By Dan Parry
During the press conference to announce his retirement, midfielder Xabi Prieto uttered the words that every football fan wants to hear from their club captain.
‘My dream wasn’t to be a footballer, but to be a La Real player.’
It was a simple yet eloquent turn of phrase that epitomised Xabi Prieto’s service and dedication to his club.
After fourteen seasons and well over five hundred club appearances, Xabi’s career was brought to an end by an insurmountable groin problem. An unfortunate end to a remarkable career, but true to his nature Xabi has refused to complain. Instead, he has only shown gratitude to the clubs and fans for allowing him to fulfil his ambitions. Over the course of his career, his outstanding leadership skills and undoubted footballing ability have lead to him becoming one of the most beloved players in Txuri-Urdin history.
Prieto signed for La Real at the relatively older age of sixteen. Until that point, he had only played for his school and various local youth teams. For example, he was a regular at the famous football tournament that takes place every year on San Sebastian’s beautiful beach, Playa La Concha. He has also spoken of how once in a separate tournament a team, named Buru Hezurrak (The Skulls), formed by his group of friends managed to reach the final, allowing him to play his only game in Atotxa, Real Sociedad’s previous stadium.
Due to having joined the academy later than most, Xabi took a while to adapt to the rigours of professional football. The midfielder has since admitted that initially he worried he didn’t have the skill level required to make it at the top level, such were the difficulties he had.
Not long after being brought into the fold at La Real’s Zubieta academy he was sent out on loan to local side Hernani. Having made some progress with Hernani, Real Sociedad decided to keep Prieto at the club, although according to him they left it until the last minute to make the decision.
From here there was no looking back for Xabi, he made forty-three appearance for the Basque outfit’s ‘B’ side before being given his debut in a Copa del Rey game against Real Oviedo on the 8th October 2003.
Throughout the season he became a more prominent feature in the side, picking up thirteen appearances, including a standout performance at the Bernabeú in a 4-1 victory, where the youngster bagged two goals: a superb long-range effort and a coolly-delivered panenka penalty. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine a young footballer having the guts and steel to pull off a panenka at the Bernabéu in his debut season… but that’s exactly what Prieto did.
The darkest and lowest moment of his career came at the end of the 06/07 season when, after forty years in the top flight, Real Sociedad were relegated to the Segunda Divisíon. Most had expected that a player of Prieto’s quality would rapidly jump ship. He had several offers to do so, but he rejected all of them. He decided that he would rather stay at his boyhood club and help them regain their place in La Liga.
Three extremely tough years followed. The club had hoped that they would bounce back at the first time of asking but instead they were forced to suffer. The first season down was a tumultuous one which saw three changes of manager and La Real eventually finishing in 4th place.
In 08/09, Juan Manuel Lillo was at the helm, and though they played an attractive and entertaining form of football, the club did even worse coming in 6th place. Xabi was twenty-five at this point, and without doubt nobody would have blamed him for wanting to compete at a higher level whilst being in the prime of his career.
But the Donostiarra was having none of it. Yet again, he had many tempting offers, none more so than one from Ajax, but he maintained that the challenge of dragging La Real back to the top tier was always foremost in his mind. He simply could not see himself wearing any strip other than that of Real Sociedad.
They say that the night is darkest before the dawn and fortunately for Prieto, La Real and its fans this old proverb proved true. In the 08/09 campaign, now under the management of Uruguayan Martín Lasarte, Real Sociedad finally achieved promotion back to La Liga. Xabi played a key role, Lasarte’s decision to move the player in from the right to a more central position where his intelligence could do more damage paid dividends. Xabi started in thirty-four of the thirty-five games he played, picking up seven goals.
The Txuri-Urdin then went about solidifying their status in the main category, producing two respectable fifteenth and twelfth place finishes during their first two seasons back.
In 2012/13, Prieto took over as captain from another ‘one-club’ man, Mikel Aranburu. It turned out to be an historic year for the Basques as they qualified for the Champions League after finishing in fourth place. Another personal highlight for Xabi occurred on the 6th of January, when he scored his first career hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat to Real Madrid.
The Captain and his squad managed to defeat Olympique Lyonnais in the qualifying round of the Champions League, but they were handed a tough draw in the group stages and finished bottom of a group containing Manchester United, Shakthar Donestk and Bayer Leverkusen. However, they did manage to reach the semi-final of the Copa Del Rey (thanks to Racing Santander forfeiting the quarter final) before being knocked out of the competition by Barcelona.
Xabi had originally planned to retire at the end of the 2016/17, but was dissuaded from doing so by the fact that he was still playing at a competitive level, and most importantly, he was enjoying himself. The possession based style of manager Eusebio Sacristan meant he was playing some of the best football of his career and he ended the season with eight goals.
Prieto lead a fortunate career in terms of injuries, having not suffered many major ones. Therefore, he was unlucky that an injury brought an end to his fantastic career. In a game against Levante, when taking a penalty he aggravated a pain in his groin, the resulting injury left him unable to recover to his previous condition.
In truth he had always planned on retiring anyway, the injury just helped him make his mind up. Rather than playing through the pain, Xabi felt it would be best to follow his original plan in stepping aside and letting the next generation of academy products take over.
The club decided that in order to honour a player who had carried the badge with such prestige for fifteen years, they would change the badge, replacing the normal crest for an image of Xabi. For the final home game of the season, the emblematic player became the emblem.
It was an emotional game and Xabi, with fellow retiree and one club man Txarly Martinez at his side, did not hold back the tears whilst thanking the fans and his family before symbolically passing on the captain’s armband to another academy product, Asier Illarramendi.
Although his natural intelligence and leadership skills marks him out as manager material, Xabi has stated that he harbours no desires to take on such a role. He has the appropriate coaching badges, and presumably he would be given a job at the club if he decided to follow that path, but for now, Prieto has said his only wish is to enjoy his retirement, spend time with his young family, and take up other passions that football had rendered impossible.
One thing, however, is guaranteed; Xabi Prieto, as a season ticket holder since childhood, won’t be taking a break from Anoeta. Whether it be in an official capacity or not, in the years to come it won’t be hard to find Xabi at the weekends. Like any true fan, he’ll be at the club he loves supporting it through the good times, and the bad. Just like he did as a player.
Artwork by: Galih Panandito
This article is part of a series based on Basque football made in collaboration with Row Z. Click the link if you want to see some of the most unique footballing content the worldwide web has to offer.