The first time Mikel Arteta and Andoni Iraola left Spain they did so together, on a bus bound for the Netherlands. It was the summer of 1994, they were 12 years old and crossing the border with them were a dozen or so other boys and their families. They had 20 long hours ahead, but no one cared: those were the best of times and it is the trips the kids remember most fondly, a pioneering neighbourhood football team travelling to Italy, Sweden, France, even Mexico. Where, usually, they won.
Almost 30 years later, now coaches at Arsenal and Bournemouth, Arteta and Iraola meet at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday. Born less than three months and six miles apart, they have played 1,206 professional games and coached 408 more across six countries but this is the first time football has brought them together since a Spain Under-21 international in Almendralejo 20 years ago, and only the second since they were teammates in San Sebastián, training on a concrete playground at the seminary and competing on the gravel pitches of Berio for Antiguoko Kirol Elkartea.
Antiguoko were special. Founded in 1982, the year Iraola and Arteta were born, they ended up being better than the professionals. Theirs is the team that put five past Real Sociedad and four past Real Madrid, a tale told in the trophies in the cabinet and the shirts on the walls of their centre on Plaza Errotatxo, a couple of hundred metres from the beach. The list of alumni with first-division careers is 40-strong, and it was that team – the kids from 1981 and 1982 – that brought the shift, consummating their work and enabling it to continue. Among Iraola’s and Arteta’s teammates would be Aritz Aduriz and the brothers Mikel and Xabi Alonso: a generation Arsenal’s academy would be proud of, let alone an amateur youth club in one corner of the north coast.
“Madness,” says Álvaro Parra, the centre-back. “We were just kids that went to the same schools, played together and had a laugh but bit by bit you see it: Mikel goes to Barcelona, Xabi to Real Sociedad, Andoni to Athletic. Looking back, it’s unthinkable, astonishing. It was a humble club but it was like the Dream Team. Signing for Antiguoko was like joining Real Madrid. That was a lovely era: we were young, had a brilliant side, won the league, and every summer went on trips – Sweden, France, Italy. Good people, good kids.”
Good players and, it turns out, good coaches too, their careers followed by the friends who began the journey with them. “We created a WhatsApp group not long ago, which was nice, bringing us all back together,” says Mikel Yanguas, who played up front – Batistuta, they called him. “Sport is special, a shared passion that means it’s like time doesn’t pass.” They have seen Arsenal’s Amazon documentary, exchanging messages at the funniest moments, and discussed Iraola’s emergence. He’s exactly the kid we knew, one says. Another admits wanting Real Madrid to win when Alonso played there – and that’s a sin round here.
“You think about those bus trips and bloody hell!” Yanguas says, sitting at a bar near Real Sociedad’s Anoeta stadium. “But it was so much fun. You play with your mates and on top of that you win. Our generation was special. Until then, three Antiguoko players made it as pros. We beat Real Sociedad 5-0. How can you beat Real Sociedad 5-0 with a neighbourhood team?! But it was different. Typically, kids approach their local team; Antiguoko went out and found players.”
In the words of Jon Ayerbe, who played alongside Alonso in midfield and works in Germany, Antiguoko was run by “football mad” people who would scout the school games that filled the beach on Saturdays when the tide was out, goalposts hauled out of the wooden huts in the morning and lugged back in the afternoon. They insisted on technique as the basis of everything and the demands were high. “So much so that some had a bad time of it,” he admits. “With what little money they had, the methods were practically professional,” Parra says.
Jon Álvarez, a midfielder who is now a physio at Barcelona, recalls the notebooks the boys were handed and training sessions up the hill at the seminary, a cramped concrete playground with a pelota court wedged alongside.
“All very austere, facilities that these days would look limited. We played matches with the old Mikasa – that hits you and you have the triangle mark on your leg for a week – and the gravel pitch could take half the skin off. When we got to play on proper grass, it was a reward.”
A mile or so from Antiguoko’s headquarters, Berio is astroturf now. “Kids don’t know what a stud is any more,” Yanguas laughs. “It’s lost the mystique.”
There was some talent – David Careaga comes up in conversation, a hint of Romário about him – but Arteta stood out most. Funny, smart, popular, he was a skilful No 10 who had vision and daring. “There’s one move I remember against Real Sociedad,” says Roberto Montiel, then the coach, now the director. “Mikel was very small but a born winner. He had extraordinary ability with both feet. That day, he gets the ball on the right, dribbles practically the entire team, slaloming through and then the cheeky so-and-so does this scooped shot. It’s the kind of move you’d see from Messi. That was Mikel Arteta.”
