It’s Time You Get to Know Me

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They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s not always true. 

On 29 May, after we had beaten Manchester City in the Champions League final, somebody took a picture of me that was worth way more — probably an entire book, at least to me. I was lifting the trophy, screaming out of sheer happiness, with my teammates celebrating behind me. 

That picture shows so many things. First, it shows what the Champions League title means to us players. We had started the season badly, but then we had ended it in the best way imaginable.

Second, it shows how close we are. The coaching team deserves huge recognition for making every one of us feel important. This is a big reason why that victory meant so much to me and why I feel so at home at Chelsea.

There’s no better feeling in football than to win as a team

Third, it shows how much the title means to me personally. It was an incredible feeling, and a really hard one to explain. While lifting the trophy I remembered many of the moments — happy and not so happy — that had brought me there. They are personal stories that I have shared with practically no one. I know that the cliché is that Spaniards are sociable and open, and in many parts of Spain it is like that. But I am from Ondarroa, a fishing village on the north coast, and there we rarely share our feelings. For better or worse, I have always been like that. 

But even if it costs me to do it, I want to share some of these moments with you, because I think it's time for us to get to know each other better.

Footballers are always in the public eye. We are analysed, praised and criticised. We are well-known in the sense that people watch us play every week, and they are familiar with our strengths and weaknesses. But that type of familiarity is very superficial. 

In fact, I often feel that people know who we are, but that hardly anybody knows us. 

At least, that’s how I feel.

When I was 16, I had a big disagreement with my parents. 

Since I was nine, I had been playing for Athletic Club de Bilbao with three of my childhood friends. We had gone to school together in Ondarroa, and in the afternoon, three or four times a week, we had taken a taxi for 45 minutes to train in Lezama, a village close to Bilbao, where Athletic have their youth academy. 

But then one day when I was 16, things got more serious. I was working with the goalkeeping coach of the first team, Luis Llopis, and after the session he told me, “Tomorrow you train at 10.30 a.m.”

I looked at him like the most confused boy in the world. 

I said, “What do you mean? I always train in the afternoon.”

He said, “Sure, but tomorrow you train with us.”

I said, “With who?”

He said, “With the first team.”

Kepa Arrizabalaga | Chelsea F.C. | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy of Kepa Arrizabalaga

I was so overjoyed and I couldn’t keep it to myself. I went straight home to tell my parents. I thought they would be happy for me, and they were — to an extent. I mean, they were the ones who had bought me my first pair of gloves when I was a kid. We would walk past this sports shop near our home, and every time we passed it I would say, “I want the gloves, I want the glooooves!” In the end they gave in. The pair they bought were way too large, but I had already fallen in love. When they offered to change them for a smaller pair, I said, “No! I want these!” 

And then I went to training with gloves that went up to my elbows. 

Anyway, when I told my parents that I was going to train with the first team, they were worried. They are very humble and hardworking — typical people from Ondarroa. So they had one big question for me: 

“What about school?”

I couldn’t believe it! This was the first team! Who cared about school?? But they could not get their heads around how I could just skip classes.  

After a couple of training sessions with the first team, they really began to protest. “Look, this cannot be. You are 16, you have to study!” 

In the end they even turned up at the training ground to ask Luis for an explanation. He was like, “Who are these people?” Hahaha. They had a meeting with him, and he explained that the club saw me as an important part of their future. After that I think that my parents understood. 

Kind of…. 

A few months later I joined the first team for the preseason. I was working with Marcelo Bielsa, a genius, and players like Javi Martínez and Fernando Llorente, who had just been world champions with the Spanish national team. At the start it felt surreal, but soon I realised that I was there for a reason, that the club really believed in me.

By the spring of 2013, when I was 18, I had won the U-19 Euros with Spain and been promoted to Athletic’s B team, and was still training with the first team. 

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Everything went well for the next couple of years, but then an unexpected offer came: Ponferradina — a team from the Spanish Second Division — wanted me on loan. It was good news, but accepting the offer meant leaving Athletic, which had been my club — and my second home — since I was nine years old. I wasn’t convinced I could leave a place where I felt so comfortable and so protected.

I thought about it a lot, and in the end I decided to accept the challenge. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life, because at Ponferradina I proved to myself, and all those who trusted in me, that I could fight with the best, that I had what it took to make it in professional football.

A few years later, in summer 2018, another unexpected offer came: Chelsea F.C.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of it at first, because my contract had a buyout clause of 80 million euros. Athletic were not even going to negotiate. They had never negotiated with the sales of important players like Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente or Ander Herrera. Obviously, I was very happy that a club with the history and potential of Chelsea was interested in me, but I just didn't think it was going to happen.

But a few days later my agent told me that Chelsea had offered a huge fee, if not quite the full clause. I was like, Wow, they must really want me. When they then offered to pay the buyout clause, I had a big decision to make. 

I spent days thinking about it. It felt like a huge responsibility, but also a huge compliment that a club like Chelsea had made such a big offer for me. In the end, I am very happy to be able to say that I said: “Let’s go for it.” 

