A love for the game and the everlasting bonds created between a coach, an iconic football club and its adoring fans is explained by Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde to Mega Stories presenter Dora Anagnostopoulou.

The well-known Spanish forward and then manager touches on his unique relationship with Greece’s most popular football club, which he coached on two occasions.

The Mega Stories team travelled to Bilbao and spoke with the former coach of the “Reds” about the Piraeus club and Olympiacos’ appearance in Wednesday’s Europa Conference League final, which will be played only a few kilometers from the team’s home pitch.

Valverde, a one-time potent goal-scorer, declares himself a proud fan of Olympiacos, while in addressing the fans, he emphasizes that “I am one of you”.

“Olympiacos is a way of looking at things”, Valverde stresses, echoing the sentiment of the average Reds’ fan in the stands.

I get the feeling you have a special relationship with Olympiacos. Am I right?

Of course I do, yes. There are things you can’t imagine happening when you join a team. When I came to Greece, I couldn’t know what was going to happen. And that’s what’s so strange for me. When I made the decision to go, I never imagined I’d end up spending three years there, or that I’d have this amazing experience that was so incredible both for me and my family. That I’d get to spend those years with people who made me feel at home, even though I was a foreigner who’d come there in search of a job, because I wanted to work, to work in Greece. I couldn’t have known then how people would treat me, that people would recognized me in the street—and not just Olympiacos fans, other teams’ fans, too. I could never have imagined how generous all those people would be with me. And that relationship will always be there.

What do you love most about Olympiacos?

It’s hard to pick something out. In the end, it’s everything. The club is a single entity, from the fans to the President who helps you and pushes for you to be there and the people who work for the team every day and are so willing to help you to win games. And of course, Olympiacos’ amazing fans, who encourage you ceaselessly, every moment you spend in the Karaiskakis stadium. Go to Australia and they’ll be there, and you have no idea how they got there! If you go to Germany, it’s the same. Olympiacos is a way of viewing the world. It’s the feelings of its people, and you carry those feelings around with you. In the end, you realize that it means a lot to a lot of people.

How do you feel when you hear chants of ‘Ernesto Valverde’?

I don’t know. Well, it’s amazing. It’s happened in Bilbao, too. I’d be walking around Bilbao and run into some Greek tourists who’d start singing it in the street and I’d be dying with embarrassment. The street would be full of people, and they’d all be singing…And I’d tell them “Stop. Stop, please stop! Not another word!” It’s not something that’s happened to me a lot, but I got to experience it so many times in Greece. I’d love to sing it back to them from the field, I really would. But it wouldn’t look very good, and I wouldn’t know how to. Though, like I explained, it’s an incredible thing!


FILE PHOTO: Then Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde attends a news conference in Minsk, Belarus September 29, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

What images have stayed with you from that time? Can you describe them for me? I know you’re a good photographer.

I have a whole lot of images of the fans in my head. I remember the people who’d crowd round the bus when we pulled up for an away game, against Volos or Panetolikos. We went everywhere and the Olympiacos fans were everywhere we went! Or in Athens, when we were playing away in a derby. Amazing images! I remember the most incredible situations. And how generous the people were to me—that was incredible, too. I remember this time when I was on holiday with my family in Mystras. We’d gone down to see Monemvasia, Sparta and Mystras. We parked the car at the hotel, and the next day, when we were leaving, we saw that they’d painted: “Thank you Ernesto for everything you’ve given us” on the street! The Olympiacos fans had spray-painted this graffiti, which they usually give you jail time for. And there it was, in front of my car, and we all lost it, my family and I. They kept saying: what does it mean? And I began to explain to them that this was how things were here. It was the same when I’d get lost somewhere. There was this one time on an island! Milos, it was… I remember walking into a restaurant and a lady, even though she was an AEK fan, inviting me to eat. “No, I want to pay,” I said. No, no, you’re our guest. Please. I felt something special there, and other people felt it with me. I don’t know… I wonder why it was sometimes. I suppose the fact we won some games helped. And everything we achieved. We dialed down the volume a bit. In Greece, people get so carried away with football… sometimes, they just place too much importance on it, and…

More than in Spain?

Yes, more! Indeed! In Greece, they love to say: “We’re crazy about football.” Here (in Spain), less so… But Athletic Bilbao is a bit like Olympiacos in that sense.

Does the DNA of a team matter to players and coaches?

What matters most is the team’s style. That’s what you could call its DNA. It’s critical that players and coaches can adapt to it. Every coach has their own way of coaching, that much is clear. It’s what teams hire them for. That’s why Olympiacos hired me, and that’s why they signed Medilibar. Because he has his own style which he wants to bring to the team. But at the same time, the coach has to take into account what the team needs and what sort of a team it is. Olympiacos is a strong team, a combative team that always puts up a fight. That’s what its fans demand: a team that never stops chasing victory. The key is for the coaches and players to adapt to that.

