La Liga started on 16th August with a clash of old rivals – Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at San Mames. These were two of the three sides that have never dropped from Spanish La Liga, alongside Real Madrid. Although Athletic Bilbao hasn’t won a title in from the early ’80s rivalry stood still.

That summer night, it seemed that this season will start steamless for both teams. It was 88th minute when the oldest player in both teams stepped on the court. The striker went in for a striker, and nothing changed in the formation. It seemed both teams are happy with a draw, but then all that changed.

Bilbao’s biggest talent Inaki Williams was subbed off, so he had a chance to see the man he occasionally calls “father” perform the perfect “Last Dance“.

Just a couple of moments have passed, and Ander Capa was hurdling across the right side of the pitch. He delivered a long cross into the penalty area of Barca in a desperate attempt to get a last-minute victory.

Nelson Semedo ran towards his own goal and left Bilbao striker, alone. Number 20 rose high, levitated above the ground in an almost unreal manner, and smashed a scissor kick into the Mark-Andre Ter Stegen’s net.

San Mames was in awe. Ter Stegen was exhausted and furious. In his time with Barca that was the sixth time Aritz Aduriz scored against him.

I’m glad he’s coming to the end of his amazing career because I won’t have to face him anymore”, the Barça number 1 ironically said.

One of the players who has done me the most harm in La Liga is Aduriz”.

Aduriz was 39 at the time, and this was his last season. He has injured his hip last year, and years were catching up. His family was sitting in the stadium, and his oldest daughter finally realized that her dad was an icon at San Mames.

It was the begining of the end of the cult icon of Basque Country. But it wasn’t really your tipical football story, it was really a case of football’s Benjamin Button.

Snowboarding and sweet football tides

In 1922 Fitzerald wrote about a certain Benjamin Button, boy born on the evening of November 11, 1918, with the appearance and maladies of an elderly man. As he gets older, he ages reversely – from an old man to a young boy.

Aritz Aduriz was 23 when he realized that he could make a living off football, and from the start his path was different.

His parents were in sports, but not football. He was born in San Sebastian, and as a boy was an exceptional skier. At the age of 9, he was runner up in a national cross-country skiing championship for his age group. His parents were ski instructors, so they were eager for their son to excel in skiing. Because San Sebastian is a city leaning on an ocean Aduriz surfed, snowboarded, and even climbed mountains. Young Aritz done all of these things so well, but his heart was elsewhere.

He could recall watching just one game at “Anoeta“, he even watched Basque pelota games more than football. Aritz didn’t have posters on the wall or his football heroes. He just loved the game, he just loved playing it.

And his first playing days weren’t ordinary. Due to the unique geography of San Sebastian, football grounds for kids were by the ocean. Often kids could play on them every 15 days when the tide is out. Basque boys would quickly make a ground, with boots as goalposts, and then play as long as they could.

When he first started playing organized football, he joined local San Sebastian amateur side Antiguoko. That team was mainly a feeder club for Real Sociedad, but in those years they have struck an agreement with Athletic Bilbao for some reason.

That Antiguoko side was exceptional – he played alongside future Athletic Bilbao teammate Andoni Iraola, as well as Alonso brothers – Mikel and Xabi. Present-day Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was also in that team.

By 1999. all of his talented teammates were snapped up by big clubs. Iraola went to Bilbao, father of Xabi and Mikel Alonso vetoed their move to a rival club, and kept his sons in San Sebastian, in Real Sociedad. Mikel Arteta went to “La Masia“, and Aduriz was left in the Antiguoko.

In his 5 years there, he never scored more than 8 goals, and that’s not the kind of statistic that will make you play in La Liga. There weren’t many opportunities for young Basque striker, so he took the only one he could. Second Division B Aurrera de Vitoria came calling in 1999, and he played a season there. In 25 games he scored 8 times, but fortunate thing was that he scored 2 times in 3:2 away win at Athletic Club’s training ground. Club representatives saw him and signed him for their reserve side.

Basque work ethic, Valladolid revelation and Mallorca beaches

Even though he isn’t your typical towering target man, he managed to adapt to Segunda. People watching La Liga don’t really have an impression of how important is aerial play in Spanish lower leagues. Aduriz managed to get into the team and play regularly, but he wasn’t a standout.

In two years he scored 18 times for Athletic Bilbao reserve team and got a call up for the first team just to fill in a roster spot.  German coaching great Jupp Heynckes was at the helm of Bilbao, and in a career full of symbols and signs, he started Aduriz’s career very fatefully.

