“It was a different and distinct year for me, it hasn’t been easy, but I have also learnt a lot, it has been positive too,” says Real Sociedad captain Mikel Oyarzabal, looking in all honestly a little sleepy before he settles into the rigmarole.
If there is one thing that Oyarzabal has had time for over the past 12 months, it is to reflect. Suffering the dreaded three-letter abbreviation that makes every sportsperson flinch, an ACL tear in March of last year, Oyarzabal is finally back doing what he does best – playing football for La Real.
Tragically, it struck a humble and hard-working footballer down in in his pomp. Oyarzabal was Real Sociedad’s top scorer last season until his injury, and was set to sit near Luis Enrique on the Spain plane to the World Cup.
In tune with the rest of his career, he has taken it within his stride. Few footballers regularly wear the captain’s armband at the age of 23, the same age he became the most experienced Real Sociedad player in the squad. At 21 he took the number 10 shirt from the then captain, the retiring one-club man Xabi Prieto, the local equivalent of inheriting Lionel Messi’s abandoned number. Just three appearances short of 300 at the age of 25, little phases him.
“When you don’t have the chance to be on the inside rather than outside, that frustration gets to you a bit more, not being able to experience what the team is,” his tranquil nature is just that, rather than a robotic lack of emotion. Rarely do you find that to be a problem in the Basque country.
Taking positives out of such a lengthy injury though, that takes a mental equilibrium. Football is full of examples of people being tipped over by it. Oyarzabal found value during his layoff, as he explained to Football Espana at a LaLiga event.
“When you are looking in from the outside, you see everything very differently. You have a very different perspective, often at times you see things much more clearly. I think it’s normal that you see things differently from another point of view.”
Perhaps Oyarzabal’s approach is what football would look like if we were all a little more grounded though? Oyarzabal is not short of sentiment, but he appears to have plenty of perspective too. Whereas for better or worse, football tends to whisk most of us away with all passion and the pressure, the roars and the pantomime.
Asked what is is they do well at Real Sociedad, what it is they do differently at Zubieta, Oyarzabal doesn’t really mention football. The academy in Donostia-San Sebastian is responsible for 16 footballers contributing to the first team this season, if you include those who have passed through the B team. Oyarzabal redirects back to the idea of having different angles to approach from.
“Obviously they do things well here, there are lots of people who help you in every way possible, not just as a footballer but as a person too. In other places clearly they do things well too, but I think the work they do here, from the first day when you arrive here, you feel very well supported, you feel backed up by everyone, you have the help of all types of people there, from different parts of life, from outside of football.”
Arropado is the word used for supported, and in another context, it can mean clothed, or even tucked in – football can be a pretty cold place, but maybe there is something in the idea that at La Real, players have a little more insulation.
Zubieta is the focus, but looking at their business, maybe that extra support, that balance, is evident even for those coming into the first-team. Perhaps there are more eloquent comparisons, but Mikel Oyarzabal and Real Sociedad’s ability to fight through adversity and get up again remind of a weeble. Manager Imanol Alguacil rose through the ranks providing exactly that experience at any rate.
It’s noticeable how many footballers arrive and improve at the Reale Arena since Sporting Director Roberto Olabe took over. Mikel Merino and Alexander Isak were bounced around Europe after breaking into the game as teenage prodigies, but slowly and surely became differential at La Real.
The Martin Odegaard that has infatuated Arsenal fans is a continuation of the one seen in San Sebastian, rather than in Madrid. Internally, most within Spain had decided that Takefusa Kubo was unlikely to delight crowds at the top level by the time he arrived at Real Sociedad. Within three months, he became a beloved personality and an even more alluring player.
“I think that it is very necessary for us to have that help, they can give you the tools for on the pitch, but you have to have the tools for your day-to-day,” explains Oyarzabal. “You’re in an ideal environment.”
Back to the stuff that raises the heart-rate a little, Oyarzabal returned from that outside environment to score the decisive penalty in the Basque derby, which is about as good as it gets – how did that feel?
“Well, I think a lot of happiness, no? They were difficult months, distinct, you have to go through a lot of things you have not been through before, you have to return to the pitch, feel like a footballer again.”
As if it wasn’t layered in enough meaning, Oyarzabal was the one who dispatched a penalty to win Real Sociedad their first trophy in 34 years against Athletic Club. His answer is northern in its understated nature, but the sizable grin gives him away.
“Scoring again so that your team wins, well… It was a good day for me and for the team, and evidently for my family and those around me.”
He looks awake now. Oyarzabal recently signed on for another five years at Real Sociedad, keeping him at the club until 2028. Unlike with many contracts, you feel it was signed with the intention of completing it. Right now, with La Real third, in the Europa League Round of 16 against Roma, and in contention for trophies, there are plenty of reasons for doing so. It’s the ideal environment.