Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona’s sporting director, has a rare insight into the two most singular clubs in Spain: Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, where he has both played and been on the staff. The former Spain keeper explains how the philosophy of the two clubs is similar, why Tito Vilanova was the best choice to replace Pep Guardiola and how Leo Messi could make himself into the best fisherman in the world.
Tonight, Barcelona plays Benfica in the Champions League, with the Portuguese side needing a result to keep its hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages alive. Messi, who needs just one goal to match Gerd Müller’s 1972 record of 85 in a calendar year, is set to start against the Portuguese outfit.
Question. How is the institutional philosophy of Barcelona and Athletic similar?
Answer. We don’t just bring in talent, we also have in mind the process of developing our own within the organization. Although Barça has the buying power to sign players we foment the incorporation of players from the academy. There are many aspects to a player’s formation: the coach that watches him, the manager who plays him and the one who doesn’t, who takes him home, his teacher, lots of people. We take responsibility for that. That’s where the process is the same at Athletic and Barça.
Q. You are probably the least surprised about how well Tito Vilanova is doing, above all because you recommended him as Pep Guardiola’s successor.
A. It was worth the effort to continue with the idea of a playing style that has made us a reference point as a club, which defines us in the world. And we had the person to carry this on: Tito. When I see him at work, I know we are in good hands. I don’t place his value on results but on how he takes decisions, such as playing Adriano in central defense against Madrid. His ability to come up with the idea and carry it through didn’t surprise me at all.
When I see Tito at work, I know we are in good hands"
Q. Did the departure of Guardiola place more responsibility on the players?
A. When someone as important in this club and in soccer leaves, there is a point where everybody’s position changes. I don’t think the players have taken on more responsibility, because they always did. They have just carried on.
Q. Is institutional friction between Real and Barça less now that there is no duel between Guardiola and Mourinho?
A. People always tried to get answers out of Pep on many things: some were soccer-related, others economic, social, political, or whatever it may be. All that generated a position within a society where there are few reference points. And the dimensions of this position grew when the opposite pole was Mourinho. Now the debate Barça generates is purely sporting. Nobody now is going to go to a press conference and ask the coach a question that isn’t about the game.
Q. They say the league is Barça’s to lose?
A. There is a harmful power to the word lose while the word win always brings glory. We are not going to relinquish our position; we will continue to try and win points to stay on top, because we know that titles are decided when you cross the finish line. La Liga is soccer and soccer is an indeterminate object, with too many variables and determinants to talk about anything being over.
Q. Is the generational renewal of the club assured?
People always tried to get answers out of Pep on many things: some were soccer-related"
A. When you see Barcelona B training and playing, you see players with a future and it is satisfying to see the continuity of a project put in place years ago but as Tito said the other day about [Gerard] Deulofeu: a player is not just two moves. The great players like Xavi or Iniesta have consolidated themselves over a long period of time, not at 18 years old. We don’t expect to turn Sergi Roberto into Xavi overnight. But there are no straight substitutes nor is it a cloning process. Although they are players with similar qualities, each one is different.
Q. Messi wants [goalkeeper José Manuel] Pinto’s contract to be renewed. As sporting director do you take this as an order, a wish or a suggestion?
A. It’s a point of view based on the good relations in the locker room. Both Leo and Pinto know it is a decision first for the coach and then for the sporting director. Nothing more. You have to understand the way Leo says things: he has no hidden agenda, just sporting questions.
Q. Johan Cruyff has said Barça doesn’t need Neymar.
A. Soccer is an environment in which everybody has the right to an opinion, and more so Cruyff. There’s nothing wrong with Johan speaking on the subject and, furthermore, he doesn’t do it when the horse has already bolted from the stable.
Q. It is easier to deal with Vilanova than it was with Guardiola?
A. It’s the same deep down, the relationship is the same, only the way of communicating changes. I’ve known Pep for 20 years and Tito for just four. Each has his own way of being and I have to adapt to that. What makes it easy is the trust between both parties.
Q. Vilanova said “it’s a personal matter” when asked about his relationship with Guardiola. When was the last time you saw Guardiola, or spoke to him?
A. Like Tito said, it’s a personal matter.
Q. What do you think of the situation at Real Madrid and of its relationship with Mourinho?
A. I prefer not to comment.
Q. And Athletic?
A. One of the fundamental things about Athletic is its stability. A little like Madrid. Athletic has always been a straightforward club, where people talk about soccer, but all of a sudden it has been thrown into the 21st century and in these hundred-year-old institutions it can be difficult to digest. I always have the feeling that when a player pulls on the Athletic shirt he gives 100 percent. That is still recognizable at Athletic.
Q. Even though you see Messi every day do you continue to be fascinated by him?
A. I admire his capacity to keep learning and to find solutions in every game. I don’t know anybody who can come up with so many answers and so quickly to any kind of problem. If were talking about fishing, Leo would turn down the best rod, which could give him an instant solution. He would ask you to explain how to fish. And he would end up being the best fisherman in the world. He has the swiftness of mind to find the solution.