No trace of a smile can be found on Fernando Llorente’s gaunt face. His sad eyes offer a window into his soul. There is a weariness within the Spain international striker. Unlike last season, when he played a leading role in Athletic Bilbao’s revelation of a campaign, reaching the finals of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, it’s not his legs that are heavy but his head instead. A lot has been on his mind.
“I am tired of saying sorry,” Llorente sighed. He was expected to do just that [again] after he missed an Athletic press conference on Monday because he had already committed himself to an interview with local television station Telebilbao. “They told me just as I was leaving training and I didn’t have time,” Llorente explained. “I can’t be in two places at once. I don’t have a problem with speaking on another day.”
Why it had become a news story at all disappointed Llorente. Athletic could have dealt with the matter in-house. Instead they went public with it. Ahead of the press conference where Llorente had been expected to appear alongside teammate Jon Aurtenetxe, the club said via it’s official Twitter feed: “No other player will be speaking after the refusal of Fernando Llorente to appear in front of the media.” Athletic then tweeted the message again for good measure.
It was a bizarre move and upset Llorente. “I have told the club I didn’t like the way they were treating me,” he revealed. “The stories in the media have been really bad and haven’t helped the situation at all. Things have become twisted. I am not doing anything bad. I am trying to be good. I have suffered inside but I try to show on the outside that I am OK.” That has been far from easy for Llorente. Because one “refusal”, however trivial, innocent and seemingly unremarkable in normal circumstances, apparently can’t be viewed as such when placed in the context of another.
Llorente is in the final year of his contract at San Mames. He refused to put pen to paper on a new deal last summer and has been vilified ever since. Graffiti sprayed onto the window of Athletic’s club shop read: “Death to Llorente, the bastard Spaniard.” A banner at the training ground bore the words: “Leave mercenaries.”
Llorente had been joined by Javi Martinez in expressing a desire to leave Athletic. Both were left out of the club’s opening game in La Liga at home to Real Betis by coach Marcelo Bielsa in mid-August. Athletic lost 5-3. Only one of the players’ wishes would come true before the transfer window closed. Martinez got his move after Bayern Munich agreed to pay his €40m buy-out clause. Llorente did not after Juventus balked at the €36m it would take to release him.
Athletic didn’t want to sell. They didn’t need to either. Certainly not after the Martinez windfall. They could negotiate with Juventus for Llorente from a position of strength. Why accept an offer of €18m when the amount stipulated in Llorente’s contract is worth double that figure? The obvious answer is that it’s better than nothing at all, which is what they’ll be entitled to if Llorente walks at the end of this season.
It’s thought that Juventus will return for him once the window re-opens in January with a bid worth between €6m and €7m. But Athletic president Josu Urrutia has again intimated an offer will be declined. On the one hand, he remains confident Llorente will have a change of heart and commit to the club again. On the other, when you consider Athletic’s policy of only signing Basque players and the limited pool thereof, the money, at least in transfer terms, is almost worthless. There isn’t another Llorente out there to buy. Athletic and the Basque Country will instead have to produce and develop one.
In the meantime, the uneasy stand-off with Llorente goes on. Rather than freeze him out completely, Bielsa has chosen to keep his No.9 on the bench. It has brought criticism. If Athletic have to take a stand they should either play Llorente from the start or not name him in the squad at all. It can’t be anything in between.
Nobody is winning as things stand. Athletic are depriving themselves of their most decisive player. Llorente scored 16 goals last season. No one else in the squad contributed more than six. He has yet to start a game this term and was a substitute for the 12th time in Saturday’s 5-1 defeat at Real Madrid. Down in 14th place in La Liga, Athletic’s problems aren’t all down to the club’s dispute with their striker. But it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be higher in the league table with him starting week-in week-out.
As Llorente alluded to earlier this week, he has tried to conduct himself as best as he possibly can given the circumstances. Much was made of how Bielsa and Llorente had an argument at Athletic’s Lezama training ground after a defeat to rivals Real Sociedad in early October, which ended with the coach pointing to the dressing rooms and telling his centre-forward to take an early shower.
“I told him to leave before it had finished,” Bielsa said “I decided that his behaviour was not as desired and he should not continue. Fernando thought he was giving his all and he let me know that. I understood that he could have given more.”
Llorente, however, feels that his professionalism has never been in doubt. Although he wants to leave Athletic in his prime for a new challenge after 17 years at the club, it doesn’t mean the Lion King’s love for Los Leones has diminished.
“It hurts me that there are people against me,” he told Cadena Ser in September. “It hurts me that there are doubts about me. I have always given everything for Athletic. This period has been tough. I have had to take difficult decisions and in some situations you never know how certain things are going to end.
“Yes, in January I am free to negotiate and find a new club but at the moment I want to put that to one side and help my team. The less you speak about me the better. If I leave, no one should be angry with me. It’s a personal decision and the people have to respect it.”
Whether they will or not, remains to be seen.