Athletic’s unrealistic perception

How did a player who just four months ago was crying his eyes out with the rest of the team after losing a European final suddenly become so unpopular?

He may not have been blubbering to the same extent as Iker Muniain, but when the final whistle blew in May in Bucharest to signal the end of Athletic Bilbao’s European adventure, Javi Martinez was visibly distraught. When he collected his runners-up medal from Michel Platini, he was so upset he could only stare at the ground.

Now Martinez is no longer an Athletic player, nor a figure of respect. Many clubs who have not won a major trophy for 28 years would accept a player who joined the club as a teenager choosing to sign for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Some may even view it as an honour, seeing one of their own come good.

But Athletic Bilbao are not one of those clubs. The furore over the news that Martinez allegedly jumped the fence of Athletic’s training ground Lezama last weekend to collect a pair of football boots smacks of a club still bitter with the circumstances of his departure to Bayern Munich in August.

The private security company that mans the ground on the weekend issued a report to the club that Martinez entered the grounds in an improper way last Saturday night and had to show his identity card to the security guard on duty, who did not recognise him at first and originally thought he was an intruder.

He was allegedly then eventually allowed to enter the grounds and collect his stuff, and reportedly left a farewell message on the blackboard in the dressing room for his former teammates. Athletic confirmed the company’s report but Martinez was quick to play it down, writing on Twitter: “It’s incredible that people can believe this story.”

Club President Josu Urrutia ignored Martinez’s plea to let him join Bayern Munich for €25m once he heard of their interest in June, and insisted that the Bavarians paid his €40m buy-out clause. Even when that request was heeded, Urrutia was still unhappy, and tried to block the transfer. The club were furious when they discovered that Martinez had flown to Munich without their permission to attend a medical with his new club, but the truth is he had little choice if he wanted to complete the move.

Even if it is true Martinez jumped the fence of Lezama, it hardly warrants the reaction it has caused. The club were reportedly angry he did not arrange the visit with the club’s sporting director beforehand, but Martinez was eventually allowed to enter the building with the permission of a security guard, i.e he did not break in and did nothing illegal.

In a Press conference this week, Muniain said he had no interest in commenting on this ‘trivial’ story. However, a number of Athletic fans see it differently. Members of four Athletic supporters clubs named after Martinez, one in Asturias, three in Vizcaya, have revealed they are considering changing their names after his recent behaviour. One representative told AS: “We named the group after him because he was a rounded person and well liked within the club. Now he has behaved with malice.” Another declared: “Our members are furious and have called an immediate meeting to discuss changing the club’s name.”

All Bayern and Martinez did in completing his transfer was little different to the circumstances in which Athletic acquired the player in the first place. Athletic paid Osasuna €6m in 2006 for a 17-year-old Martinez who was then under contract with the Navarrans. As one Pamplona-based journalist told me, there was little fuss with him leaving Osasuna because the club made a large amount of money on the deal and he was moving to a bigger club. It’s a similar situation to this summer’s transfer, but with even more money involved.

Anyone can tell you that Barcelona’s motto is ‘More than a Club’, and due to a Basques-only policy and a similarly impressive history, it is something Athletic believe in too. The difference, though, is that they no longer have the money, a serious chance of winning silverware or the prospect of Champions League football to convince their best players to share this belief. Is it fair that players like Martinez, who have otherwise been cherished by the club, are derided as mercenaries by Athletic when highlighting this?