By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Athletic Bilbao's refusal to sell striker Fernando Llorente to Juventus this January will end up costing the Basques up to €6 million in unreceived transfer funds, bonuses and wages. Slap bang in the middle of the fierce financial crisis strangling Spain, it is an expensive way to prove a point.
Athletic announced on August 13 (although they had been told 10 days earlier by the player's representatives) that Llorente had refused to sign a new contract with the Basque outfit. "It is a failure at institutional level," president Josu Urrutia told the media. He was right. And it was to get even worse.
Llorente would only be allowed to leave for his release clause of €36 million, Urrutia insisted. But no club in their right mind was going to shell out such a fee for a player with just one year left on his contract. Juventus offered €21m; Athletic refused. Then, this winter, the Italians came calling again. This time they bid €4m for the striker, plus bonuses. Again, Athletic declined. Now he is leaving for free.
The Pamplona-born forward, who grew up in La Rioja and has been at Athletic since the age of 11, will earn less than that figure at Juve (where he will pay higher taxes despite a similar net salary to the one offered by Bilbao). But the player has been unhappy since the summer sale of team-mate Javi Martinez, is not on the best of terms with coach Marcelo Bielsa (who sent him to the showers during one October training session) and has also expressed his desire to play in the Champions League, which will not happen at his current club (now 14th in La Liga). So it was never about the money.
Nor is it, seemingly, for Athletic. Basques are known for their headstrong character and the club's stubborn stance on Llorente highlights a typical trait. Urrutia and boss Bielsa, almost certain to leave in the summer after what has been a calamitous campaign this term, have both been unhappy with the 27-year-old's behaviour and attitude on and off the pitch since the summer. The player's head has been elsewhere, his form flailing, and while he may be one of the hottest properties as far as transfer talk is concerned, in Bilbao this term the Spain striker has been unable to displace the much-travelled Aritz Aduriz, now in his third spell at the club. At the weekend, Llorente trained with the reserves and did not even feature in the draw against Betis.
The decision to retain the striker, who has spent most of the season as a substitute and netted just twice in 2012-13 after 29 strikes last term, owes more to pride than spite, yet is also a message to other wantaway players at the club: Do not mess us about.
Athletic were concerned that if Llorente were to leave in January, other players may follow up with transfer requests or come asking for more money. Athletic already pay extremely competitive wages and are one of the few teams in Spain without debt, but the Basque outfit fear a backlash after the sale of Martinez and the impending departure of Llorente. Defender Fernando Amorebieta is holding out for a contract offer of €2m per year (he has currently been offered €1.8m), while Iker Muniain is wanted by Arsenal and is thought to be getting itchy feet - the youngster's performances this term have been a pale shadow of his dynamic displays last season.
The Bilbao side want to avoid being seen as a selling club, especially following the summer sale of Martinez to Bayern Munich. That was a profitable deal and Athletic have yet to spend the €40m they received from the German giants. Benat, their former midfielder now starring at Betis, is one option but he has a release clause of €20m. Llorente, though, is irreplaceable in a market in which Athletic are restricted to players born in the Basque Country or the neighbouring communities.
|"The club have decided against selling Llorente in January. That's the situation. He gives us quality until the end of the season"
- Marcelo Bielsa on Fernando Llorente in December
Having missed out on the full fee for their Spain striker, then, Athletic took the unusual step of deciding to hold on to a player who is not even in the team at the moment, for a further six months. "The club have decided against selling Llorente in January," Bielsa said in December. "That's the situation. He gives us quality until the end of the season."
That means Llorente, already bearing the brunt of the fans' anger for his poor performances and decision to leave in the summer, is likely to be seen as the main culprit among the fans, who are still - largely, and perhaps surprisingly - backing Bielsa.
He remains a player with proven pedigree and a useful man to have around, but with his head elsewhere and performances poor this term, Athletic may have been wiser to cut their losses and picked up the €6m they could have gained by letting the striker leave sooner rather than later.
But Basque pride means Llorente will remain at the club until the summer and it is now up to both parties to make the arrangement work for the next six months. The money may be gone and there is now no hope of silverware, either, after some damaging defeats in 2012-13, but at least Athletic can claim a moral victory by refusing to sell their striker this winter. And for player and club alike, there is always 'pride' to play for.
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