Athletic Bilbao have enjoyed a notable start to the season, sitting in eighth place in La Liga following the weekend’s 2-2 draw away at Real Valladolid, as Joaquin Caparros has led the team to one of their brighter La Liga starts in recent years.
Caparros, who made his name as Sevilla manager, has constructed a team that is certainly not lacking in quality. Striker Fernando Llorente has been capped by Spain (scoring against England), and has scored seven goals in all competitions this season. Javi Martinez has shown why Rafa Benitez is such a fan, and Andoni Iraola remains one of Spain’s best full backs.
Perhaps the most exciting name to emerge in the Bilbao team is that of a sixteen-year old who is enjoying a dazzling start to his footballing career, Iker Muniain.
Muniain has been breaking records here there and everywhere this season. He became Bilbao’s youngest ever player when he featured against Swiss club, the appropriately named, Young Boys. Then in the return leg a week later, he became, at 16, the club’s youngest ever goal-scorer.
This weekend Muniain managed to break another record, becoming the youngest ever goal-scorer in La Liga as he scored Athletic’s equaliser in their 2-2 draw away at Valladolid, breaking the record, previously held by Xisco Nadal, by 64 days.
Muniain’s arrival has not gone unheralded, recently his team-mate Joseba Etxeberria, himself a teenage star at Bilbao’s rivals Real Sociedad said: “Muniain will certainly be a quality player, not just for this team. If he continues along this path, I believe he will become a world class player.” While the likes of FC Barcelona, Liverpool and Real Madrid are believed to have been tracking him since he was twelve.
Yet the emergence of “the Spanish Messi”, named both for his diminutive stature and similarity in style to the Barcelona star, is further proof of the quality of the Athletic Bilbao cantera. Muniain may be one of the brightest prospects to emerge from their academy, but he is by no means the only player to emerge from the academy in recent years.
The aforementioned Martinez and Iraola have both graduated from the same scheme as Muniain, Francisco Yeste, a Bilbao stalwart for years who featured in the Spain squad in 04/05 did similarly. While the likes of Etxeberria, Urzaiz and Ezquerro, despite being signed from other youth teams, all featured for Spain during their time at San Mames.
While Muniain has a long way to go before he can hope to match some of their illustrious feats, his record-breaking start at Bilbao marks him out as something very special, and demonstrates the quality of player which Athletic Bilbao continue to produce.