, with Caparros, he worked with Luis Llopis and started training in the first team, and at such a young age it is not easy to deal with. Then, Marcelo Bielsa put him in the first team, and he took him to the final in Bucharest to be in the first team environment. And he has been international in all categories.”
Los Blancos are lucky to have been able to bring Kepa in having lost Courtois for what many assume will be most of the season, and he has already declared his desire to remain at Real Madrid beyond the end of his loan deal. That said, competing with Courtois, once the Belgian is fit, seems an unenviable task.