In 2002, Aduriz was brought on in a game against Barcelona, but this was just a wall he needed to hit. After a season on the bench, 3 substitute appearances and 54 minutes on the pitch, it was time to go. But, for a 22-year-old Basque that wasn’t a disappointment. He knew he just needed to work hard, and that opportunity will come. 

“The Basques have a strong work ethic, which explains their reputation as hard-working people. A century and a half of industrial experience have developed an enterprising spirit and tenacious discipline among the population, in addition to technical expertise and an appreciation for a job well done and appropriately compensated”, explains one great article about him.

In fact, his path was just starting. He joined third-tier Burgos on loan, and the first time in his life he scored double-digit goals. At 22, in third-tier, this doesn’t seem like the beginning of the greatest Basque football story of the XXI century. But it was.

Valladolid came calling, and he went there, to play in Segunda once more, In his first season there he scored 14 times, and for the first time in his life he was sure that he could make a living out of football. After half of the second season and 6 goals on his account, Athletic Bilbao came calling once again.

Due to their policy of signing only Basque players, Athletic Bilbao is after every Basque who happens to have a good season. They knew Aritz, and he was about to hit his peak, at least they thought so. They were also playing football suited for his strengths, a 4-3-2-1 formation with a target man upfront.

Fernando Llorente was another young striker in the squad, but Aduriz had an immediate impact on the team. Even though he arrived after half a season was already played, with 6 goals in 15 games he was club leading scorer.

But between aging Ismael Urzaiz and hotter prospect seen in Llorente, he never got his starting place. After 9 goals next season, and decreasing 5 in 2007/08, he once again left the club for free. On the books, Mallorca paid a second-largest transfer fee in the club’s history for him (behind only Samuel Eto’o), but soon after the club went into administration, and Bilbao never got their money. Llorente and Ion Velez stayed in the Basque country as a striking partners, and Aduriz left for a sunny place with beaches. And he never regretted that.

From the start, fans loved him. A warrior on the field, he managed two seasons with double-digit goals, and Mallorca earned a place in Europe for the 2010/11 season. But the club was having financial trouble, so they sold him to Valencia for €4.5 million.

“Los Ches” were in need of fresh blood. They sold David Villa to Barcelona, and towering Serbian giant Nikola Žigić also left the club. Aduriz once again scored on his debut, against Malaga, but he wasn’t considered good enough to be a first striker for a team that wanted Champions League football.

At 29, Valencia brought him because he was considered consistent, and a player that won’t mind being on the bench. In his first season, he discovered a great partnership with Soldado and scored 10 times that season. But, before the end of that season, coach Unay Emery criticized him a couple of times, and their relationship completely crumbled. Even if Aduriz was good enough to make a debut for Spain coming off the bench against Lithuania, he wasn’t good enough for Emery.

It was March 2011, and Valencia was playing Schalke in the Champions League. They needed a victory in order to progress through group stages, but young Manuel Neuer showed his class and stopped quite a few Aduriz’s chances.  That was the end of the story for him in Valencia. It was time to go back home and become a legend.

Late bloomer out of nowhere

In football, like in life, I think you’re learning continuously. I was always a late developer”, Aduriz said once in an interview. And he was right.

Arriving at Athletic Club for the third time, now aged 31, no one expected anything great from him, Quite a few eyebrows were raised when he signed a three-year contract.

He went on to score 149 goals, win a trophy, and become Spain’s oldest goalscorer in history. He went on to average 0.55 goals per game after his 31st birthday, compared to 0.29 per game before that.

Athletic Bilbao lost two cup finals with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm a year before that. Barca beat them in Copa del Rey final, and Simeone’s Atletico proved too strong in Europa League final. They would have to wait, but Aduriz was going to get them their first trophy in 31 years.

Llorente was still there, but he wanted to leave for a bigger club, and Athletic didn’t have an alternative for him. They wanted a bench player and got a legend.

Aduriz just exploded. He scored 18 times in the first season of the third stint at the club. Next year Llorente left for Juventus, but Athletic had just enough firepower because Aduriz scored 16 times in La Liga.

Bilbao finished the season in fourth place just behind Atletico, Barca and Real Madrid, and Aduriz was a focal point of that team. Iker Muniain, Mikel Susaeta, and Oscar De Marcos on the wings constantly found their first-choice striker in the air and assisted to him.

He also constantly played first-touch balls to release his teammates and find them behind the opponent’s defense lines after passes from midfield duo of Ander Herrera and Ander Iturraspe. The hottest prospect in this team was Aymeric Laporte, who constantly found his striker with long-balls.

