After a difficult few years, Iker Muniain is back to playing the best football of his life. The birth of his son, a disastrous knee injury, and being name Captain all had a part in reigniting his career, but it is his passion for Athletic and will to win that continues to set him apart. Still on 24 years old, he has turned the corner into a leader and example for all to follow.
It was late June in 2009 when 16-year-old Iker Muniain was motioned by Joaquin Caparros to start warming up. It was during a Europa League Qualifying match against BSC Young Boys and Muniain was about to make history. At the hour mark he came on for Gaizka Toquero to make make his official debut and become the youngest player to ever put on the Athletic Club shirt. One week later he would, in the return leg, score for the first time to become the club’s youngest goalscorer in history.
As the months turned to years the hype surrounding the Lezama legend continued to grow. Some began to call him “The Basque Lionel Messi” while others dubbed him “An Athletic legend in the making”. Teammate Fernando Amorebieta nicknamed him “Bart Simpson” due to his mischievous personality off the pitch, as well as his hair color and small stature.
Muniain became a regular in the Athletic XI and the rest, as they say, is history. However, the case can be made that he never quite lived up to the hype. Despite being a Captain for the Spain U21 squad, the creative winger just never seemed to be able to turn the corner from good player to great player. It seemed like his career was beginning to stall.
The Lezama grad wasn’t scoring many goals, wasn’t able to handle physical defending, and could be marked out of games completely. Two years ago there began to be major questions about his role in the club and his playing time began to dip a bit. Then tragedy struck. In April of 2015 he tore his ACL and was out of action for over 250 days. After returning, some said that Muniain, then still only 23, would now face the most defining time of his entire career.
That injury, as terrible as it was, helped reignite Iker Muniain’s career.
Muniain barely featured in Athletic’s first five games this season because he was still trying to get back to regularity after the injury. In an interview he stated, “I’ve forgotten the injury and I feel great physically. Some have said that I am finished, but I am giving everything to be back at my best”. Getting back to his best is exactly what Muniain did this year.
When asked about Muniain’s return from injury, those close to him all say the same thing. There was something different about Iker. He began to work harder than he ever had before and would no longer take football for granted. The injury put his career into perspective and gave him the motivation to shake off all the hype and criticism and just start playing his style of football once again.
The change wasn’t just seen on the pitch, either. Iker Muniain began to be more of a leader in the locker room and started to be more outspoken about his love for Athletic and the desire that every player share his commitment to the Basque giants. Since then he has become one of the four team Captains and has worn the armband several times this season, and always with immense pride.
Becoming a regular Captain took Muniain’s focus on football to yet another level. He began to feel the weight of representing the club and the pride that goes along with wearing that armband. Now a father to a toddler, his maturity has blossomed as well which has helped him to become an even better leader for his teammates. One could say that Iker has now grown up, even though it feels like he’s been around forever.
This season, the 24-year-old has equaled his best scoring tally with seven goals in La Liga play. He has also given five assists across all competitions, splitting time between the left-wing and playing behind the striker as the attacking midfielder. Statistics aside, Muniain has had a major influence on games on a weekly basis. His ability to beat defenders, create chances, and pop up with a bit of flair has been missed and is finally paying off again in a big way.
Truth be told, Muniain may actually be playing the best football of his entire career. That 16-year-old kid who captured the hearts of fans at the San Mames has now become the passionate leader those same fans are proud to call Capitan. His flair is still there, as is his joyful smile and larger-than-life personality, but now there is so much more to the seasoned winger. He has become a leader and a veteran, and his experience along the way has left him all the better for it. Even with over 300 games played for Athletic Club, Iker Muniain’s career is just getting started.