Mendilibar epitomizes Spanish football
This week, a couple of days after his team's admirable 3-2 win over Barcelona that has all but sealed the La Liga title chase in favor of Real Madrid, Jose Luis Mendilibar celebrated his one-year anniversary as coach of Osasuna.
This likable, hard-working but largely unsung football man should probably start getting his desk's contents tidied into boxes and talking to his agent about which struggling Spanish outfit might pick him up next. Yes, this is the man who saved Osasuna from relegation on the last day of the 2011 season. Yes, this is the guy who has the team from one of Hemingway's favorite cities, Pamplona, sitting one solitary point off Spain's fourth Champions League qualification position. But Mendilibar is one of those production-line coaches whom Spain is so good at producing (think Juande Ramos) who often dart around from minor club to minor club before hitting a golden moment.
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Mendilibar's average tenure with the senior clubs in his career would be just under two years, and only with Valladolid has his expiry date lasted more than 24 months. His worst experience was being sacked at his beloved Athletic Club (Bilbao) after 10 league matches.
Until now, he has probably been a little bit better known for his interesting phrases than his success: "Unless my players run and run they aren't worth cow s---" and "Everybody thinks I'm a sergeant major, but if I was out and about and I bumped into one of my players, I wouldn't have a problem having a beer with him."
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
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But that is just another of those unfair quirks. Mendilibar's work with Athletic Bilbao's youth system yielded sufficient numbers of good players to burnish his reputation. Keeping Valladolid up in La Liga for a couple of seasons, having won the team promotion, was no small feat. And there is another trait this serious-minded but admirably communicative 50-year old Basque can boast on his CV: He has taken footballers like David Silva, Gorka, Iraola, Asier del Horno, Joseba Llorente and many more at their formative stages and made them far more complete, more confident and more productive footballers.
Mendilibar has worked his magic again at Osasuna, with the fruits of his labor on display in the team's recent thrilling work against Barcelona (the Copa del Rey quarterfinal second leg in Pamplona last month was an equally convincing performance from Osasuna, irrespective of the European champions eventually winning 2-1). Dejan Lekic not only scored twice in last weekend's barnstorming victory, he also opened the scoring against Barca in the cup tie. For a variety of reasons -- not least the fact that the Serb has not developed a robust mentality, and occasionally his 6-foot-4 frame carries too much beef -- the 26-year-old has 12 appearances in league and cup this season. But he has five goals in that time, and against Barcelona he looked absolutely convincing.
Achieving that is one of Mendilibar's specialties. "When I was younger, I was short of self-belief, I had many little birds fluttering about in my head and sometimes I was a bit dozy," he explains. "That's one of the reasons I failed to achieve my dream of playing in the Primera -- I made a wrong choice which cost me joining the fledgling version of what became Super-Depo [Deportivo La Coruna from 1990-04]. So as a coach, I look specifically for guys like me. I'm not someone who likes to leave a footballer by the wayside simply because it seems he's not performing or he lacks confidence or he appears to have a weak mentality. My ability is to convince that guy that he's a top-class player, which he very probably is in the first place, or at least to let him know that if he hasn't 'counted' for another coach, then he certainly does for me."
Now, the argument isn't that Lekic will prove to be world-class under this hothouse tutelage that Mendilibar favors. But Osasuna has made minimal use of the transfer market recently, selling crown jewels such as Camunas and Juanfran while finding it hard to buy or loan replacements of equal quality. For the Navarrans, it is vital to make the most of promising footballers like Ibrahima Balde, the 22-year-old purchased from Atletico Madrid, or 31-year-old pocket dynamo Nino, rescued from Tenerife after two straight relegations and upon whom nobody else was willing to take a gamble.
Lekic was signed for around 3 million euros 18 months ago in fierce competition with Racing Santander and was given a five-year deal. So far it looks like very moderate business. But under Mendilibar -- who has 15 wins and 11 draws in his 37 La Liga matches in charge of Osasuna so far -- the Serb is beginning to look as if he remembers why he signed. Perhaps the best thing the coach can do is fluff up the player's reputation and get some money back in the summer transfer market.
But those words will seem like heresy if Mendilibar & Co. somehow end up in the Champions League qualification slot by the end of the season.
Every Osasuna coach -- and Mendilibar will be no different -- has the giant shadow of Athletic Club (Bilbao) looming over him. The Basque-only team bends the rules slightly in player selection by claiming that Navarre, the region of which Pamplona is the capital, belongs to the Basque country. So it feels free to recruit there, including from Osasuna's youth system (cantera). For example, both Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez (each a World Cup winner with Spain) were born in Navarre -- Llorente in Pamplona itself, and Martinez bought by Athletic for 6 million euros as a 17-year-old Osasuna youth product.
Mendilibar wants to fight the good fight. "I'm a great fan of Spain's tradition of the cantera," he says. "I think it's wrong for a kid to go and play his developmental football 60 kilometers from home. I want the young guys in our system to enjoy their football, to develop believing that football is fun as well as lucrative. In my day, my parents probably came to see me play five times in my career, but now when a youngster needs to go and sign for a big club it's often his father who has to uproot with the kid and go live somewhere else. There is a lot of ego and self-regard in football and I'd like us to have a more global perspective, a view of what's generally good for a club and for the game."
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version will be available in paperback from Feb. 17 and can be preordered at BackPage Press.
Idealist, man motivator, raconteur. When Mendilibar's red devils toasted Barcelona last weekend they certainly did themselves, Real Madrid and those in Spain who yearn for an end of Barcelona's domination a big favor.
But I'm happy to report that Osasuna did us all the favor of underlining that the production-line coach who isn't stellar in reputation but whose values are sound and whose work will one day win him a golden patch is still the bedrock of Spanish football. Hats off to Jose Luis Mendilibar.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.