The hardest decisions are the ones that make us grow.

On 8 August, I signed the deal. 

On 11 August, I was in Huddersfield, playing my first game for Chelsea. 

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Everything went very quickly. It felt as if I had been teleported into a new reality. I only knew my teammates from what I had seen on Spanish TV. As for my English, well ... it wasn't great. 

Fortunately, the club welcomed me with open arms, and I was lucky that there were many other Spaniards: Cesc Fàbregas, Álvaro Morata, Pedro, Marcos Alonso, César Azpilicueta — and also Mateo Kovačić, who arrived from Real Madrid at the same time and who also speaks Spanish. 

My first season was good. I adapted quickly to the Premier League — undoubtedly the most difficult league in the world for goalkeepers — we got back into the Champions League, we won the Europa League against Arsenal and I was starting matches with the Spanish national team.

For me, only that moment in the League Cup final tarnished my first season…. Let’s just deal with that here once and for all. 

It was all a big misunderstanding. 

Manchester City were dominating the game in extra time and there was barely any time left until penalties. After making a save, I felt something in my leg and I called for the physio to make sure it was nothing. Above all, though, I wanted to make sure that we as a team could catch our breath. 

Suddenly, I saw that the coach, Maurizio Sarri, had sent Willy Caballero to warm up. He thought I couldn't go on. My intention, right or wrong, had only been to waste time to help the team. I didn’t have any serious problem that was going to keep me from continuing to play.

I tried to signal that I was O.K., that I wasn’t injured. But we were at Wembley in front of more than 80,000 people, so of course Sarri didn’t understand me. When the fourth official raised the board, clearly I should have come off, and I’m sorry I didn’t.

I was wrong, and I am sorry for everyone who was involved: for Maurizio Sarri, who it seemed like I had undermined in public; for Willy, a teammate and a great professional; and for all my teammates and Chelsea fans who had to put up with everything — all the noise that was generated during the game and then in the days after.

Inside the club it was no big deal. I had a chat with the boss, we talked about how we had each seen the situation, and we cleared the air. After that I got dropped for one game, but a week later I was back in the team. I remember playing a great game against Fulham, and that was it. A couple of months later we knocked Frankfurt out of the Europa League semifinals and I saved two penalties in the shootout. Internally, everything was fine again. 

But outside the club, it got out of control. 

When I picked up my phone in the dressing room after the League Cup final, I realised that I had become worldwide news. For the next three or four days it didn’t stop. It was overwhelming. And clearly, most people who saw the pictures thought that I had disrespected Maurizio. 

I felt misunderstood, because it had never been my intention to snub the coach. I had only tried to tell him I was O.K.. I tried to explain this to the press, but I couldn’t.

Luckily, now it is just an anecdote from the past. I still have a fantastic relationship with Maurizio. And next time, in a similar situation, I will know what to do.

But it is an example that not everything is what it seems from the outside.

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The following season was difficult for everyone, and I was no exception.

Little by little, I lost confidence and ended up making some mistakes. I understood the criticism, of course. We play under pressure, and it is part of the job to deal with negative coverage. But sometimes it goes too far. It is O.K. to say that a player has made a mistake, but when you only go out to hurt someone, or write lies that have nothing to do with football, you cross a line. 

There has to be a limit, don’t you agree? 

When your family and friends read horrible things that are said about you, it affects them, and so, indirectly, it affects you too. In the end, we are just people trying to do our jobs as best we can.

Racism, threats to family members, homophobia … these things are unacceptable. We have to draw a line at some point. Once and for all, we need to take measures to stop abuse on social media.

Right now, I feel really good at Chelsea, both physically and mentally. I’m happy and I believe I’m a better goalkeeper than I was two years ago. Of course I would like to play more minutes. I would be lying if I said that I was completely happy with my situation. But I also respect the coach’s decisions. I understand that there are other players who are doing well. The team is doing great, too, and in the end that is the most important thing. 

If we had not put the team first, there is no way we could have won that final against City. 

I always try to help the team in whatever role that I have. Since I was little, my father instilled in me the idea that when you do what you like, hard work is not only the best way to achieve your goals, but also a satisfaction in itself. These last few weeks I have thought a lot about this, and how, every time I have found myself in a difficult situation, the solution has been the same: to focus on my work. There are players who do not like to train. I love it. It’s something that coaches value and that makes me feel good about myself. Even if I don’t get one more minute on the pitch, training well makes me feel better. It makes me feel at peace.

I’m starting this new season full of enthusiasm and ready to continue doing what I like the most.  I know that if I work hard in every session, and support the team in any way I can, then the results will follow. They always do. 

Nobody knows what will happen in the future. But today I am very happy in London, and I hope that in the coming years I can celebrate many more titles with my team, Chelsea Football Club.

Above all, I hope that people will get to know me — really know me — as a guy who has done all he can to help his teammates. Because that, really, is why I’m here. 

Kepa Arrizabalaga | Chelsea F.C. | The Players’ Tribune