Xabi Prieto as happy as ever as Real Sociedad's long-serving heart and soul
"When I was little, if I was playing up the best way my parents had of stopping me, of getting me to behave was to say: 'Xabi, carry on like that and you won't be going to Atoxa on Sunday.' And I'd be like: 'Oh.' I'd soon stop. Because, bloody hell, going to see la Real was what made me happiest; that was the best moment of the week for me, it was what I most liked doing."
It's been 29 years since Xabi Prieto became a season ticket holder at Real Sociedad. He was five. He's 34 now and is their captain, 18 years since he joined the club and 14 since he made his debut with the first team against Real Oviedo, a kid sharing a room with Javier De Pedro. The first goal he ever scored came in only his second start, from the spot at the Santiago Bernabeu. So did his second when, later in that same game, he dinked in a Panenka of a penalty, the ball settling smoothly, cleanly in the net. It feels appropriate somehow.
"That feeling you have when you're a kid is always there."
And so, it seems, is he, through 14 years and 13 different managers: relegation, promotion, administration and Champions League qualification. Just not for very much longer. How much longer, he's not sure, but there's a word he repeats often and that explains a lot, simple but eloquent:
Xabi Prieto is happy. He'd planned to retire but he was happy. Oh, and there was popular demand too. Not just the fans, but players, manager, club president. So here he is, daily, still at their Zubieta training ground, up past the racecourse not far outside San Sebastian, possibly the loveliest city in Spain: his city, where he was born, where there are more Michelin stars per square metre than anywhere else in Europe, and where every weekend goalposts colonise the most beautiful of beaches.
And so there he was in the 10th minute of the second week in a season he wasn't supposed to play, scooping the ball into the penalty area. Immediately, Anoeta broke into applause, chanting his name. Not because of the pass (although it was gorgeous) but because he wears No.10 and it was his 500th game at the club where he's glided through a decade of games with calm authority. That day, Prieto scored his 62nd goal in a win that took them top.
"I'll remember today for the rest of my life," he said. "Feeling loved is the nicest thing there is."
Last weekend, Prieto became the player who has made more league appearances for Real Sociedad than anyone else, on 461. If he plays this week -- and he will, against Espanyol on Monday -- he will have gone exactly two years without missing a single game. He is 34, remember.
There may be no player in Spain who symbolises a club quite like Prieto does. Universally admired, he can feel like something from another era. He went down with the club and didn't leave, even when that spell in segunda extended into a third year. La Real were on the verge of going out of business and he didn't leave then, either. His manager at the time said that never mind the first division: Prieto should be playing for Spain, but he still didn't leave.
There are many reasons and one that is more fundamental than the rest, an inescapable reality, he says. "To be at the same club for your whole career, the first and most important thing is that the club wants you to be there."
ESPN FC: So why did you stay?
Xabi Prieto: Because, maybe professionally, it would have been better to go to a first division team or to play abroad, but I didn't think I was going to be any happier somewhere else. So I set myself the challenge to get la Real back to the first division. It was harder than we would have liked -- it took three years -- but we got there in the end. And the year we went up was one of the loveliest moments in my career.
I was happy. And that weighed more heavily than anything else, more than any offers that were bigger economically or more significant in sporting terms. I remember talking to my agent, even people in my family who thought that maybe it would be better for me to go and try to build a career somewhere else, but I could never see myself in a different shirt, I could never see myself outside San Sebastian.
ESPN FC: Were you always going to make it? Deep down, you must have always expected la Real -- or someone -- to ring one day?
XP: No. I really didn't. I liked football but I was still only playing for the ikastola [Santo Tomas Lizeoa], my school, until I was 16. I never really thought I'd make a career of it. I played and played, but no one ever called me and I didn't think anyone would. Even the first time they called me, I joined the juvenil and they sent me out on loan to play for Hernani, a local team nearby, and when I came back they didn't tell me until the very last day. So, no, I didn't think I would end up playing here at all.
When [Sociedad] called, I was nervous but happy. You can see that the dream is closer, but I trained with teammates who I thought were much more likely to make it than me; they'd been training there for years and I'd just come from playing with my mates at school. I didn't think I was ready. But as the months went by I felt better and better.
ESPN FC: You were just a kid, as players invariably are when they come through - and in fact for some time after. Do we forget that?
XP: Yes, they're kids and normal kids. At times, people on the outside can think that they're endiosados [deified, arrogant], special, whatever... but that's more the way they look at us, or at them, than we really are. When people meet you and spend time with you, they sometimes say 'bloody hell, you're normal...' Well, yeah, of course. We're people with the same worries -- we know we're very well-paid but in every other respect we're a product of society like anyone else. We talk about the same things, have the same concerns.
ESPN FC: Are players getting too much too soon, though? Has that changed since you started almost two decades ago?
XP: No, I think it's similar. It's true that with TV contracts and so on, players are better-paid but I think players here recognise what they've got, how lucky they are. I see the same hunger players always did. You see it with Alvaro [Odriozola], [Jon] Bautista...
ESPN FC: Sixteen is quite late to join a professional club. Was that an advantage? Does it give you a broader perspective? A broader mind? Is it good to play less structured football?
