Heart Of Football

The importance of being Ernesto Valverde

When Ernesto Valverde played and then helped to coach the future players for Athletic Bilbao, he was affectionately known as "Txingurri".

The word is Basque. It means The Ant. And because of his intensity, his determination to run his 1.72m body through any odds and to train players to extract the maximum out of themselves, Ernesto is as earnest does.

Today he has the privilege, or perhaps the politically loaded pressure, of leading the Spanish league in charge of FC Barcelona. In the early hours of this morning, Singapore time, Valverde's team of Lionel Messi and Co were competing at San Mames, the stadium built to be the stronghold of Basque football.

Athletic Bilbao are, together with Barcelona and Real Madrid, one of only three clubs who have never been relegated from LaLiga. They are among the founding members, although their colours and their name Athletic (as opposed to Atletico) is English in tribute to the Sunderland, County Durham workers who together with local students forged the club back in 1898.

Yet today, Bilbao are more separatist, more apart from Spanish rule, than Barca ever will be. It is a fact that Messi, unless someone discovered Basque blood in his veins, could never play for Athletic.

The team are pure Basque, drawn exclusively from local talents or from Basques of other regions. Valverde was actually born in Extramadura, a small, autonomous region to the west of the country, but was accepted in Bilbao because his family moved there when he was an infant.

Where is this leading? The media peppered Valverde with the questions that no sportsman can answer on the eve of his toughest week as Barcelona coach. Last night an away game in the stronghold of the Basque team he represented as a player, and all the way from youth trainer to head coach until Barcelona tempted him away this summer.

The unthinkable right now on Valverde's mind, and on Barca's, is... pure and simple: how to maintain the Messi magic, and heaven help the club if Leo gets injured.Or if Barcelona become isolated by the politics that are now playing out in the political chambers and the streets.

On Tuesday, another difficult away game, another emotion-charged trip in the Champions League against Olympiakos, another club he had managed in the port of Athens. Then, back at the Nou Camp next Saturday for Sevilla's visit.

All three games against opponents bound to raise their spirit and their game as much as they can because they are Barcelona, because it is Messi who some of us regard as the finest player on earth.

But, those questions ahead of the Bilbao game went beyond sport, beyond even Messi.

"I'd like it if we focused on sporting matters," Valverde responded. "More than anything as the political issue changes every half an hour. I'm the coach of Barcelona and my job is for the team to win. I'm sure the politicians will try to do their best job too."

But his inquisitors pressed him just the same. What if LaLiga kicks Barca out, or if Barca are forced to leave by their own supporters?

"That hasn't happened yet," said Valverde. "We're talking about hypothetical situations but it's certainly not my role to talk on that matter. It's impossible to stay informed about the political situation. Yesterday was a busy day, as is today and it's not over.

"We can't give an inch because Bilbao, even when they are going through difficulties, are always able to mount spectacular comebacks at San Mames."

Athletic, he reminded everyone, always face up to any problem, their players are a tight-knit group, "there's something special, very special about that club".

Up to this season, Valverde was deeply ingrained in stoking the fire of what makes Athletic special. Now, as football managers and players do, he has changed sides.

His start in the Catalan capital has been supercharged. You have to admire his intensity even if some Barca followers accuse him of taking away the high-pressing, rapid passing momentum and replacing it with something more pragmatic.

Results speak for themselves. Up to last night, Barcelona had won every game under Valverde with the exception of last week's draw in Madrid against the other title contenders, Atletico.

This despite losing Neymar to PSG. Despite losing his replacement Ousmane Dembele through thigh injury, probably until the New Year.

Despite Barca not (yet) being able to buy Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. There is another €80 million (S$154 million) bid for the Brazilian being talked about in the January window, such is Barcelona's urgent need to sign one of the few players in the world who might step into the shoes of Andres Iniesta.

Iniesta's passing ability might yet prove irreplaceable, but at 33 and susceptible to the type of muscle injury that prevented him travelling to Bilbao, the club have no option but to play the international market and hope.

In Neymar's absence, Dembele's truncated start, and Iniesta's slowing limbs and lung power, Luis Suarez has had the slowest start to a season since he arrived.

The Trident of Messi-Suarez-Neymar is broken. The onus on Messi becomes, week by week, more, rather than less, burdensome.

The unthinkable right now on Valverde's mind, and on Barca's, is not the hypothetical questions neither he nor anybody else can answer. It is pure and simple: how to maintain the Messi magic, and heaven help the club if Leo gets injured. Or if Barcelona become isolated by the politics that are now playing out in the political chambers and the streets.

Separating sport from politics is a lovely idea. Whether they are inseparable in modern Spain - in the Basque or the Catalan regions - is the unavoidable question.

Valverde is right to keep his head down and prioritise the next game and the ones after that. But, with Gerard Pique in his ranks, with a board that is answerable to and elected by the people, the future is, and always will be, bound to politics.

"Mes que un club" is not an idle motto. It means what it says, "more than a club".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'The importance of being Ernesto Valverde'. Print Edition | Subscribe