Aritz Aduriz has thought, every day, about the goodbye he might never have. It is not his first thought: That, of course, is his family, his wife and daughters, locked down with him in their apartment in central Bilbao, Spain. It is not his priority: That is hoping the deaths cease, the coronavirus crisis eases, and one day they might all be able to go outside again.
But at times, his mind drifts, and he starts to wonder about his own, personal ending. He has, for some time, felt privileged. Lucky, even. He is 39, almost impossibly ancient for a soccer player. His career as a striker stretches back almost two decades, far longer than he had ever thought possible. Last summer, though, he decided this would be his final season.
Aduriz knows that is not how it ordinarily works. “Normally, football leaves you before you can leave it,” he said.
Aduriz, though, was able to choose his where and his when: at the end of his contract, on June 30, and at Athletic Bilbao, the club where he has spent most of his career, the club he could never quite leave. “It feels like closing a circle, retiring at the same place where I started out,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”
It had seemed clear for a while how it would end, too. Early in February, F.C. Barcelona visited Bilbao in the quarterfinal of the Copa del Rey. Athletic scored a late winner. The same night, Real Sociedad eliminated Real Madrid. In March, both teams booked places in the final, scheduled for April 18, in Seville.
This would be the perfect way to leave: a derby between the two biggest clubs in the Basque Country, the team Aduriz has devoted his life to against the team from San Sebastián, the city where he grew up, the team his wife’s family supports. Neither has won either of Spain’s major trophies since the 1980s.
Barely two weeks later, though, the game was postponed, indefinitely. The Spanish soccer authorities remain determined to somehow finish the country’s league season, but the fate of the cup final is a secondary consideration. Aduriz’s goodbye is on hold.
“It is possible, maybe even probable, that we cannot play,” he said. “Things are changing so quickly.”
When he thinks about how he might be denied his storybook farewell, it is not with resentment. The more he has thought about it, the more he wonders if he would want to say goodbye like this — in a stadium rendered sterile, the stands empty, the fans thousands of miles away.
“Football is people,” he said. “It is the fans. We are nothing without the people. A game without anyone there is a different sport. Something in its essence would be changed. It would be empty.
“Playing a final would be the ultimate, of course, but I am not sure if I would want to play in one like that.”
Aduriz wonders, perhaps, if it might be better simply to fade to black. Besides, perhaps he has already had his moment; maybe what will be special about Aduriz’s last season will not be the final act, but the very first touch.
Back in August, a few days after Aduriz announced that he would retire, Barcelona came to Bilbao for the first game of the Spanish season. For 87 minutes, Aduriz sat and watched from the bench. The game seemed to be petering out into, for Athletic, a creditable stalemate.
A minute later, the ball was looping high into the air, into Barcelona’s penalty area. Nélson Semedo, the Barcelona defender, was running toward his own goal, unable to halt his momentum. Behind him, Aduriz, introduced for the final few moments, had stopped.
Aduriz had, by his own estimation, tried a thousand scissor kicks — what the Spanish call a chilena — during his career. None, to the best of his recollection, had ever come off. He knew, deep down, that what he was trying to do was score “the sort of goal you dream about as a child.”
From the outside, it had the patina of a movie. Aduriz paused, the wily veteran proving to the young defender that sometimes stillness is as effective as speed. Stopping his run bought the space he needed. He contorted his body, propelled himself into the air and swung his right foot.
Nine months later, Aduriz still insists he cannot adequately describe the feeling. What he remembers, from that moment, is the celebration. He knew where his family was sitting in the tumult of San Mamés, Athletic’s stadium. His older daughter, Iara, had only recently started to realize “what football, what Athletic, meant.” He wanted to share the moment with her.
“It was very emotional, to see them jumping around,” he said. He blew a kiss into the sky. When he returned to the changing room, his teammates stood to sing his name.
If he has a regret from his final suspended season, it is that he has not scored again. He would have liked, he said, at least a couple more goals. But that has not diminished his enjoyment of his farewell tour.
He has tried to savor everything: the days spent at Lezama, Athletic’s training facility; the visits to the stadiums he would play in again; the sound of San Mamés. “I knew these moments would not come back, but that meant I could enjoy them more,” he said. “It has been more happiness than sadness.”
Through it all, he has been convinced that something special was waiting for him at the end. Long before Athletic qualified for the Copa del Rey final, he was telling his teammates that they could win something this season. That, to almost everyone in Bilbao, would have been the ending Aduriz deserved.
The bond between Athletic’s players and its fans is an uncommon one. The club is an exception in the hyper-globalized marketplace of world soccer in only recruiting players born or raised in the Basque Country. The policy means that players are only rarely, expensively and begrudgingly, allowed to leave. It gives the club the feel, Aduriz said, of a “neighborhood team taking on the world.”
Even by those standards, though, Aduriz is special. There is something in his story that makes fans hold him close to their hearts, that helps his people see something of themselves in him.
Perhaps it is that he was a late bloomer. As a child, his parents preferred to take him out into the Pyrenees for cross-country skiing, rather than allow him to play soccer. It was not until he was 19, late by most standards, that he was first noticed by Athletic. It was only when he was 23, and had spent a season playing for Real Valladolid in Spain’s second tier, that he finally believed he could make a living from soccer.
Perhaps it is his longevity. Aduriz, a powerful, rangy, industrious striker, has seemed to get better with age, his scoring totals only really peaking as he reached his 30s. It was not until he was 35 that he staked a claim for a regular place on Spain’s national team. Along with Lionel Messi, he is the only player to have scored in 15 straight La Liga seasons.
Or perhaps it is the sense that he could never say no to Athletic, that it was his one true love. He was sold in 2004, only to return two years later. In 2008, he left again, hurt that Athletic felt Fernando Llorente was a better bet. He went first to Mallorca, then to Valencia. But in 2012, he came back again, this time for good.
The Copa del Rey final would have been the perfect denouement, a season that started with a Hollywood moment garnished with a cinematic climax. Aduriz, again, seemed to be living in a movie. “Except,” he said, “it is a surreal movie, where at the end there is this sudden terror.”
As he sits, and waits, in his apartment, Aduriz does not know what the final scene looks like now. His contract expires on June 30, and his career with it. He may have played his last game. He may already have his last memory on a soccer field.
It is, at least, a happy one: a few minutes as a substitute in a game at Valladolid, the place where he first felt he belonged as a professional. “It was in a place where I feel very calm,” he said. “I felt a lot of affection there.” Perhaps that is how it should end: not in a hollow shell, but playing for his team in a stadium full of fans. That, after all, is soccer as he has known it. “Success is important,” he said. “But it is just as important that people remember you.”