In Bilbao, artists usually age at the Guggenheim–their works adorning its walls, drawing sighs from beholders and enduring the inquisitive, probing eyes of menfolk who study art as a discipline. Picasso ripens there. So do Braque and Rodchenko, all framed and preserved.
Roughly three kilometres away from the Guggenheim (if you ask the cab driver for the shortest route) is a site where a different sort of artist ages as we speak–the kind that kicks elastomer balls on perfectly laid down patterns of grass.
It was early August when Aritz Aduriz, speaking to a room packed with the media in Bilbao, announced that the 2019-20 season of the Spanish top division would be his last. You may not believe it, but in Bilbao they say that the Nervion wailed and the stands of San Mames moaned at the mention of this imminent farewell. After all, one of their favourite sons seemed to have run his course.
Yet, there was something to cheer about as Aduriz reassured everyone that his announcement in no way meant that he would lower his level. It sounded like a mere consolation back then. They had already pictured him coming off the bench in the dying minutes of a game to deafening cheers; simply to give them, the fans, a momentary glimpse of their hero until the referee blew for full-time. He was 38, at the end of the day. “Fit for the museum” in football terminology.
Who knew the man would keep his word?
As a long-time club legend, Aritz Aduriz has had his fair share of moments with Los Leones. A hat-trick against Barcelona in the 2015 Spanish Supercup remains a part of that lot. Was he still capable of creating a spectacle? Many would argue that a professional modern-day footballer of his age playing in one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues would rather have a stroll on the field for the little playing time he has been summoned to fulfil. Infrequent sprints here, a mild jog there, punctuated with casual passes; not partaking in an act that would eventually become a cause of worry for an ageing body.
But in Bilbao, they raise them different.
As the opening game of the 2019-20 La Liga season was drawing to a close in Bilbao, on Friday, August 16, supporters of the Basque club witnessed an event they had been picturing in their minds for a week. With two minutes to go against the defending Liga Champions, FC Barcelona, Aritz Aduriz came off the bench.
25-year-old Iñaki Williams, who for most of the game had tried to score his 50th goal for Athletic, headed off the field without haste, hugging a teammate, applauding the supporters before sharing a high-ten and an embrace with the oncoming veteran.
The embers had certainly died. The match had ‘stalemate’ written all over it. Garitano had switched to a pragmatic five-man midfield to prevent any defensive mishap and had left Williams without much support in attack. Barcelona had started without Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez was taken off in the 37th minute owing to an injury. Griezmann and Dembele seemed to have either run out of gunpowder or dampened it.
Aduriz’s first share of playing time in his final La Liga season was destined to be the only highlight of the game.
But the Basque must have conspired with the gods of football. How else do you explain ordinary men turning back time?
With his first touch on the ball, within seconds of stepping onto the turf, Artiz Aduriz rewound the clock with his feet, the Basque air etched with its poetry.
Even as Ander Capa was making up his mind to pick the right man for the throw-in that started this affair, you could see Aduriz, stealthily stepping away into space from a three-man defensive formation near the inside edge of the penalty box behind the defender closest to him–Nelson Semedo, who, like his two partners, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet, remained fixated on the movement of the ball.
Raúl García received the throw-in. Under pressure, he lobbed the ball beyond the surrounding ring of yellow-shirted men towards the nearest corner for Capa to follow. Aduriz, careful with his steps, continued to escape the defenders’ radars. It was almost as if he had a covenant with the ball.
Imprison their eyes as you fly through the air. In concealment, I shall wait for you.
Capa chased the ball. It bounced once, but it bounced perfectly for him to hit it first-time for a cross. Along the touchline, Ernesto Valverde–hands in his pocket, a grimace on his face–foresaw what was coming, as he would later admit. The stealthy dance on the blind side of the defender while anticipating an airborne ball–the former Athletic coach knew it all too well.
The covenant, meanwhile, remained intact.
Aduriz waited. His rivals had eyes only for the flight of the ball–so she had them bound. And when she was close enough, the Basque–playing his final season in the red-and-white of Athletic–leapt in the air to greet it with the chilena.
The Nervion frolicked along its course. San Mames let out a triumphant roar under the weight of its euphoric tenants. Iñaki Williams was celebrating as if he had finally scored that 50th goal for Athletic.
Aduriz, meanwhile, roared with his pride and blew kisses towards the stands.
38 games later, he’ll say his goodbyes. Young players achieving miraculous feats in La Liga debuts will come along and make headlines that scream of first season, first match, first goal. But in Bilbao they know that Aduriz, like all 38-year-olds hitting chilenas, should be made into songs that are sung under flying banners, on quaking stands, with overflowing beer-mugs.