Kepa Arrizabalaga played his first game against Real Madrid when he was 22 years old. Only 15 minutes had passed in the game—which was held at Athletic Bilbao's ground, San Mames, in March 2017—when Los Blancos full-back Marcelo feathered a ball into the path of Karim Benzema, who bore down on goal.
The French striker threaded a pass into Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed to steal half a yard on his marker and, shielding the ball from the defender with his body, pull the trigger with his second touch. The ball flashed across the goalmouth from 12 yards out towards the bottom left-hand corner of the goal.
The ball travelled at an awkward trajectory for Kepa, as it was close to his body and glided across the surface of the pitch, but he managed to flop to the ground and parry it away. He had stared down the most fearsome goalscorer of our age and come out on top. Test passed.
Kepa joined his childhood team's youth academy in 2004. Current Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa originally called him up to Athletic Bilbao's first-team squad as a 17-year-old in 2012, the year he won a gold medal with Spain's squad at the UEFA European Under-19 Championship. He saved twice in a semi-final penalty-shootout win against a France team that included this year's FIFA World Cup winners Paul Pogba and Samuel Umtiti.
Kepa—who spent a couple of seasons on loan in Spain's second division—didn't, however, make his first-team debut in La Liga until September 2016 in a match against Deportivo de La Coruna. It's been a stern two-year test in Spain's Primera Division for the keeper, particularly last season when Athletic struggled, finishing two places above the drop zone.
"A good goalkeeper could help the team to win the championship if he gives stability to the team," former Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea said. "It's an important job—a very specialised position. Equally, a bad goalkeeper could ruin the season of the team. Kepa last season was very good, even when Athletic didn't get near their aim: to qualify for Europe. The goal was protected, and his performances were a positive."
The football world took notice of Kepa when he became embroiled in a tug-of-war between Real Madrid and his club, Athletic Bilbao, during last season's winter transfer window. He looked to be heading to Los Blancos when Madrid's then-manager, Zinedine Zidane, nixed the move, believing his arrival would disrupt his squad midseason.
Zidane always had faith in Real Madrid's resident goalkeeper Keylor Navas, a sometimes-maligned figure at the club and unpopular with club president Florentino Perez. When the deal fell through, Athletic Bilbao renegotiated Kepa's contract, increasing his buyout clause from €20 million to €80 million (article in Spanish), the price Chelsea paid to bring him to Stamford Bridge last week.
"In the end, Athletic has kind of benefited," Goikoetxea said, "although I don't like using that word because Athletic is a sporting association, a cooperative made up of its members. Athletic fans believe in their cantera (youth academy), their philosophy. It's not a company—there to make money. Through the years they have sold some players, but now the transfer market has gone wild, with Neymar, for example, costing more than €200 million. Football is a business where we all are exposed.
"Kepa was in Athletic's youth academy since he was nine or 10 years old. He was always seen as a future goalkeeper for the club, a boy from Ondarroa, a small town in Biscay. The club has its own idiosyncrasy and philosophy about football [using only players born or raised in the Basque country].
"A lot of Athletic fans are asking why players like Kepa have to leave. Kepa is not the first. There are more before who left Athletic like Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera, Aymeric Laporte, Fernando Llorente. Athletic fans are worried by this trend."
Kepa made an immediate impression when he graduated to Athletic's first team. He exuded a sense of calm and authority. "I remember seeing him in one of his early games at San Mames, the year he made his debut," Angel Iturriaga, author of Dictionary of Athletic Club Players, said. "He was dressed in black, which is typical for Athletic goalkeepers since the team of [Jose Angel] Iribar, who won the European Championships with Spain in 1964. It's a symbolic jersey. Kepa was about 21 years old, but he had such composure.
"He was only a kid, who had just got out of the academy, but he gave off this amazing feeling of assurance. The image has stayed with me. The first ball that came to him, he caught it in a very mature way. It seemed the goalkeeper's area in San Mames—where Athletic fans are conscious of a great tradition—wasn't weighing him down.
"From the age of 17, people talked already about him being the next goalkeeper of the Spain national team. For me, it's the most impressive thing about him—even with all that pressure and expectation, he never seems overwhelmed. You have people like David De Gea, a goalkeeper who has great qualities, but the pressure has attacked him in different moments of his career. With Kepa—even though he is still very young—you have never seen him doubting himself. Of course, he has made specific mistakes like any other goalkeeper, but he has never lost his nerve or gone through a bad spell. His maturity is almost unnatural for his age."
Goikoetxea, who has played in front of several of the greatest Spanish goalkeepers of the last century, either for club or country, also singles out Kepa's even temper as his greatest quality.
"He is a calm guy. You can actually notice it in the way he talks," he said. "He has never said anything rude. He has always been very cautious, and I think that probably makes him trustworthy for his defence, and that's very important. A goalkeeper that makes the team feel confident is a very good warranty. I had amazing goalkeepers at my back like Iribar, [Luis] Arconada, [Andoni] Zubizarreta, and that gives a sense of security."
As a child, Kepa was a prize-winning bird trainer (interview in Spanish)—he used to train birds, mostly goldfinches, for singing competitions. Anybody who can train animals on that level will have a steadiness about him. Kepa also has technical gifts for a goalkeeper. He's not known for making flash reflex saves like, say, Iker Casillas, but he rarely makes mistakes and is good at marshalling a defence.
"Kepa has an ability to trap the ball rather than clear it first-time, at the risk of losing possession," Iturriaga said. "He has great quality with his feet, especially with his right foot, which will be very important for [Chelsea manager] Maurizio Sarri's style of play, which is based on possession of the football, with the goalkeeper starting attacks.
"Kepa is very precise with the ball. He can often jump the first line of an opposition team's forwards and send the ball to the wing-backs or Jorginho, who will probably be a key man in the centre of Chelsea's midfield.
"Also, Kepa is good in the air, although in English football, he will be tested harder in this aspect. Maybe Thibaut Courtois [who has joined Real Madrid from Chelsea] is even a little bit better in aerial football, but Kepa is very good at measuring the time to go off his line, and he jumps and catches the ball very well in the air.
"Sometimes his only sin is that he could get off his line more. When he goes out, he's solid, but sometimes he stays at the door too much. He prefers to stay between the posts because he trusts his reflexes so much. Maybe he should go out a little bit more to support his central defenders."
Kepa made a near-flawless debut for Chelsea at the weekend, as Sarri's team rolled over Huddersfield Town 3-0. Next weekend, he will play against Arsenal, one of the Premier League's heavyweights, in a London derby. It will be the first of many stern challenges he faces in a new league and a new land. He already carries a weight on his shoulders as the world's most expensive goalkeeper.
"At Athletic, we know what he gave us," Goikoetxea said. "Now he is in a different country, and instead of being here in Spain—where he was protected from the fans, from the members of the club—now he has arrived at a club that will demand titles and great games. He is in a place away from his people, his friends and family, with team-mates from different places around the world.
"He will find love but also hostility, so he will have to show his potential in a totally different place to Bilbao. He has to be strong to show his new team what they are expecting from him. He is a very, very good goalkeeper. For sure, he will be trustworthy and will give stability, but let's see."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz