Kepa Arrizabalaga

The Keeper of La Roja

12/31/2019 · By Iñigo Esteban
Kepa Arrizabalaga openning
Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. © John Sibley / Reuters

Settled under the goalposts of Spain’s national football team, Kepa Arrizabalaga is preparing for his first big challenge as La Roja’s goalkeeper: Euro 2020. The Basque goalie doesn’t shy away from our questions and clears each of the topics we bring up, from his feelings towards the tournament to his life in London, with the same confidence as he shows under the goalposts of his club and the national team.

Iribar, Arconada, Ochotorena, Zubizarreta… are some of the distinguished keepers that the Basque Country has given to the Spanish football team. This list now includes the name of the last goalie born on the shores of the Cantabrian Sea: Kepa Arrizabalaga (Vizcaya, 1994). At 25, but with a long track record, you could say that the young goalie has laid his hands on the role of starting goalkeeper of La Roja, although he’d rather not label himself. “Nobody’s spot is guaranteed here. The fact that the same three goalies are regularly called up means that we’re doing a good job on our teams and that the manager trusts us, but the level is really high in Spain and you can never let your guard down”, he reminds us.

Since the age of 10, all the under categories of Athletic de Bilbao witnessed the swift ascent of a young goalie who grew up both on his dream team and the different divisions of the Spanish team; today he’s considered one of the best goalies in the world. As part of his training as a football player, Ponferradina and Valladolid were two of the first steps on his career ladder before earning the starting goalkeeper position at Athletic. It will probably be precisely at this stadium where he will land this summer as the keeper of La Roja. For sure, it’s very likely. “Bilbao and San Mamés are a city and stadium that I know very well. San Mamés is a five-star pitch and an unbeatable place to play football”, he says with authority, after defending the goalposts of The Cathedral of Spanish football for three seasons.

“Nobody’s spot is guaranteed here. The fact that the same three goalies are regularly called up means that we’re doing a good job”

Euro 2020, the Spanish national football team’s next big challenge

Despite already playing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Euro 2020 this summer will be special for Kepa. Not only because it’s held in Bilbao, his hometown, but because it’s the first big national team tournament where he has the chance of playing more minutes. “We need to feel confident and comfortable with our way of playing. The good thing is that we have several important matches beforehand to help us prepare”, he says, adding: “We must continue with our philosophy of putting pressure at the top, having the ball, creating scoring chances and dominating matches from start to finish. This is the idea that has made Spain successful previously and it’s the course we should follow”.

The change in manager hasn’t been very significant in Kepa’s opinion: “Both have worked together for a long time, which means that they share the same idea of play and the same training style. Also, the rest of the coaching team has remained the same”. The latest results against Norway and Sweden also shouldn’t tarnish the team’s good classification phase. “Everything must work towards helping us grow and fulfil the goal we’ve set ourselves. It’s true that they were two ties in a row which, after our six previous wins, could be seen as a setback, but they’re two good teams that were playing towards the classification and at home. I think we’ve played at a competitive level,” he says.

Kepa will have a harder time against the two cornerstones on the road to preparing Euro 2020: The Netherlands and Germany. “We’re up against two big rivals that represent the highest European level right now. These matches will be two important tests for the summer and they’ll probably help us to see what condition we’re in and to improve the aspects that we need to work on”.

“We must continue with our philosophy of putting pressure at the top, having the ball, carving out openings and dominating matches from start to finish”

Trying to keep the pressure off, Kepa assures us that “being among the front-runners is something that the competition itself will sort out; it will also put us in our place”. It’s undeniable that Euro 2020 will be a special event for the Basque goalie, not only because of his advantage against David De Gea, in their struggle to be starting goalkeeper, but because the tournament will follow a brand-new format. “The fact that there’ll be several venues throughout the continent won’t be a problem. For the supporters, this kind of format allows more people to go to the stadiums and create a great atmosphere”, he celebrates.

It’s precisely the atmosphere that is particularly noteworthy at England’s pitches, where he moved 18 months ago after signing with Chelsea, looking for new challenges. “The truth is that I’ve adapted well to life in London. Obviously, it’s not the same as living in Spain and it takes some time to adjust”, he admits while refusing to make comparisons. “London and Bilbao are very different cities. Obviously, Bilbao is still my comfort zone because it’s my home and my family and friends are nearby”. And where will we see you in a few years’ time? “We can’t control the future, least of all with football!”.

An expert in off-pitch ‘singing’

It seems that balls soaring through the air are not the only flying objects that Kepa Arrizabalaga loves. As well as being one of the best goalies in the world, this Basque keeper is a great lover of bird trapping. His father, Peio, taught him this hobby at the age of five, which consists of capturing and breeding certain field birds in order to train them to sing. He’s quite good at it: when he was young, between books and balls, he made time to compete nationally with his goldfinches, and even won two Singing Bird Championships in Biscay in 2008 and 2010.