Gipuzkoa genius: How Spain’s smallest province is dominating English football – with over half of the Premier League’s top-ranked managers hailing from the sport-mad region

SANDWICHED between the Bay of Biscay and the French border in the Basque Country’s northeasternmost corner, the province of Gipuzkoa may not appear familiar to the average English football fan.

With a total area of just 760 square miles Gipuzkoa is the smallest of Spain’s 50 provinces, but in the world of English football this tiny community punches well above its weight.

When the Premier League revealed last month their five candidates for Manager of the Season, over half of the nominees were Gipuzkoans. 

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Mikel Arteta has led his Arsenal side to successive second place finishes in the Premier League. Credit: Cordon Press

Mikel Arteta, Arsenal manager, Andoni Iraola, AFC Bournemouth manager, and Unai Emery, Aston Villa manager are not just linked by the first letter of their respective clubs – they all hail from this tiny, football-mad corner of Spain’s richest region.

The fiercely proud Catalan Pep Guardiola, the eventual winner of the Manager of the Season award after leading Manchester City to a fourth consecutive league trophy, also relies on some Gipuzkoan genius – his trusted assistant and long-term mentor, Juanma Lillo, is a resident, as is Txiki Begiristain, City’s all-knowing, all-conquering Director of Football, and Xabier Mancisidor, the club’s goalkeeping coach. 

Unai Emery (right), pictured with former Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (left), led Aston Villa to the Champions League last season. Credit: Cordon Press

Beyond the awards, there are more – Julen Lopetegui, the newly announced West Ham head coach, was born in the Gipuzkoan village of Asteasu, whilst Xabi Alonso, the much-lauded manager of Bayer Leverkusen who led his side to an historic unbeaten Bundesliga title this year, also calls Gipuzkoa his home.

Remarkably, Arteta, Iraola and Alonso, aged 42, 41 and 42 respectively, even played in the same team as promising youngsters.

Andoni Iraola, who played over 500 times for Athletic Bilbao as a player, has been lauded for his management style and philosophy at AFC Bournemouth. Credit: Cordon Press

The trio, all good friends, played together in the light blue of Antiguoko, an amateur youth side in San Sebastian known for producing some of Spain’s most prestigious footballing talents, before Arteta left to join Barcelona’s La Masia academy at the age of 15.

So how has this little province, host to just 750,000 people or 2% of Spain’s population, emerged as a key player in English football?

Although the Basque Country is not the only region of Spain to have been introduced to football by the British, it is perhaps the area most proud of its historic roots.

Arteta and Iraola played together as youngsters for Antiguoko, a Gipuzkoa-based youth side. Credit: Premier League

Athletic Bilbao, based in the neighbouring province of Biscay and Spain’s fourth most successful club, came to be thanks to British workers and Basque students returning from studies in Britain.

In the late 19th century, Bilbao was a thriving industrial metropolis – thousands of British workers from port towns including Southampton and Sunderland migrated, bringing football with them, whilst students returned from the UK invested with excitement in the discovery of this new sport.

Soon after, the club was formed – Athletic’s traditional red and white stripes even reflected their British roots, originating from a shipment of shirts that arrived from Southampton mirroring the south coast club’s own kit colours, while the club even had an English manager, Howard Kendall, in the 1970s.

Xabi Alonso is widely tipped to become a managerial star after he led Bayer Leverkusen to a Bundesliga title in Germany without losing a game – breaking a 10-year streak of league titles being won by Bayern Munich. Credit: Cordon Press

Within Spain, the Basque people are also regarded as grittier, tougher and rougher, reflected in their style of football.

Bilbao legend Andoni Goikoetxea was famously dubbed ‘The Butcher of Bilbao’ after breaking Diego Maradona’s ankle in a match in 1983, and many view Basques as more adept at adapting to the infamous physicality of English football. 

Another reason might be demonstrated through the story of Gipuzkoa’s most famous son.

Juan Sebastian Elcano is best known for having completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth in his ship, Victoria, and many Basques see that daring sense of adventure and exploration as fundamental to the region’s psyche.

Alonso (bottom row, left) and Arteta (bottom row, right), also played at youth level together in a golden generation for Basque talent. Credit: Cordon Press

All of the aforementioned managers ventured beyond Gipuzkoa’s borders to learn from other experiences and cultures – Arteta plied his trade in Scotland and England, Iraola became obsessed with NFL and their coaching methodology after a spell in the MLS with New York City FC, while Emery went as far afield as Moscow as he honed his craft.

This means that Gipuzkoans are not just typically ruthless, demanding or hard-working, but also crucially adaptable.

An alternative explanation – albeit less romantic than stories of 15th century explorers – could lie in the province’s extensive financial resources.

The province’s capital of San Sebastian – known as Donostia to its inhabitants – has the highest income per head in all of Spain, with money pumped into youth sport.

Unlike other parts of Spain, training facilities and pitches are of a high-quality, giving young players the platform to develop and thrive into first-team players and, like Iraola, Emery, Arteta and co., highly successful coaches.

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