Spain's Real Sociedad de Fútbol midfielder Asier Illarramendi may have all he needs in his native Basque country but he is relishing the chance to make his mark in Israel.
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This is not the usual summer for Asier Illarramendi. The 23-year-old would normally spend his off-season relaxing in his home town of Mutriku, a coastal town in the Basque Country in northern Spain.
Illarramendi is a home bird who every day makes the same journey from Mutriku to Zubieta, the training ground of his club side, Real Sociedad de Fútbol. He has around him all that he holds dear. "I go to train every day with Real Sociedad and then come home," he tells UEFA.com. "I've got everything I need there – family, friends, my girlfriend. I'm happier there than anywhere else."
Mutriku has a population of little more than 5,000 but has produced other players of note for 'La Real', Dionisio Urresti (in the 70s and 80s) and Luciano Iturrino (80s and 90s). The latter had a part to play in Illarramendi's own development. "Iturrino was my coach when I started playing as a boy in my town. On top of that he's in my dad's group of friends. I learned a lot from him."
Those lessons learned on the pitches of Mutriku helped forge a talent that shone brightly in Spain's opening Group B win over Russia where the defensive midfielder was one of the holders' key players. The defensive midfielder evidently feels at home in Julen Lopetegui's set-up. "The style at Real Sociedad is similar to the national team. We try to keep the ball and up front have got quick, direct players," he said.
Yet until recently he was not taking his U21 place for granted. After making three appearances in qualifying, Illarramendi suffered a cartilage injury in November 2011 and did not return to the squad until the following May. "At that time I didn't think about playing for Spain. My thoughts were all about recovering as quickly as possible. I got back playing and got another chance."
He has certainly taken it and this UEFA European Under-21 Championship now offers him the opportunity to ice the cake of an outstanding season with Real Sociedad, whom he helped achieve a fourth-placed finish in the Spanish Liga – and a place in the UEFA Champions League play-offs.
To celebrate that achievement, secured on the final day, he and Íñigo Martínez, his club colleague, both went under the clippers – hence the cropped look both are sporting now.
Yet Illarramendi is not contemplating another haircut should Spain eventually hold on to their trophy. "I can't do anything now – not with a head like this. But I'm not sorry about it, and it's helped me with the heat here in Israel." On the evidence of his assured opening display, he looks better equipped to handle the heat than most.