San Sebastian: "When Antoine Griezmann touched the ball, the sun came up."
When Luki Iriarte says this, there is a sense of regret in his voice. Iriarte is one of Griezmann's first coaches, a man who helped shape the French World Cup winner during his nine-year stint at Real Sociedad – the first four as a youth player and then as a rising star in the first team.
Currently working with the club as the Academy Director, Iriarte has more than fond memories of his most famous ward. "He lived only 40 kilometres from here. But when we first saw him play, we knew he was good. He would play on the wing for us, not as central as he does now," Iriarte recollects.
Griezmann's career seemed like going off the track even before it began, owing to his diminutive size. Many French clubs rejected him as a youngster remarking that he was undersized. "But he grew into a bull after coming here. He wasn't always like this. Moreover, he was really shy when he first came to us, but just look at him now. His whole personality has undergone a transformation," says Iriarte, who adds the Frenchman's family was reluctant to let their 12-year-old son join a club situated some 40 kilometres away, that too in a different country.
But they relented after the club's assurances. "The French have many more holidays than us. They have vacations for Easter, for Christmas and other festivals too. We made those concessions for him, so that he could go back to his family. And look at how well that gamble paid off!"
'We care about tomorrow, not today'
With seven training pitches located on a small hillock in the countryside, Real Sociedad's sprawling Zubieta academy has possibly the most picturesque setting for a training facility. It may not be an understatement to say that the academy of the club has more plush facilities than the club's stadium itself, currently undergoing a renovation.
The academy is widely renowned as a breeding ground for talent with the likes of Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi going on to make waves in world football. Another famous product from this academy, Inigo Martinez, joined Sociedad's arch-rivals Athletic Bilbao in January earlier this year in a dismal reminder of the sway the Bilbao club holds over footballers from the Basque region, which both clubs call their catchment area.
But Iriarte is not too fazed by players departing for Athletic, even though it is becoming an alarming trend. "Inigo chose to come play for us as a youngster despite living a stone's throw away from Athletic. That speaks for how good our facilities, philosophy and methods are. We don't care about today. We think about tomorrow," he says.
That is why, Iriarte says, the club trains the academy products in a way they can adapt to any manager's formation or tactics should they break into the main team.
The club had a 364-day dalliance with former Everton and Manchester United manager David Moyes. "Our philosophy behind training players is carried out taking into account the reality of the club. The first team will have a different style of training and playing because of the coach. Our philosophy to train the young academy players cannot be a rigid 4-4-2. Because the new coach who will come to take charge of the main team could prefer a different formation. Our methodologies are more open and fluid. We teach our players the game and its concepts. So that when they make it to the main team they can adapt," he says.
"We like our players to be quick and aggressive. But we also want them to be aware of what spaces are available once they have the ball at their feet. If they can do that, nothing can stop you from being another Griezmann, Alonso or Illarramendi," says Iriarte.
The writer is in Spain at the invitation of LaLiga
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Updated Date: Oct 05, 2018 15:28:36 IST