Long Reads

Mikel Oyarzabal is not your textbook professional footballer

Mikel Oyarzabal
Photo: Real Sociedad

June 30, 2019, Udine, Italy. Spain’s U21 side are trying to relax at the hotel ahead of their second European Championship final in two years. La Rojita are set to face Germany at the Stadio Friuli that evening and Luis de la Fuente’s men are doing their best to remain focused on the task at hand.

Mikel Oyarzabal is refreshing his university’s internal website to check out the results of his latest exam. The Basque youngster feels all but nervous about the upcoming game. After all, for him it is just one more match and all he is asked to do is to exercise the hobby he embraced when he was a kid kicking a ball around at the square outside Eibar’s town hall.

It was there where Mikel and his friends spent hours playing football and trying to imitate their idol, David Silva, who had just been loaned out to Eibar from Valencia. While his talent was being developed on the streets of the Basque city, his character was being gradually formed at home. Although he had no idea what the future held for him, it would be that combination of skills and personality that would help him turn himself into one of the most talented Spanish players of his generation.

Oyarzabal took his first steps into football at Eibar’s academy and it didn’t take long for the Basque powerhouses to spot his talent. Athletic Club were the team to first knock on his door, but his parents decided to politely turn down their offer. Growing up in a family of Real Sociedad fans, Mikel was not prepared to leave back his friends, relatives and studies to dedicate to the Bilbao-based team.

Although they would let him exercise his passion for football, his parents were adamant that he would need to find a way to effectively combine it with education. If he could manage to polish his organisation abilities they argued, Mikel would be able to mature through football. They were anything but wrong.

When Real Sociedad came calling in 2011, Oyarzabal felt ready to take on the challenge and his parents were more than eager to let him join their favourite club.

“The hardest thing was to go to training every day by taxi, because it took up a lot of time from studying,” he recalled years later in an interview for El Diario Vasco.

“It was difficult for me to adapt and do well in my exams in my first year [at Real Sociedad]. However, with some good organisation, I managed to sort it out. I made up some time before going to training, when I was leaving school, and on weekends.”

It is extremely uncommon to go through an Oyarzabal interview without spotting the term ‘organisation’. The two other words frequently used by the Basque are ‘friends’ and ‘work’, but we will get to that later.

After his first year at Real Sociedad, Mikel found the key to achieve balance between studies and football. A brief loan spell back at Eibar followed for the second part of the 2013/14 season. With his former club’s U19 side on the brink of relegation, Oyarzabal returned to his hometown to assist their efforts to remain in the División de Honor. Playing against kids two or three years older than him, his arrival helped to lift the team’s spirits and Eibar clinched safety by the end of the season.

Oyarzabal returned to Real Sociedad and was automatically promoted to the U19 team. The Juvenil side won their División de Honor group and reached the final of the Copa de Campeones – tournament which is held at the end of each season to determine the overall youth champion of Spain.

Although his team were beaten by Villarreal in the final, Oyarzabal was one of the players to stand out throughout the 2014/15 campaign. Word reached Real Sociedad’s then-coach David Moyes that there was a young winger who could perform equally decent in any position up front and the Scotsman decided to call him up for the first team’s preseason tour in Austria.

From that moment, everything happened very quickly. Moyes handed Oyarzabal his debut with the first team on October 25, 2015, in a 4-0 victory away at Levante. The left-footed winger went on to score his first goal with Real Sociedad in February in a 5-0 win over Espanyol, but it was in April, after a home game against Barcelona, when the world started to take notice of his genius.

Four minutes into the match, Oyarzabal headed home a cross from Xabi Prieto and gave La Real a narrow lead on which they would hold until the end of the game against the league leaders.

Mikel’s face made the covers of Spain’s top sports newspapers and his performances earned him a call-up to the Spanish national team. Oyarzabal made his unofficial debut for La Roja under Vicente del Bosque in a friendly victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina on May 29, 2016.

“A year ago I was with [Real Sociedad’s] youth team and now I have had the opportunity to debut with the first team, score goals and train every day with players whom I have admired for many years,” he told Mundo Deportivo.

“I am very happy. This was something hard to believe a year ago but once you start training and playing, you trust yourself more and more.

“I always thought about it and why not? Why not debut? Why not score?”

Neither his goals for Real Sociedad nor his Spain debut were enough to make him lose his humility. Mikel would train in the mornings, before returning home to study for his degree in Business Administration and Management. He shared a flat with two of his best friends and university colleagues with whom he would spend most of his free time.

“When I started [university] I set myself the challenge of going at the same pace as my friends,” he told El Diario Vasco.

“During the year they passed me notes and collaborated on the work, and I have succeeded. Without their help everything would have been more complicated. The house tasks were divided among the three. We all liked to cook, we all did everything. It was a tidy house.

