Born in the Basque town of Ondarroa in northern Spain, Kepa Arrizabalaga – largely known simply as Kepa – spent his entire youth career with the Athletic Bilbao academy. Throughout Bilbao’s history, the club has adopted a policy of developing only Basque players, in order to maintain the local history and heritage of the club. It is an entirely unofficial rule – it does not appear on any legislation or documentation – but Bilbao’s recent track record of developing exciting local talent gives evidence that it works for them.
It certainly has done in the case of the 23-year-old goalkeeper they have just sold to Chelsea for a world-record £71.6m – a deal eclipsing the £66.8m Liverpool paid to lure Alisson away from AS Roma only two weeks ago. With Thibaut Courtois forcing through a move to Real Madrid, the west London club acted swiftly to match the staggeringly high release clause in a contract Kepa signed only in January – ironically, to stave off supposed interest from Madrid. Kepa succeeds Alvaro Morata as Chelsea’s record signing, and becomes the second key member of Bilbao’s defence to leave this year, following Aymeric Laporte’s move to Manchester City in January.
After three seasons in and around the Bilbao reserves, during which time he also had loan spells with lower-league clubs Ponferradina and Valladolid, Kepa leaves the Basque Country after two seasons and 53 league appearances as the Bilbao number one. Last season’s 16th place in La Liga didn’t match the promise of the seventh the club had managed in his first season, but Kepa has long been thought of as an exciting prospect and was the number one in the Spain Under-19 team that tasted Euros success under the guidance of new Real head coach Julen Lopetegui in 2012. He has only one senior international cap to this point – won in a 5-0 friendly victory over Costa Rica – but did go to the recent World Cup as back-up to David de Gea and Pepe Reina.