Even without the fairy-tale ending, Aduriz re-wrote the book on strikers

By Sports Desk May 20, 2020

We still don't know if the Copa del Rey final will go ahead this year, but already there is disappointment for Athletic Bilbao fans: Aritz Aduriz will not be playing.

On Wednesday, the striker announced his retirement from football, the decision ultimately forced upon him, with doctors recommending he have hip replacement surgery.

"Unfortunately, my body has said 'enough'," he wrote in a dignified social media post. "I can't help my team-mates the way I would like to, nor the way that they deserve. That is the life of a professional athlete. Simple, very simple."

We knew this was to be Aduriz's final season - he confirmed as much last year - but it feels the end has come too soon. The Copa final was supposed to be the curtain-call: an all-Basque meeting, a showdown between Aduriz's Athletic and Real Sociedad, the team of San Sebastian, his home town. It was a farewell that seemed too good to be true. So it proved.

Aduriz was not interested in pity, of course, when the coronavirus crisis has wrought so much terrible damage to Spain beyond the suspension of a football match. "I don't want you to worry about me, this is just an anecdote," he wrote. "Let's forget about the finals we dreamt about, because we will have time to say goodbye."

It might not have the fairy-tale ending, but we can still salute a player who re-wrote the storybook on modern strikers.

A LALIGA LIFE WELL LIVED

Aduriz played 443 times in LaLiga across 16 seasons, putting him fifth on the all-time appearance list.

He scored 158 goals, 118 of them for Athletic, and registered 49 assists. Among Spanish players in the 21st century, only David Villa (186) scored more often. His last was his best: a sumptuous overhead kick on the first day of this season to seal a 1-0 win over champions Barcelona.

These are the sort of numbers to expect from a 20-year career, one spent mostly with Athletic but also with Real Mallorca and Valencia. What sets Aduriz apart  - and endeared him to fans inside San Mames and beyond - was the wait to see him at his best.

Athletic are famed for their academy, a route to top-level unlike any other given the club will only use players of Basque origin, but Aduriz did not join until he was 19 and it was not until the age of 23, after a loan stint with Real Valladolid, that he felt a good career lay ahead.

The best strikers are increasingly explosive young stars. Erling Haaland (19), Kylian Mbappe (21), Lautaro Martinez (22) - these are the forwards craved by the elite. But Aduriz had to be patient to reach his peak. Very patient.

AGE IS BUT A NUMBER

Aduriz, along with Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos, is the only player to score in 15 consecutive LaLiga seasons. He reached double figures seven times in his 16 campaigns, and his best single-season tally was 20.

He managed that in 2015-16, when he was 35. This is where Aduriz stands out from most of his contemporaries: his best years came so late.

He twice finished as LaLiga top scorer, in 2014-15 (18 goals) and again in 2015-16, a season in which he scored two of his four career league hat-tricks. To reach peak efficiency in front of goal at that age is remarkable. It also led to Athletic's first trophy in 30 years: the 2015 Supercopa de Espana. Aduriz scored his side's four goals in a 4-1 aggregate thrashing of Barcelona.

His international career followed a similar course. Aduriz did not make his senior debut until he was 29, when he came off the bench for 13 minutes in a 3-1 Euro 2012 qualifying win over Lithuania. His second cap came six years later, when he scored in a 1-1 friendly draw with Italy. That same year, he was included in Vicente del Bosque's Euro 2016 squad, making three appearances in France. 

Aduriz's second and final Spain goal came in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying defeat of Macedonia on November 12, 2016, at the age of 35 years and 275 days. It made him the oldest goalscorer in Spain's history, surpassing Jose Maria Pena Salagui, who was 50 days younger when he scored against Portugal in 1930.

If smashing an 86-year record for the best international side of the 21st century doesn't say it, nothing will. Aduriz broke the mould, a centre-forward pushing boundaries when conventional wisdom suggested he should have hung up his boots long ago.

We didn't need the Copa final to tell us that.

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