Equipped with his famous Bart Simpson shin guards, in honour of his nickname in Spanish football, Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain will run out at Old Trafford tomorrow, a stadium he said himself is “one of those great arenas where every footballer wants to play”. Despite the magnitude of the occasion, the youngster is approaching it with the same carefree attitude that has enabled him to become a mainstay on his side at just 19-years-old and rack up over 100 appearances. Moreover, he has just made his senior-team debut for Spain, an occasion he intends to mark by giving his framed jersey pride of place in his home.
Under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa, Los Leones are enjoying a veritable renaissance this season. Currently fifth in the league, they are through to the final of the Copa del Rey and into the last sixteen of the UEFA Europa League, where they face the Red Devils. As his side made their final preparations before departing for England, Muniain took time out to chat to FIFA.com about the hectic recent weeks and his hopes for the rest of 2012.
First up, of course, is the chance to reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League at the expense of United, where his compatriot and good friend David de Gea wears the No1 jersey: "We’re very hungry and ambitious heading into this fixture. People might be writing us off given that we’re facing Manchester United, a team that have been dominant in Europe for many years, but we’ll still have something to say in the matter."
The team’s fine form in recent months certainly gives ground for optimism. Indeed, as Muniain himself puts it, Bielsa’s side “have developed a winning mentality”, something that looked unlikely after a string of poor results at the start of the season. "It took us a while to adapt to the coach’s ideas, which are based on possession and passing-football, but since we got the hang of it, it’s been going wonderfully well."
We hope to keep this going for many years and hold onto this group of players, as we know we can finally achieve something great.
Nor should Los Leones be intimidated by the Old Trafford environs, accustomed as they are to playing at the cathedral of football that is the San Mames. "I have the chance to play there every two weeks, and it’s one of the best sensations any footballer could experience." For all that experience, Muniain and his team-mates will not be eschewing a ritual that has been bringing them good fortune this year and forms part of their get-togethers. The practice takes place on the eve of games and involves the likes of Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta joining Muniain in his room for some hot cola cao (chocolate milk) and a few nocilla (hazelnut and chocolate spread) sandwiches.
This comfort food appears to have done the trick, with Athletic set to face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, in a repeat of the 2009 decider. Three years ago the Catalans took the honours in what was their annus mirabilis, but since then the Bilbao outfit have made huge strides thanks to the emergence of a crop of talented youngsters that have been attracting the attention of some of Europe’s top sides. For his part, Muniain is confident the squad will stay together and is convinced that they can collectively end a 28-year trophy drought. “We hope to keep this going for many years and hold onto this group of players, as we know we can finally achieve something great," he said.
The versatile teenager, who plays in a withdrawn striking role or out wide, certainly looks to have a great future ahead of him – and not just with the club he joined at 12-years-old. With La Roja he has enjoyed considerable success at youth level, picking up a bronze medal at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 and a winners’ one at the 2011 UEFA U-21 European Championship, where Luis Milla’s side booked their place at the Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. Asked about the latter, the Pamplona native could barely contain his enthusiasm: “It’s an event that I’ll probably never get another chance to compete in. Those who have taken part all say it’s a unique experience and one of the highlights of their lives. I’m dying to go and be among the world’s finest sportspeople in their discipline.”
However, after making his senior-team debut last month against Venezuela, it is not inconceivable that the player could have an even more pressing engagement this summer. A shoo-in for Spain’s U-23 side for the Olympics, Muniain is not ruling out a place among Vincente del Bosque’s squad for the UEFA EURO 2012. "I would be thrilled, although it will be difficult to make the squad given the intense competition for places," he said.
For now though, it is club duty that remains uppermost in his mind as he prepares to pack for the trip to Manchester. And going with him are not only the Bart Simpson shin guards, but also the cola cao and nocilla. “They were the first things into the bag,” he smiled, “them and my boots.”