Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga, the promising central defender who did not want to win the League

On the penultimate matchday of the League of the 2002-2003 season, all eyes were focused on Balaídos, in the match between Celta and Real Sociedad.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
16 November 2023 Thursday 15:28
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Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga, the promising central defender who did not want to win the League

On the penultimate matchday of the League of the 2002-2003 season, all eyes were focused on Balaídos, in the match between Celta and Real Sociedad. The Basque team depended on itself to become league champion ahead of Real Madrid, its closest pursuer. They had a great team: Xabi Alonso, Nihat, Kovacevic, Karpin, Lopez Rekarte...And they had all of Gipuzkoa behind them. On the txuri-urdin bench, however, a promising center back, Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga, attended the match in a “mentally extreme” situation and with a feeling impossible to understand from a distance: he wanted his team to lose.

Two decades later, Gurrutxaga cannot help but apologize for the feelings that invaded him then, although he has a precise diagnosis of what was happening to him. “He was in an extreme situation. He had just had a very bad few months, thinking that he had driven me crazy, and now I put a name to what happened to me. First it was anxiety; then depression; and, finally, led to OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Everyone was happy except me: the family, my friends, the team, all of Gipuzkoa... I felt that so much happiness around me was going to be unbearable, when all I wanted to do was get into a room and cry. I'm very sorry, but that's what I felt,” he explains in a bar near Anoeta.

La Real lost that match and Gurrutxaga, who did not play, breathed a sigh of relief. The txuri-urdin team was proclaimed, a week later, runners-up, a term that the center-back has chosen for the title of the book he has written with Ander Izagirre, journalist and writer twice winner of the Euskadi Prize for Literature or, last year in Poland, from the Ryszard Kapuscinski Prize.

Runner-up (K.O. Books) tells the surprising sporting and life career of a young man who at the age of 19 had fulfilled his dream of making his debut with Real Sociedad in First Division. A promising centre-back, international in the lower categories, who was crushed by expectations and pressure, to the point of causing serious mental health problems.

Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga was able to turn the situation around thanks, especially, to the support of specialists, his own environment and a sense of humor that has even allowed him to make a career as a stand-up comedian and television presenter on one of the best-known programs in ETB. In Runners-up, Gurrutxaga and Izagirre once again opt for humor, for an unconventional biography that, more than the smile, makes people laugh continuously.

Ander Izagirre's literary skill has been key to being able to address an issue as serious as mental health from a humorous perspective. “The humor in this book is a very serious thing. It is neither a mockery nor a frivolity; It is a very good tool. Narratively, the reader has a great time and enjoys very comical scenes. There is a part of laughing at your failure, at your disasters, major or minor, that works very well. At the same time, there is a curious effect, and that is that you see that you are laughing at something very funny, but, if you think about it, it is very tragic. "For someone to make a mess on the field because they are afraid to cross the line of the area with their left foot and, accidentally, end up causing a penalty is very funny, but if you think about it, living with those obsessions is very tragic," explains Izagirre. .

The San Sebastian writer believes that “humor is what saved Zuhaitz”: “It's not that he makes humor out of what happened to him now, it's that he did it already then. He sometimes used it as a relaxant, to reduce tension and distance himself, and other times to hide what was happening to him when he was caught, for example, arranging the flip-flops in the locker room, in symmetry, or washing his hands 30 times a day. "He would make up something stupid so that they would laugh and not think that he was crazy."

The anecdote of Subcampeón is exceptional, due to the very nature of the stories it tells, due to the context in which they develop and, also, due to the luxury supporting roles it has. Iker Casillas, Javier Clemente, Xabi Alonso, Valery Karpin, Jimmy Hasselbaink, David Bustamante and Marcelo Bielsa come across the small tragedies of Gurrutxaga.

The book, in any case, does not avoid the seriousness of the underlying issue: mental health, particularly in sports. He approaches it from another perspective and, although it is not the main objective, it gives rise to talking about the topic.

“It is a very brave book. He says things that a footballer never says. He talks about what goes through their heads: their fears, faking an injury or hiding behind an opponent so they don't get passed. He talks about his fragilities and failures, which can be extrapolated to any area of ​​life. Out of shame, taboo or insecurity, we don't tell what happens to us, and then it seems like it doesn't happen to anyone. Many people identify in any area of ​​life, whether in football or sex, with these things happening to them. What counts and contributes a lot is very valuable. Still, we have to say that we have not written this book with the explicit intention of helping. It is not a self-help book; Simply put, the story is very good. Then, it can have that value of helping and can be much more effective than others that have that explicit purpose,” says Izagirre.

Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga does not regret what could have been if they had helped him channel the pressure in another way. He is satisfied with the path he took, first from the rural neighborhood of San Miguel, in Elgoibar, to the prolific Zubieta youth academy, a final as a U-15 international at Wembley or his debut at Anoeta. And then, from a Real de Champions to the potatoes of Third.

“I don't torture myself. And there is nothing I regret, although I have always missed having a coach who told me: 'Let go, ask for the ball and if you miss, ask for it again.' I'm not going to take you away, you're going to continue playing.' I know that it is difficult and that there is no time to wait, but I heard Pep Guardiola speak in that sense, saying that he does not get angry because they fail, but because they do not ask for it, and I do think that those of us whose legs were shaking would have been very good,” he explains.

Regarding the issue of mental health, Gurrutxaga perceives a slight change in recent years and cites the case of Víctor Camarasa, whose club, Oviedo, applauded the player's “bravery” after causing indefinite leave in order to “take care of their mental health.” “I would have needed six months off, who was going to wait six months for you?” He explains.

The decline of the Guipuzcoan center back began in his second season at Real: “During the first season, as a debutant, everything was good scores, but there was the fear that the following week would not go well. The second year, however, I stopped being that kid who had come up from B, who is forgiven for any mistake; He was already in the squad, he had a number and suddenly I see that my legs are shaking.” Fulfilling his dream turned into a nightmare. The following summer he hit rock bottom, depressed and devastated by an obsessive disorder that led him to engage in unusual situations.

In a few years, he went from playing with international stars to sharing a dressing room with the fruit seller, the bricklayer, the butcher or the driving school teacher, who trained at seven in the afternoon because they had to work first. And it is there, first at Lemona and then at Zamora, Real Unión or Beasain, where Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga enjoyed football again.

Now he tells it in a hilarious biography that does not overlook a message about mental health in sport and that honors the runner-up: “It is a way of looking at life and, to be funny, it is the perfect place. The runner-up is a person who does well, who does not cause pity, but who always makes a mess in the end. He always screws up. That's me".