Meet Kepa Arrizabalaga: Chelsea's new goalie, bird lover, and the one that got away from Zinedine Zidane
Marca, the notoriously pro-Real Madrid Spanish newspaper, did not hold back in its assessment of the club’s failure to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga. “Kepa,” read one headline, “an error that will haunt Zidane.”
The “error” in question was Zinedine Zidane’s decision to veto a move for the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper in January.
The transfer, for a cost of around £18 million, was so near to being completed that the 23-year-old had even passed a medical, but still the Real Madrid manager said no.
“Kepa is very talented,” Zidane, who would leave the Bernabeu in May, later admitted. “But I did not want a goalkeeper in the middle of the season. I don’t regret not signing him.”
Seven months down the line, Kepa’s transfer value has quadrupled. Having been deemed unworthy of £18 million by Madrid, Chelsea will this week make him the most expensive goalkeeper in history.
The price hike is a result of a new contract Kepa signed at Athletic in January, but it also a reflection of an ability that has made him the most promising goalkeeper in Spanish football.
Born in Ondarroa, a Basque seaside town, Kepa was an obvious talent from an early age. He did, though, balance football with a second childhood passion: birds. Alongside his father, he would hunt for goldfinches and train them to sing. He was good at it, too: Kepa’s birds, named Oker, Rocky and Raikkonen, twice won competitions, in 2008 and 2010.
Kepa first joined the Athletic academy when he was nine years old. His progression through the ranks was swift, and he even impressed as an outfield player, scoring two goals in one match at under-14 level when injuries had temporarily decimated the side.
As he developed, Kepa’s reflexes and speed began to interest the national youth teams, and he played for Spain at youth levels before making his senior debut last year.
Since making his first appearance for Athletic in 2016, he has made more than 50 appearances for the club, and was included in Spain’s World Cup squad in Russia this summer. That was proof of his development, but this move to a new country and a new culture will surely provide his greatest test yet.