When Mikel Arteta and Andoni Iraola embrace and head to their respective dugouts ahead of Bournemouth’s Premier League game against Arsenal on Saturday, it will mark the latest chapter in a story that stretches back three decades.
Similarly, it will be another notable moment for the smallest province in Spain that has come to have an outsized influence upon the Premier League and European football as a whole.
Nestled in the autonomous Basque region, Gipuzkoa has a population of 715,000 across roughly 2,000 square kilometres. Heading into the 2023/24 season, it accounted for a fifth of the managers in England’s top flight.
Arteta was ready for another tilt at the title with his Arsenal predecessor Unai Emery making waves at Aston Villa. Iraola was an eye-catching if controversial replacement for Gary O’Neil at Bournemouth. O’Neil soon found himself back in work at Wolves, where Julen Lopetegui’s departure turned the quartet into a trio.
Another Gipuzkoan recently pacing Premier League technical was Juanma Lillo. Pep Guardiola required back surgery and his assistant and long-time mentor Lillo took charge of Manchester City’s wins over Sheffield United and Fulham. At that time, City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain was putting the final touches on deals to sign Matheus Nunes and Jeremy Doku. Begiristain is another Gipuzkoa native.
Look a little further afield and Xabi Alonso is making waves at Bayer Leverkusen as one of Europe’s most highly-rated young coaches. At this point, you don’t really need telling where he’s from, do you?
This production line does not just relate to tacticians. A recent report by Basque daily El Diario Vasco detailed how Gipuzkoa’s population has yielded 23 players currently plying their trade in LaLiga. Barcelona has the same number, albeit from a population in excess of 5.6 million. Madrid’s metropolitan area is the only place with more LaLiga players, although its 38 comes from a population of 6.8 million.
Proportionately nowhere gets close to Gipuzkoa.
Who are Antiguoko?
Many of the threads from the current era of excellence go back to one, small amateur youth club.
Arteta, Alonso and Iraola all played for the same Antiguoko side in San Sebastian until the former left to join Barcelona at 15. Alonso and Iraolo remained through to the under-18 category. Antiguoko do not field senior teams.
That generation cemented the club’s reputation as a breeding ground for prime talent. That has not always been an easy label with which to exist.
“It was just a little regional boys team in the 1980s until they just so happened to have Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta playing in the same team. It changed them overnight,” Spanish football expert and author of Morbo Phil Ball explained.
“From that they became quite famous. They were quite clever, they got money from Arteta going to Barcelona. Anyone who went Real Sociedad and then Athletic Club, they made money out of it.
“It was basically Real Sociedad’s B team by the time they got to 17 or 18. They belong to Atheltic now, which is a bit controversial.”
Irrespective of being drawn into rows between bitter rivals Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, Antiguoko’s star has continued to rise. Arteta still visits regularly and Iraola went back to start his coaching career while completing his UEFA Pro License.
Is Gipuzkoa a wealthy region?
While selling the likes of Arteta and Alonso helped Antiguoko to become financially flush, Gipuzkoa as a whole is very prosperous. “There’s a lot of money under the mattress here” as Ball puts it.
As the likes of Lopetegui, Emery, Lillo and Begiristain demonstrate, this is not just a phenomenon of a single generation from Antiguoko.
The capacity to invest in football infrastructure at the grassroots level and having more money per head of population for sporting investment is obviously helpful.
“The easy answer would be that the Basque country is really passionate about football but that would probably apply at this point to most of the world,” said Benat Gutierrez of Radio Popular.
“There are other factors. There’s a really strong local football network, a lot of small teams that give opportunities both to players and then to managers to start working.”
Align organisation and investment with a strong, passionate football culture and you’re really cooking.
“You’ve got that gnarly Mourinho-style ‘everyone’s against us’ thing here that you get in Catalunya,” Ball explained.
“But because Catalunya’s bigger perhaps it gets more diluted. You’ve got Espanyol as a football team and their associated social side in Catalunya.
“You don’t have that [difference] here so maybe there’s a more intense identity and this gets reflected in this Gipuzkoan thing.”
Gipuzkoa football: British and global influence
The Basque Country accounting for such a significant proportion of the Premier League’s brains’ trust can be viewed as a debt repaid.
Howard Kendall managed Athletic Club between 1987 and 1989, a move that nodded towards their proud British heritage, and former Wales boss John Toshack was a more successful presence at Real Sociedad during the same period.
La Real won the Copa del Rey in 1986/87 and finished as runners-up in LaLiga the following year.
“Obviously football started with British guys everywhere but the link here in the Basque country was stronger, the economic links were stronger,” Gutierrez explained. “Bilbao has a reputation of being a very British city. It’s probably not true but it was part of [an identity].”
Ball recalled a story about an unnamed member of Liverpool’s backroom staff, who was worried about how Alonso might cope with the physical demands of the Premier League The naysayer was told: “Don’t worry, he’s Basque; not Spanish”.
“Traditionally, it’s true,” Ball said of the Basque reputation for a more physical, uncompromising style
“If you look at players who won the 1981/82 championship for Real Sociedad, they had big guys at the back who you wouldn’t mess around with. Athletic had that thing with Andoni Goikoetxea too.”
What is the Basque football style?
Goikoetxea was dubbed “The Butcher of Bilbao” after infamously breaking Diego Maradona’s ankle in a match against Barcelona in 1983. Athletic were reigning LaLiga champions at the time and went on to complete the league and cup double in 1983/84, even if the latter triumph over Barca is best remembered for Maradona and Goikoetxea marking their reunion by sparking a mass brawl at fulltime.
That all-conquering Athletic side was led by Javier Clemente, who later clashed with Guardiola during his period as Spain manager — his pragmatic and physical approach did not exactly chime with Catalunya’s great Cruyffian disciple.
Athletic’s most famous spell of the 21st century came under Marcelo Bielsa. If you tried to draw a coach to contrast any more with Clemente you’d delve too far into parody. But the Basque country, in Gipuzkoa and beyond, has proved to be a place that absorbs and adapts diverse football influences very effectively.
Arteta and Alonso made late-career moves to learn under Guardiola, whose closest allies in football are Lillo and Begiristain. Emery and Lopetegui are more pragamtic presences. Like Clemente, Lopetegui coached Spain and has sometimes been subjected to similar criticism with regard to alleged caution.
Iraola was the archetype of the physical, uncompromising Athletic defender but has spoken of Bielsa’s shaping influence on his football philosophy. During a spell in MLS with New York City, he also became an American football obsessive, following the New York Giants and taking inspiration from NFL coaching methodology.
“One of the keys for this group of managers is they went abroad and they learned from other experiences,” Gutierrez said. “I think it’s key to understanding what they’ve done.
“The most universal Gipuzkoan ever is Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first person to circumnavigate the world. I think that’s part of the provincial and regional identity and personality; going abroad, learning and applying all that — your regional identity and everything you find along the way.”
As Arteta and Iraola moor up on England’s south coast this weekend, Gipuzkoa’s remarkable influence on elite football in the 21st century looks set to sail on for some time.