Is it important for coaches to have been footballers themselves in the past?

No, it isn’t. It helps to have been a player, so you know what it’s like—you know the game, you know the dressing rooms, which are things it’s helpful to know. But a lot of coaches who weren’t players, or weren’t good players, have achieved a lot in football. So it helps, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Is Medilibar a friend?

Yes, of course. We played together about 40 years ago—we were teammates. And now we’re coaches and colleagues again. We’ve faced off so many times. With different teams. We know each other well. I knew for sure he’d be a great fit for Olympiacos, because of his take on football, and because he’s such a hard-working coach. He’s someone who likes attacking football, who functions best under pressure. He knows it will work. And I’m very happy for him, because he deserves it, because he’s experiencing what I experienced back then and he’s enjoying himself. And going to Olympiacos and enjoying it means a lot. It’s a great experience.

José Luis Medilibar is a Basque, too. Right?

Yes, he is.

Is it a coincidence that this year has been such a good one for Basque coaches?

As I like to say, Basque coaches have something unique. I don’t know, but I suppose us Basque coaches have a certain something… There are a lot of us in the Premier League, and we’re successful in Europe, too. And there Basque players out there who will definitely be coaches one day. And, yes, maybe it just works. We’re a good fit for Olympiacos—maybe that’s it. I don’t know why…

But it works!

Yes, it does!

What makes a good coach?

Good results make good coaches. Because we’re all after the same thing, and it can sometimes be very difficult. There are good coaches whose teams’ results don’t help them at all. It has happened to me, and to Medilibar, too. It’s happened to all of us. It’s about the moment, but it’s also about knowing where you are. The team you’re part of, who you’re working with. And you need a spot of luck, of course. But luck’s something you find; it doesn’t find you, you have to actively search it out.

Which memory fades first: the joy of a victory or the bitterness of a defeat?

Neither fades. But it is definitely easier to forget defeats than victories. Victories, especially when they are important, stay in your mind for ever. When I stopped coaching one time, people were always talking to me about the victories. They never spoke to me about the defeats. Defeats remain in coaches’ minds as bitter memories. But, in the end, that’s football for you. You’ll win or you’ll lose. No one can keep on winning forever. That’s how it is—the victories stay with you. I’ll always remember our successes at Olympiacos, the championships we won together, the Cups. That’s what is left. But defeats are part of life, too.

And they make us stronger, right?

Yes, they do. Definitely. What can you say? You have to accept them, at least. One thing that is clear in football is that the supporters want you to win over and over again… But you can’t always win! That’s something every coach understands: you cannot always win. At some point, you are going to lose. There will always be defeats. In the end, it’s all about losing in a way you can make use of, that can help you win in the future. You might be trying to impose a particular style of play—in which case, you might lose a game, but you’ll win a whole lot more later on.

If I asked you to pick out a particular game with Olympiacos, which one would it be?

Just one? In that case, I’d have to say the Cup Final we won on penalties. The final against AEK. We won on penalty kicks! It was incredible! What a great game that was! I didn’t think it would ever end! If you asked me to pick out a season, I’d say the last one. Because we had a great year, the team played so well. We had amazing players, too, like Torosidis, Mellberg, Ibagaza, Orbaiz, Marcano and Holebas. Now that was a team! Makoun, Mirallas… We had a great team and we played very well. We won the championship, the team was doing great, making huge strides. We did well in the Champions League, we did really well in the Europa League. We were unlucky to get knocked out after a bad five-minute stretch. One of the most beautiful images I remember… even though Metalist had eliminated us at home, in our own stadium, was the Karaiskakis fans giving us a standing ovation! It was recognition of our achievements. We could have gone a long way in the Europa League that year, but we didn’t have what it took at the end. Yes, that last season at Olympiacos was fantastic.

Before I go back to Greece, I want to learn a footballing secret… What secret will you share with me?

You want to know a secret?

Yeah, could you tell me one?

I don’t know any!

I thought I’d ask you if you knew a secret you could share with me.

There are a lot of secrets. In the end, you have to work and follow your intuition… I don’t know!

There aren’t a lot of secrets!

Often, when journalists ask me questions at press conferences, I tell them this: “If someone knows something, tell me, because I don’t.” A lot of times, when you start coaching, you might think you know how it works… So you say, I put the players here. But that’s at the beginning, when you’re a new coach… Because the more years go by, the less you feel you know!

The less?

Oh, yes!

What message would you like to pass on to the Olympiacos fans?

To the Olympiakares! I’d tell them this… And it’s something they do anyway! To keep supporting their team right to the end! In any game, whatever the score, whatever the situation! They have to be there for their team—and they always are! There’s no way they’ll miss a game. Ever! They love Olympiacos! The only message I could send them is that I’m one of them! My three years with the team, everything we went through together, it turned me into one of them—a fan! I’m part of that!