XP: I have talked about this with people. There are all sorts of examples. I think the ideal thing is to train here with discipline, the resources, the coaching. But in my case, I wouldn't change anything. I played with the people who are still my friends now right up to [the age of] 16, which gave me the chance to enjoy it, to play with a certain freedom. I could enjoy life without things being so serious or professional. But there are cases of kids who arrived here very, very young and they have made it. I wouldn't change mine, though.
ESPN FC: Is your style of football intuitive? Mechanised? Both? Have you changed?
XP: Over the years you improve, you see the game better, your positioning is better, you read it all better. I've evolved but my football is still intuitive and what you think you're going to do might change when you get the ball anyway, however much you mechanise the game. That space that was there has been closed, it all happens so quickly, so you need that intuition. There's a lot of improvisation.
Football has changed. Players look after themselves much better, every little detail. Nutrition, rest, physical preparation: all that has evolved a lot. Everything is much faster. From the inside you don't realise but if you watch a game from 2002 and then one from 2016, you can see it. The physical statistics show it. In preseason fifteen years ago, there was always wine on the tables. Not any more.
Also, you change. At 21, you can take it all on: sleep less, go out after playing and you still recover sooner but as time goes by, you realise you can't do that any more. It's harder every day. And the more you deal with those things, those little details, the better you feel.
ESPN FC: Is that easier here? Is the sense of shared identity greater? There's a very clear sense of identification here. You're a fan and now the captain, but it's not just you: fifteen of your first team squad have played for Real Sociedad B. That must make cohesion easier?
XP: I don't know, I don't know other clubs but yes, I think so. There's something here. I'd have to ask a coach really but players who come here from other clubs say it's different here. As for the Basque Country, the way it works with kids from a young age is important, there's a footballing culture; perhaps genetics play a part, I'm not sure. But Athletic and Real deserve a lot of credit.
ESPN FC: So about your style of play. For you, the ball is at the heart of everything...
XP: For me, yes. Although I also remember games against Barcelona where we had 30 percent of the ball and you still enjoyed it, that sense of satisfaction in making life difficult for them. In the end, it's about winning. All coaches try to win, looking at the players they have.
I'm convinced that, say, Koke or Saul with Diego Simeone may well see that they have less of the ball [than they would with other managers] but they still enjoy it when they see that the style bears fruit. It's not about having the ball for the sake of having it; everyone seeks out a style, but a way of winning.
ESPN FC: Which moments have you enjoyed most? You've had 13 different coaches.
XP: In the second division with Juanma Lillo, although the results weren't as good as we would have liked, I really enjoyed it, the way we played. With Martin Lasarte, when we went up, we were first all year. With [Philippe] Montanier, I started playing more centrally and we reached the Champions League. With Eusebio now, I think the team has found a way of playing that fits our footballing identity: we feel comfortable with the ball, carrying the weight of the game, always looking for the free man...
ESPN FC: You've been in the game a long time... if you could choose one teammate, who would it be?
XP: [Mikel] Aranburu [Real Sociedad midfielder, 1997-2012]. He was a magnificent footballer, capable of making players dizzy with a feint. He would shift his weight a tiny bit and lose them, he was good with both feet. He played his whole career here, he identified with the values of the club, he was a humble man, a captain.
ESPN FC: How about an opponent? There must be players who you've played against who have amazed you up close, maybe even more than you expected? Players where you think "wow, how good is he?!"
XP: That's happened with lots of players. At the start with [Zinedine] Zidane: he was spectacular. It happened with [Juan Roman] Riquelme too. You'd see him on the telly and you'd think he was plodding, not all that, easy to get the ball from and he'd stick his arm out like that [Prieto stands and does the actions] and there was no way you'd get to the ball. And then there's [Lionel] Messi. He's from another planet. He proves it every weekend. He's the best player in history without doubt and us players all admire him because he's a step above anyone else.
ESPN FC: When will you walk away? You weren't supposed to be playing this season. How do you feel?
XP: I feel good. I'm enjoying it. I'm happy. But I want to do the same as last year. It went well, I enjoyed it a lot and I prefer to go day by day, seeing how I feel. When the time comes to take a decision, I'll sit down with the president and talk about it. I think I'm ready for what comes next, whether that's carry on for a year, leave...
ESPN FC: And then what? Will you coach?
XP: The moment will come and sooner rather than later but I don't know yet. I'll take the time to do things I haven't been able to do all these years but I love football, but [then] I'd like to stay in football. Not as a coach, I don't think. I've got the badge... I'm saying no now but maybe one day I'll be drawn to it. But it's such a hard job, to manage a squad with so many egos... pfff
Players are selfish. That's just the way they are: there are 25 of them and they don't understand when they don't play, they have their own interests. And I don't know if I'd be able to deal with that. I respect coaches so much because I know they have a tough task.
SL: It's been 14 years but you've not won anything. Do you feel like there's something missing?
XP: No. no. no. Look, of course it would be a dream to have won a title but I won't leave with a bitter taste because I haven't. I won't be remembering all my life, beating myself up over it. And anyway, there's still time...
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.