Finishing fourth meant that his team will play in Champions League next season, and that was the season Aduriz secured his place in Basque club’s history.

Golden years of Basque’s Benjamin Button

I have never seen this, ever. Usually, you think: ‘He’s 35, he has to drop at the same stage,’ but you look at him and you just don’t want the league to finish ever. He’s incredible. I have never seen this in an outfield player. I have run out of adjectives for him.”, Ernesto Valverde said in 2016.

Even though Aduriz had 2 outstanding seasons behind him, in 2014 he was 33, and everyone expected him to drop. From 16, he jumped to 18 goals in La Liga and won Zarra trophy, a reward for the best Spanish goalscorer in La Liga.

The season started with play-offs for Champions League spot with Napoli, and after 1:1 at San Paolo, Italians came to San Mames. After the goalless first half, Marek Hamšik silenced the crowd with a goal in 2nd minute of the 2nd half. Just after the hour mark – Aduriz equalized, and 8 minutes later made it 2:1. Ibai’s goal was just icing on the cake, but everyone knew who was the man who propelled the team into Champions League.

In Copa Del Rey Aritz scored goals that got the team through the ties with Celta Vigo (2 goals), Malaga (only goal of the two-legged tie), and Espanyol (two goals). Unfortunately, Barca was too strong in the final, but the trophy was around the corner.

Two sides met again in August when Supercopa de Espana took place at the start of the new season. The first match was played at San Mames, and Mikel San Jose opened the scoring. In 52nd minute he flew over Mascherano to make it 2:0. 9 minutes later he scored again, and then he converted a penalty. Athletic managed to humiliate Barcelona 4:0 with Messi, Suarez, Alves, Pedro, Mascherano, and Iniesta in the team.

Three days later Barca opened the scoring, but then Gerard Pique was sent off. Oscar de Marcos outjumped Jeremy Mathieu and passed the ball to a wide-open Aduriz in 74th minute. Claudio Bravo managed to save his shot, but the ball went straight back to Basque striker. He opened his arms and rushed to the fans. They knew they won it. First title for Bilbao in 31 years. And 34-year-old striker managed to get it to Basque club with a hat-trick and a goal in the return leg.

More than 50.000 people waited in Bilbao to greet their heroes, and they all chanted Aritz’s name. But that was just a beginning of an outrageous season for the best 34-year-old football have seen in a long time.

Four defeats in the first five games in La Liga went unnoticed because the team has won a trophy and has qualified for Europa League. In an opening game against Augsburg German team led, but then Aduriz scored twice to ensure his team win. He scored in a defeat to AZ, and in 5:1 trashing of Partizan at home and helped Bilbao top their Europa League group.

They drew Marseille in the knockout round, and Basque striker ended up in all the news. The first game was played in France, and at half time it was 0:0. In 54th minute Sabin Merino passes the ball back to the goalkeeper Iago Herrerin, and he cleared the ball.

After an aerial duel between Athletic Bilbao midfielder and Marseille centre back, ball drops in front of Aduriz. And he knew right away. He didn’t wait for it to drop to the ground, rather than that he smashed it from 45 meters.  The perfect volley was looping in the air, and Steve Mandanda was out of his line. He couldn’t do anything, but to make a goal even more beautiful with his effort to save it.

He went on to score a goal against Valencia that saw his team through to the semifinals, and he bagged two times against Sevilla in semis, but “eternal” UEL winners were better, and in the end, won the competition the fifth time.

But Aduriz was in the history books. He smashed Alan Shearer’s record for Europa League (or UEFA Cup) oldest top goalscorer. With 10 goals, he outscored likes of Bakambu, Aubameyang, Gameiro, Lamela, Callejon, Reus

Making Del Bosque make his move

That kind of form couldn’t go unnoticed for Spain’s head coach Vicente Del Bosque. Aduriz didn’t fit at all with his heavy possession football, and formations often lacking a true striker. Aduriz linked the play with flick-ons, one-touch passes, and was great in the air. That wasn’t a thing for the Spanish national side.

But in a season that great, Del Bosque had to call-up 35-year-old Aduriz, first time after 6 years. He was called up for friendlies against Italy and Romania, and he immediately scored against Italy.

The season went on, and Aduriz never dropped in form. At the start of March Bilbao played Deportivo La Coruna at home, and Aduriz scored a hat-trick. It was his third of the season, and he became only sixth La Liga played to score three goals in one match after his 35th birthday. Athletic enjoyed great last third of the season with 8 wins, 3 draws, and only 2 defeats from the end of February until the end of the season in La Liga.