Where will you watch Wednesday’s game?

I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet. I don’t want to get stressed out, because it’s a historic game for Olympiacos. I know it will be a tough match—it’s a final, and anything could happen. I’ll urge them on as best I can, so Olympiacos can win that title.

Will you experience the game through your emotions, or view it like a game of chess?

No, not chess! I’m not going to be analyzing the game. No! No, it’s not the time for that. I’ll watch it as a fan! If we coaches have one disadvantage, it’s that we can’t help noting how a team plays. No, no. I’ll be on holiday, I’ll be relaxed, and I’ll watch the game as a fan. I’ll be cheering the guys on… I’m not really a hooligan, I’m not… But yes… I’m going to watch it and I’m not going to analyze it. No, not at all.

From what I can see, the red and white of Athletic…


Wherever you go, it’s the same two colors: red and white! Do you believe in fate?

Not really.

But fate does play tricks, with coincidences… Is this just a coincidence?
Yes, it is. That the two teams closest to me both play in red and white is a coincidence. And here’s another one for you: I’ve coached here in the Basque Country, with Athletic, and I’ve played for Athletic and Alavés, in Vitoria. But apart from those teams, everywhere else I’ve ever played or coached have been on the Mediterranean! Always! Barcelona, Espanyol, Valencia, Mallorca, Villarreal, Olympiacos… Every one of them on the shores of the Med. I haven’t coached or played for a single team inland, in Europe’s hinterland.

What is it like for coaches to not sit on a team’s bench for many years?

– For a long time?


That’s a question for the chairmen, not the coaches.


Spanish King’s Cup – FC Barcelona vs Celta Vigo – Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain – January 11, 2018 Barcelona’s Lionel Messi with coach Ernesto Valverde as he is substituted REUTERS/Albert Gea

Does the chemistry change?

No! The results change! But it’s more about the club, the chairmen. It’s about what goes on within a team. Sometimes they want to make changes. There’s so many pressure these days for immediate results. And that can sometimes be difficult. But… Olympiacos has kept coaches for a long time. It depends on the results, but also on the bond between the coach and the team. It depends on that, too, to some extent at least. There were times I worked with a team but didn’t stay long. With Villarreal, for example, or Valencia, where I quit. But there were other times, too, when I stayed with a team for a long time. I spent a long time at Olympiacos… I was at Espanyol for two years, Barcelona for two and a half, and it’s been eight at Athletic. I don’t know, it depends… What is clear, though, is that a coach is judged by results. That’s how it is in football, and you have to accept it. I accept it—it’s just the way it is. If I hadn’t proven a success at Olympiacos, my relationship with the team wouldn’t be what it is now.

What’s the most beautiful story in your life?

My life?

Is it the team? Your family?

Family is everything. Everything you do, you do for them. And that’s true for everyone. Whatever you do… you do it for your loved ones. I started playing when I was still young. But then, when you become a coach, you have a family behind you and whatever you do, it’s for them you do it. And if someone in my family had said I should stop, I would have done the very next day. I mean, in that sense. But, again, I think that’s universal. But in the professional sphere, the stories from your sports career… You’ll always go back to them, remember them. The places where you felt great and happy, where you were publicly acknowledged… In my sporting life, Athletic is definitely in first place, because of what the club means to me. I feel happy in Bilbao, in this city, in this team. And Olympiacos will also be up there in a prominent place. Because those three years were one of my life’s finest adventures. The rest of the teams come after those two clubs. Professionally, maybe, and not on such an emotional level… Because at Athletic, the emotional element is enormous. Of course, I went to Olympiacos in a professional capacity, to be the club’s coach, but then all the other stuff came along. It’s that emotional component that’s so very strong. So many questions!

Yes! This is the “Apocalypse Now” of interviews.

It’s three hours long.

One more question…

Go on…

Football is changing. Do you like it more as the years go by? Or less?

Football changes as the years pass by, and you have to adapt. It was different before, but a lot of things have changed now and you have to adapt. There are young coaches who really prepare themselves, who are very good. The coaches keep getting better and better. You have to keep evolving, you and your ideas. If you don’t take that step, you’ll always be lagging behind. Because at the end of the day, although football might be changing, the core concept remains the same, and you have to handle that stuff. One part is different, but one part stays the same. And our experience really counts in that second part, which doesn’t change.

Let’s end with a wish. How do you say “good luck” in Basque?

“Zorte on”!

Yes, that’s it. “Zorte on”.

But what I want to say even more is “Zorionak”. “Zorionak” means congratulations. Which will mean that we have won.

Oh, so “Zoriones” then!

No, no, “Zorionak”, which means congratulations. That’s what I mean.


It’s what we say after the game. That’s what I’m imagining—sending a message to Medilibar after the match saying “Zorionak”. That would mean Olympiacos had won.