When Mikel Arteta and Andoni Iraola take their positions in opposing dugouts at Vitality Stadium on Saturday, the pair will have come a long way from their childhoods together in northern Spain.
“We know each other really well,” Mikel said, discussing their Basque Country roots. “We played together, we had fantastic times together, we played in Antiguoko, it’s a team in San Sebastián that has produced a lot of players over the years.
“I think he was better technically than everybody else. He used to play as a winger when he was younger, and then as he got a little bit older in his career, he played as a full-back. He was an incredible full-back, inverted full-back and it would have been a dream for any manager to have a player like him. Really intelligent, really skillful and I’m very happy that I was able to play with him.
“They do fantastic work and we are privileged to be raised there, to be educated there, and that’s the beauty of football - that 30, 40 years later, we are together in the Premier League both as managers, and I’m really happy for him.”
Why is it that so many coaches, including Unai Emery, Xabi Alonso and Julen Lopetegui come from the Basque region?
“Well first of all it’s the passion about the game, about football,” he explained. “I think the education that we get and the level of coaches there is really good. Everybody takes care of the academy.
“You have to see Real Sociedad, Atletico Bilbao, Eibar, all those teams do fantastic work to raise talent and it’s not a coincidence that a lot of players have come through that.”
As much as Mikel and Andoni remain friends and will be seeing each other after Saturday’s match, Mikel won’t find it difficult to put friendship aside until then.
“I think it’s very easy,” he said. “You are in winning mode, compete, get the best out of your team and get into battle. Before and after is a different story, especially after, but during, there is nothing there.”
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