Young shoulders, big responsibilities: Who is Kepa Arrizabalaga?

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Ever since the departure of The Legendary Iker Casillas, the no. 1 jersey of Real Madrid has been up to much debate. Ultimately it looked like the Costa Rican Keylor Navas would indeed be the heir to the legacy Saint Iker left behind. And with three consecutive champions Leagues, it indeed looked like that.

But for the Real Madrid hierarchy, Navas simply wasn’t enough. They were always behind a certain David De Gea, the heir to Casillas in Spain’s national side. But with Manchester United’s stern resistance, they started to move away to another Spaniard, namely Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Everything was set. With just six months remaining on his Athletic Bilbao contract, Kepa was all but certain to wear the colours of the famous whites for a fee of just 18 million euros. But Real’s then coach Zinedine Zidane had a change of mind. He rejected signing Kepa, saying, “Kepa is very talented. I didn’t want to sign a keeper in the middle of the season.  I don’t regret not signing him.” And with that, suddenly “Mission: Kepa” of Real Madrid was aborted. The Madrid press weren’t impressed. Marca, Madrid’s outspoken and popular sports newspaper, didn’t take the decision well and headlined their cover page as “Kepa, an error that will haunt Zidane.” The 6’2” keeper then went onto sign a contract extension with his childhood club, stating that he’d always dreamt of being there for longer. But it wasn’t to be for the longer haul.

With Courtois pulling out all stops to sign for Real Madrid which he succeeded after missing his Chelsea training two days on the trought, Chelsea were in the market for his replacement. But it wasn’t that easy a job. The likes of Schmeichel, Handanovic, Oblak were all tied down. Even Stoke’s Jack Butland couldn’t be wooed by ‘The Blues’. As the saying goes, Chelsea went for desperate measures in these desperate times. They went into the market to break the World Record fee for a goalkeeper as they signed Kepa for a whopping 72 million pounds. The previous record was held by Allison Becker when Liverpool signed him this summer for 67 million pounds. Thus ended the rebellious journey of Courtois. And Chelsea found themselves a towering 23-year old, who won the Euros for the Spain U-17 team last year.

Kepa Arrizabalaga was born in Ondarroa, a seaside town in Basque. His height advantage was always a case as it helped him ecel in a very early age. He joined the Athletic academy at just nine years of age. Kepa’s first ever club in senior football was fourth-tier feeder club in Spain, namely Basconia. Although in no time, he was rolled into Bilbao Athletic- the famous Basque club’s B team. But Kepa needed some first team regular experience. Therefore, he was sent on loan to second tier clubs Ponferradina and Real Valladolid. These two clubs proved to be absolute massive stepping stones for Kepa as his learning curve let him gain valuable experience which would help him in the biggest stages.

After coming back from loan, Kepa started the 2016-17 season as Bilbao’s third choice keeper. But Bilbao’s then coach Ernesto Valverde saw the fire within the youngster. And also their main man between the sticks, Gorkha Iraizoz, wasn’t getting any younger. Valverde took a chance. He handed Kepa his first start that season in a 1-0 away win against Deportivo La Coruna. In his very first match, Kepa kept a clean sheet and delivered on the levels Valverde expected him to deliver.

Even though his debut was in 16-17, it was the following season that truly saw him become a world beater. Kepa was handed the responsibility of being his boyhood club’s main man between the sticks by the Basque side’s then manager Jose Angel Ziganda. Kepa wasn’t fazed even a bit by the decision, rather he took it as a challenge. And within no time, his prowess was fully on display. His composure and outstanding reflexes didn’t go unnoticed. And comparisons with the greatest ever Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas started to swarm the youngster. He didn’t flinch one bit, rather Kepa kept his feet on the ground. This level headed mature behaviour from such an early stage let him fly. Last season, he saved 64 shots from inside the area- a record only bettered by Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Atletico’s shot stopper Jan Oblak. He also distributed 368 long balls to his fellow forwards, a La Liga record for last season.

Besides football, Kepa has a serious addiction. And that is to take pictures as seeing a person loves birds. Sinch his childhood, he’d go hunting for Goldfinches and train them to sing. He also had names for his birds. Oker, Rockey and Raikkonen, even got awards in competitions back in 2008 and 2010.  Even though his senior career is one season old, Kepa already has everything to become a goalkeeper for the future. With his performances last season, he won a ticket to Russia with Spain. Even though he didn’t play, fans called for him to start when De Gea failed to perform. Comparisons with Casillas at such an early age shows just how far he’s come. With Chelsea, he finally has the world stage to perform and let the world know about him. The time has come for Kepa Arrizabalaga, Chelsea’s new ‘Bird’ Man…