Ayerbe shakes his head and starts laughing. “Mikel was so alive. You saw it in his eyes. He understood everything so quickly. He was very intuitive. He would always find a solution. He was good at all sports – he had to decide between tennis and football – and extremely competitive. If anyone was going to make it, for character as well as talent, it was Mikel.”
At 15, Arteta, Yanguas and Álvarez joined Barcelona, the first to go. That was hard. “Well, it was for me, yeah!” Yanguas says, laughing. “I was very rooted to home. But Mikel was an extrovert, a leader in the pure sense. If you look at his career, he has always fitted in so well. It strikes me how he made the UK his place. He adapted magnificently.”
That personality, teammates agree, makes sense of Arteta coaching. “The one who surprised was Andoni,” Parra says. Yet Iraola observed, understood, a simple quality that is a product of his place reflected in how he manages. “Academically brilliant,” Yanguas calls him, a kid who would have succeeded in whatever he had done, without shouting about it.
“Andoni was a right winger who was technically very good, shy but intelligent,” Montiel recalls. “In the first year of Cadetes [under-15s], we often played teams who were older and we might find ourselves winning 1-0, so we had to learn to close the game out, hold the ball. In training I booted one in the air, Andoni controlled and we sent three to get it off him. He kept it for over a minute. I said to them: ‘See? That’s what we have to do.’”
“Andoni’s progress is interesting all the way through,” Ayerbe says. “Mikel was the kid that people came and said: ‘Who is that?!’ Andoni maybe didn’t stand out but he was elegant, did everything well, and every time he went up a level he met the demands. I trained with him until juvenil [under-19s] and, like Xabi, you could put him in a difficult position, the kind where a player’s legs tremble, and he would find a solution.
“Looking back, would I have said they’d coach? Mikel? Yeah. Xabi had lived it his whole life: his dad played and coached and Xabi would go to his sessions. Andoni? Maybe not as he had other interests, he’s quieter and I dare say there are parts of football, the spotlight, that he doesn’t like, but he always took good decisions.”
Decision is the word, Parra agrees. “He and Xabi got university degrees: they’re intelligent, prepared,” he says. “Talent matters but so does the path you choose, your attitude, and they all had that. When Mikel went to Arsenal, the chairman congratulated his dad: ‘Your son’s the first person to arrive here and not buy a Ferrari.’ He was very clear that he would make it. He didn’t go out, sacrificed everything, made the right choices. Take the decision to work with [Pep] Guardiola: he could have earned more elsewhere but knew that was the best step.”
Here, Antiguoko’s astonishing contribution is perhaps part of a wider phenomenon. “We’re talking about intelligent, thoughtful, reflexive people, good sportsmen, and maybe there’s a cultural element that helps explain it,” Ayerbe says. “The culture in the Basque Country, in Guipúzcoa, rewards humility, discretion, hard work and collectivity, solidarity. Trying to stand out is ‘punished’.”
The sporting director at Real Sociedad, Roberto Olabe, talks about a culture of mass sporting participation, competitiveness and “a socio-affective, collaborative” context, citing the concept of the cuadrilla, a tight group of lifelong friends, and the sociedades gastronomicas where cooking is a collective enterprise. It’s an idea Antiguoko’s alumni willingly engage with. That evening, a video arrives, forwarded by two of them. It opens by noting the first boat to circumnavigate the globe was brought home by a Guipúzcoan and cites the province’s achievements, including pioneering work in social services. Few are aware of this, the video notes. “And do you know why? Because we don’t tell them.”
Guipúzcoa is the smallest province in Spain – at 765 square miles, it is dwarfed by Dorset – and has a population of 760,000, less than 2% of the national total. Yet on the eve of the season it provided 20% of Premier League managers: Iraola, Arteta, Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui, who left Wolves before the opening game. The Manchester City assistant Juanma Lillo is from the province. Alonso is at Bayer Leverkusen, flying in the Bundesliga.
“I don’t think it’s chance,” Arteta has said. “There will be some common trait; I don’t know if maybe the Basque character connects well in England.” On Friday he talked about how passion for football, quality of coaching and the care taken over academies played their part.
Álvarez says: “I look back and see a childhood lived through football. On the playground, the beach, everywhere. We were friends playing, but we competed too. What they have done is extraordinary.
“Last season I saw Andoni at the Camp Nou. I hadn’t seen him for 25 years. We met in the tunnel and embraced and chatted like it was yesterday, telling stories. It was so much fun. Then in pre-season I saw Mikel and it was the same. There’s affection, admiration, a shared experience. It’s lovely. You were kids, there’s nostalgia, an era idealised in your mind. The time you spent growing up together never goes away.”
“That’s the beauty of football,” Arteta said, “30, 40 years later we are together in the Premier League,” two more members of the Dream Team reunited 700 miles from home.