Aduriz played most minutes for Athletic Club that season among all outfield players apart Oscar De Marcos, and scored astonishing 36 goals in 55 games. He secured back to back Zarra Trophies, after getting 20 goals in the league and surpassing Alberto Bueno to became the best Spanish goalscorer in La Liga.

Del Bosque couldn’t close his eyes before this Basque Benjamin Button, a striker that peaked at 35. So he picked Aduriz to be a second striker for his team at Euro 2018, alongside Alvaro Morata. In group stages, Aduriz came off the bench for Morata twice, and in the knockout match against Italy he came in for Nolito.

Spain went out of the tournament at round-of-16, but Aduriz didn’t have his last word for the national team. In the middle of November, Spain played a 2018 World Cup qualification match against Macedonia. In one of the counter-attacks, Aduriz came from the right side, used the perfect passed, and smashed the ball into the net. He was 35 years and 275 days old, and he became the oldest goalscorer for Spain in history.

Fear in the Belgian eyes and a hip that din’t last

Season 2016/17, and once again, the same old story. Aritz Aduriz doesn’ stop. At the start of November, he puts on a show in Europa League. Athletic Bilbao beat Genk 5:3 and passed onto the knockout stages, and he scored all five goals!

He was the first player to score five goals in the second-tier of a European competition since Fabrizio Ravanelli has done that for Juventus against CSKA Sofia in 1994.

Even at 36-years-old, he was the third-best scorer of Europa League that season, behind only Edin Džeko and Giuliano with a goal more than him. In La Liga, he scored 16 times, and never lost steam. In the next season, all was going well, but sometimes into the season, Aduriz injured his hip, and never recovered from that. His years were finally catching up to him.

Without him in the team, Bilbao struggled. They tried putting in Inaki Williams or Iker Munian at the striker spot, but they are natural wingers. They bought Kenan Kodro, a Basque Country born Bosnia international to the team, but he wasn’t a solution.

In 2018/19 season Basque clubs started with just 2 wins in the first 17 games and disaster was around the corner. The first relegation in history was possible, but then Aduriz turned the season around with a penalty. Bilbao was awarded the penalty at the end of the first half against Valladolid, and Aduriz took responsibility. He grabbed the ball, put it into the spot, and then from a bent position just placed it into the corner of the goal. No run-up. Nothing. Never before have we seen such a penalty.

And from that moment on Athletic Club went on to win 11 games, and lose European spot to Espanyol on goal difference. This season started with a thunderous karate-like goal against Barcelona at the start of the season and ended in a proper way.

Just before coronavirus suspended football in Spain, Bilbao won 4:1 against Valladolid in an away game. Aduriz came on for Inaki Williams in 89th minute, and that was his last game. He finished his playing days at the place he first discovered he could do it. He can be a professional football player.

 “It was in a place where I feel very calm,” he said. “I felt a lot of affection there.”

Glorious end of the road

Aduriz came to his childhood club for the third time and became a legend. He won a trophy for them, and everyone in the world wanted him to have the chance to win another one. Everyone except him.

Success is important. But it is just as important that people remember you. Playing a final would be the ultimate, of course, but I am not sure if I would want to play in one like that.”

Athletic Bilbao qualified for Copa del Rey final, and it will be played against a team from Aduriz’s hometown – Real Sociedad. All Basque final and winning a trophy would be a glorious end of the road, but not for Aritz.

Doctors said he needed to operate his hip immediately in order for him to have a normal life. Club wanted to extend his contract, but he said no. He knew that this is the end of the road.

Forget dream finals, there will be time to say goodbye. The time has come, the end of this journey which has been wonderful from start to finish.”, he wrote in his goodbye letter.

He didn’t care about any ceremonial goodbyes. Like in his career, he did it on his own terms, in his own way. A kid never seen as top prospect leaves the game with 285 goals scored in 780 games played. He leaves the game with 66% of his first division goals scored over the age of 30.

Only two players in history have scored a goal in 15 straight La Liga seasons. One of them is Aduriz and the other one? Lionel Messi.

And when Vicente Del Bosque says that someone is “an exceptional case, unique”, that means something. When Xavi Hernandez describes you as the best header in the game, that means something.

In the end, he got a farewell he deserves. Staff and players of Athletic Bilbao honored him and said farewell to the biggest club legend in XXI history.

To the footbal’s Benjamin Button, a guy that did it his own way.

To Aritz Aduriz.

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