Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga talks us through his footballing journey, from starting out at the Athletic Bilbao academy right through to the present day.
The goalkeeper reflects on tournament success with Spain Under-19s and making his debut for the senior side, as well as discussing his move to Stamford Bridge and the differences between English and Spanish football.
I started at the Athletic Bilbao Academy as a nine-year-old. I’d been playing for a local team in my hometown and luckily enough there were four of us who went to the academy, because it was a 45-minute journey to Bilbao, which we did about four times a week, and it’s not easy as a nine-year-old to do that. I worked my way up in the Academy, year on year I went up in the categories and I was lucky that it was a really good academy where I learnt not just about football skills, but values as well.
When I was playing in the lower age groups I had different managers and I took something different from all of them. But I was only 16 when I was involved with the first team and I learnt a lot from trainers such as Joaquín Caparros and Marcelo Bielsa. The fact I joined the first team at such young age meant it was a major turning point. It meant I had to mature much quicker and then there was the opportunity given to me by Ernesto Vervelde.
I was part of the Spain Under-19 team which won the European Championships in 2012. It was a great opportunity to play in a very strong team. There were some fantastic players like Saul Niguez, Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu, and to be a European champion at the age of 19 is something you always remember with a smile, it’s a great memory for me to have.
My two loan spells at Ponferradina and Real Valladolid were another step in my journey. I had one-and-a-half years playing in the Segunda, which isn’t the Premier League but I was outside the academy, playing proper football, which meant a lot to me in terms of my learning and development.
I went back to Bilbao more prepared. Valverde gave me my debut against Deportivo La Coruna, on 11 September 2016, which was the realisation of a dream I’d had since I first joined the academy.
I made my senior Spain debut against Costa Rica in 2017. The day I was called up by the national team was very special for me. For any player their debut for the national team is incredibly important. It gives you confidence and you feel good about the trust being deposited in you. It’s also rewarding and tells you that all the work you’ve done to get to that point was worth it. At the same time it encourages you to keep working that hard in order to get to where you want to be.
Leaving your environment, and the place where you have grown up, is always going to be difficult. But I felt moving to Chelsea was an important step in my career so that’s why I wanted to do it, but of course I will always be grateful to Athletic Bilbao for all the years I spent with them, and for all they’ve given me.
The Premier League and La Liga are very different. The style of play is different, the person training me is different, everything is different and new. But all in all, so far I feel very happy. I think I’m adapting very well to being in the team, which is the most important thing, and I’m really looking forward to spending a long time in the Premier League with Chelsea.