"When you play the first match in old San Mames, you can say that you can die, it's crazy."
Born in Eibar – around a 50km journey to Bilbao in the Basque Country – Markel Susaeta epitomised what it meant to play for Athletic Bilbao.
Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).
The Spanish winger even wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.
Susaeta made his goalscoring senior debut away to Barcelona 13 years ago and stepped out onto Sam Mames for the first time a fortnight later, scoring a free-kick in a 1-1 draw with Real Zaragoza.
"When you play the first match, you are in heaven. You never thought you could play in that stadium and the supporters are amazing – always helping the team," Susaeta told Stats Perform News.
Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.
Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.
While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.
"For the kids of Basque Country, Real Sociedad, Athletic, many, many kids… I think more kids want to play for Athletic Bilbao," Susaeta said. "When you go to the first division, all the players, it's difficult to keep all the players at Athletic because all the players aren't the same, different things for their future. Kepa [Arrizabalaga] went to Chelsea, [Ander] Herrera went to Manchester United, [Fernando] Llorente went to Juventus, Javi Martinez Bayern Munich.
"Many players they went to other big clubs but a lot of players, more than the players that go, they stay at Athletic. For that reason, Athletic in the last 12-13 years, play very good football, a very good level. One year we played in the Champions League, we won one Supercopa, we played in three, four finals for the Copa del Rey. It's very difficult but Athletic always does things well."
"Athletic are the most special team in the world for me, what can I say? The philosophy that the people that aren't from Basque Country, they love Athletic's philosophy because it's different to other teams from the world," Susaeta added. "The kids love Athletic, they only like Athletic Bilbao. They don't like Barcelona, Madrid, they like Athletic Bilbao. This love is different than the other clubs."
Susaeta is an example of Athletic's production line, which is now headlined by the likes of young stars Inaki Williams and Unai Nunez. The 32-year-old Susaeta came through the ranks, spending one season with farm team Basconia and another with the B team before being thrust into the first-team picture in 2007.
The one-time Spain international was a vital member of Athletic's stunning Supercopa de Espana triumph under former boss Ernesto Valverde five years ago – a 5-1 two-legged rout of Barca ending a 31-year wait for silverware.
A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta also experienced Athletic's unforgettable journey to the 2012 Europa League final, with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm.
"With Marcelo, you play a very intense football. He always wants to play the ball, for example, he likes man-marking. It's a little bit crazy to keep the whole season with man-marking. We spent two years with him but with Marcelo, it was the best football I ever played," Susaeta said as he compared the two coaches.
"With Valverde, we played in the Champions League. It's more difficult because after Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it's a very crazy season. With Valverde, you're more regular in defending and attacking, all the team go together. It's different. But the best football, the more attractive football that I ever played was with Bielsa."
Athletic lost the all-Spanish Europa League decider in 2012, beaten 3-0 by Atletico Madrid in Bucharest. While Bielsa's men left Arena Nationala emptyhanded, their campaign was a memorable one, having outclassed Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in the last 16 – a shock 3-2 victory at Old Trafford the highlight.
It was a famous win for Athletic, who came from behind to record a first win on English soil and Susaeta said: "It's the one of the most important matches in my life. We played at Old Trafford and we played amazing football. That morning, with Bielsa, we trained for two hours, doing sprints. It was crazy.
"In the evening, we won playing amazing football. It was a very good memories because that year we won against very good European clubs but in the final we were tired, I don't know what happened but we couldn't win the final."
Susaeta was also fortunate to play in both the old San Mames and new San Mames, which opened in 2013.
"In the old San Mames, I played my first match, in that stadium, we played very good football with Bielsa – a crazy year with two finals," he added. "In the other San Mames, we played in the Champions League. In the two stadiums, I have very good memories. They are two very special stadiums."
Susaeta now finds himself playing for Melbourne City in Australia after a difficult spell with Japanese giants Gamba Osaka.
A January arrival, Susaeta had scored two goals and set up another for City – part of the City Football Group (CFG) – before the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked about a possible Athletic return after his unceremonious exit last year, Susaeta replied: "I don't want to see the future, I want to live the present. I'm very happy in Melbourne and Australia, it's a very good country and city. I'm very happy with my club and team-mates. My family is happy here and we want to stay here longer. Now it's very crazy the situation but I hope we can train again in a few weeks and finish the season in a few months.
"Japan was very difficult for me and my family because many things are different. Here we feel very good, we feel happy. My kids are happy in childcare. Here everything is perfect. I'm very happy in the football. For me, it's perfect. I'm very happy here and I hope I can stay here more years."