“Many times I didn’t feel like studying but I know that it is important in life to have a second option for the future apart from football. You never know what can happen.”

Organisation, friends and work. Oyarzabal was willing to take on any challenge, yet without these three components, he was well aware that it would be impossible to reach the target. Mikel did not only throw his missiles in the direction of the dartboard; he did actually hit the bullseye more than once.

It took him just 10 games with Real Sociedad’s B side to become a mainstay for the seniors and only four goals in LaLiga Santander to make it into the national team. In the summer of 2016, Athletic Club came knocking for the second time to receive the exact same answer: Mikel had no desire to leave La Real.

Oyarzabal renewed his contract with Txuri-urdinak until 2022 and his buyout clause was increased from 40 million euros to 50m euros. The following season he became an undisputed starter, featuring in 43 games in all competitions. The versatile winger scored four goals and assisted his teammates a further nine times.

Although the 2016/17 course was his breakout season, his best campaign at Real Sociedad came in 2017/18. In a total of 43 games across all competitions, Mikel netted 14 goals and assisted another eight to become the youngest ever La Real player to win the DV de Oro prize, awarded by El Diario Vasco to the team’s top performer each season.

When the club legend Xabi Prieto decided to hang up his boots at the end of the course, Oyarzabal inherited the No.10 shirt. Meanwhile, hoping to make it third time lucky, Athletic Club were contemplating a move for Mikel in the summer of 2018. However, the Basque winger renewed his contract until 2024 and his buyout clause was raised to 75m euros.

“I am at the place I want to be, it is one of the happiest days of my life and I want to write history at Real Sociedad,” he stressed after putting pen to paper.

“Here you can be happy and achieve great things. I will not forget this day along with the previous renewal and the day of my debut. It is an honour and one of the happiest days of my life. As Xabi [Prieto] said in his farewell, there are things to accomplish here.”

Oyarzabal hit the ground running the following season and at just 21 years old, he would don the captain’s armband in his 100th league game for the Basque side – a 1-0 victory against Huesca.

His 13 goals and four assists in LaLiga Santander in the 2018/19 campaign earned him his first national team call-up since 2016. Although Robert Moreno did not give him any playing time in a comfortable 4-1 win over Faroe Islands on June 7, three days later he made his official debut with La Roja, scoring his first goal with the national team in a 3-0 victory against Sweden.

Having played as many as 4.447 minutes of football that season, Mikel finished his last university exam and headed to Italy to participate in the 2019 UEFA European Under-19 Championship with La Rojita.

Although a couple of years earlier he started in just one game in Spain’s run to the final of the 2017 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, this time he would be one of the team’s leaders along with Dani Ceballos and Fabian Ruiz.

Despite slipping to a shocking 3-1 defeat at the hands of Italy in the tournament opener, three consecutive wins against Belgium, Poland and France gave La Rojita a ticket to the final in Udine.

A few hours before the match against the Germans, Oyarzabal refreshed the exam results page for one last time to discover that he had successfully passed the course. He then started the final as Spain’s main striker and seven minutes into the game teed up Ruiz, who opened the scoring. La Rojita beat Germany 2-1 and Oyarzabal lifted the first trophy in his career.

For yet another time, Mikel had followed his parents’ advice word for word, successfully combining his passion with education. Aged 23, he has already played as many as 184 games for La Real, while back in January 2020 he was named among the 25 most valuable players in Europe by the CIES Football Observatory.

Meanwhile, although he has attracted interest from several elite European clubs, including Manchester City and Barcelona, he has no intention to leave Real Sociedad for the moment being.

With his parents being both his advisors as well as his agents, Mikel is certain that he will be able to get the right decision at the right time.

“I don’t see anyone better than my parents to advise me, because they want the best for me,” he explained in an interview for El Diario Vasco. “And it hasn’t gone wrong. I think it’s the best option.”

When he was asked to name his greatest virtue in an interview for LaLiga, Oyarzabal replied “working hard”. If the same question was directed to either his parents or his friends, the answer would most probably be something in the lines of: “the way he is organising himself”.

Mikel Oyarzabal Ugarte is definitely not your typical professional footballer (and his size 47 boots – the largest in LaLiga –seem to validate that point). He is, however, – and above all – a good son, student and friend; the perfect role model for kids who are dreaming of a career in football.

“Before being a footballer or worker, you are a person, and sometimes that’s the most important thing,” Mikel stressed in an interview for El Mundo back in September 2019.

“In theory, it seems easy, but in practice… Each person is a world, they have different things within themselves and you have to know how to treat everyone the way they deserve.

“[A footballer] is a mirror that many children look at, so apart from what you do on the field, you have to have a life that lives up to people’s expectations. We are very important to many people and we must set an example.”

About the author

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Panos Kostopoulos

Born in Greece, studied journalism in Preston (yes Preston, England) and lives in Madrid. Addicted to football and Liverpool FC.

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