On the 20th December 2015, with 87 minutes played in the fixture between Athletic Bilbao and Levante, one of my favourite footballing moments of the year took place, as Iker Muniain returned to playing action after serious injury. 8 months previously he suffered a cruciate ligament injury during a fixture away to Sevilla, and his return to playing action at San Mamés was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation and chants of his name. Iker Muniain has Athletic Club in his blood, he is one of the people and his return from injury would bring an emotional reaction from fans and player alike. He had just celebrated his 23rd birthday the day prior to the Levante fixture, and this return would come as the greatest gift he could possibly be given.
It is surprising to a number of people that Muniain has only just turned 23, he burst onto the footballing scene at such a young age that he has picked up the playing time of a footballing veteran. Despite the eight-month hiatus in 2015, the young winger has still played over 250 games for the Athletic Bilbao first team. In 2009 the 16-year-old Iker would be introduced to Europa League football with Athletic Club, in a defeat against Swiss side Young Boys and would become the youngest ever player to represent the club in an official fixture at 16 years, 7 months and 11 days. This record would be added to in upcoming weeks as Muniain became the youngest Athletic player to score a professional goal, the youngest to play in La Liga and the youngest to score a first division goal. He was set fort super stardom it seemed, with some in the media labelling him as the ‘Spanish Messi’. In 2010/11 he was also awarded the ‘La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year’ award as a sign of the talent he possessed.
His talent has also been recognised at International level with huge success in the youth ranks, Under 17, Under 19, and also Under 21 levels saw impressive displays by the youngster. He was also included in the London 2012 Spanish Olympic team and earnt his first and only senior cap to date against Venezuela, also in 2012. Muniain has garnered great tournament experience for the Spanish youth sides, mainly due to the early age he broke through into the Bilbao ranks. He helped Spain finish third in the 2009 Under 17 World Cup, was a runner up with Spain in the 2010 Under 19 European Championships and had massive success with the Under 21’s. In 2011 and 2013 Muniain was a big part of the squad that lifted, then retained, the European Under 21 Championship titles. A golden young generation for Spain that the man from Pamplona was a big part of.
Under the coaching of Joaquín Caparrós and then Marcelo Bielsa, Muniain’s game really began to come together at club level. The tricky winger would cause havoc for defences on the left hand side, as he would use his pace and skills to tremendous effect. His final ball and goal scoring were still in need of some work, but his energy and team work combined with natural talents were turning the youngster into one of the game’s most sought after players. He would reach his peak during the 2011/12 season as under Bielsa an impressive Athletic side reached the Europa League finals, knocking out Manchester United and Schalke en-route. Muniain along with Óscar de Marcos, Susaeta and Fernando Llorente were on top form and the club found themselves as the neutrals favourite in the final against Atlético Madrid. Ultimately disappointment would follow as the Madrid side ran out comfortable winners in the final played in Bucharest.
However, since the departure of Bielsa and until the injury of 2015, the form of Muniain would drop off slightly and his spectacular momentum slowed. Still full of quality, his consistency of performance was lacking and he wouldn’t have the effect on games as he once did. Criticism was made of his mental toughness in dealing with setbacks during a game. A missed chance, a bad pass, it would sometimes cause the winger to suffer a confidence crisis but I believe there is a reason for this. Iker Muniain is Athletic Club through and through, like I mentioned before, he is one of the people and has a passion for the club just as the fans do. So when he makes a mistake the weight of pressure and feeling of letting people down can affect his game. This can be highlighted in one scene in particular, at the end of the Europa League final defeat to Atlético Madrid the camera panned to a young Iker Muniain sobbing uncontrollably into the Bucharest turf. The club means everything to him, and ultimately this passion could end up hurting his career progression at the same time as making him a legend.
If, and this is a big ‘if’ as I cannot see it happening anytime soon, if Iker Muniain was to leave San Mamés I actually believe he would become a better player. He has enormous talent that is gulfed on occasion by his enormous passion. Take away that passion and fear of letting down his people, and the talent would shine through. If he turned in a bad performance for a Manchester United, he could forget it much quicker than he can in Bilbao. That’s the major critique that can be levelled at Iker, he currently cares too much and it is holding him back. At the same time, the Athletic fans adore him and you have to ask the serious question, at the end of his career what would Iker Muniain rather look back on? A career where he reached the very top, became a national star and won trophies, or a legend of Athletic Club where he broke club records and proudly wore the shirt until his retirement, a potential rival to Iribar’s appearance record. As an outsider I feel he would choose the second path, maybe that’s what make Iker Muniain truly special. Maybe in many years from now he’ll become a part of local folklore, his hometown of Pamplona will perhaps be famous for something other than bull running, perhaps it’ll be just as famous as the birthplace of a football icon. The king of San Mamés, Iker Muniain.
Whatever happens in the future of the tricky little winger, it is great to see him back playing football again after such a serious injury. Bilbao needs his talent, La Liga needs his talent, hey football itself needs it. He’s been one of my favourite players to watch over the years, and I am eager to see how he performs now he’s back playing again. Maybe the break will have given him the freshen up he perhaps needed, possibly the emotions of being back could hamper his talent, it’s going to be exciting to watch. Welcome back Iker Muniain, football missed you.