Soccer

Meet the LaLiga player who left the game and became a comedian

Did you hear the one about the footballer who got sent off on his debut and scored two goals the day he got his first, and last, game for his country?

He gave up and became a comedian instead.

It’s funny because it’s true. Well, Zuhaitz Gurrutxaga says, 95% of it is. There is a little bit of artist license for comic effect, but this is as close to reality from inside the game as you’re ever going to get. “It’s hard to imagine me as a footballer when you see me standing here on this stage,” he says at the start of his latest stand-up routine. He’s currently doing a two-month run at the Teatro Reina Victoria in Madrid. “And it’s even harder to imagine me as a footballer when you see me there.” Behind him, a screen shows some “highlights” from his career.

It’s not pretty.

And so it begins. Zuhaitz opens his show by explaining how Javier Clemente, the famously feisty, straight-talking former Spain manager, gave him his debut with a simple instruction: Don’t do anything at all, still less play football, except follow Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink everywhere and not let him get a touch. That way both teams would have 10 men. “And trust me,” Zuhaitz recalls Clemente telling the team, “we’re the winners in that deal.” Twice over, in fact: they lose Hasselbaink, we lose Gurrutxaga.

Zuhaitz was 19. Hasselbaink was arguably Spain’s best striker at the time, scorer of 33 goals that year. The debutant did what he was told — there’s a moment when he pauses the screen and hones in on Hasslebaink’s face, a bewildered stare that suggests what the hell is this guy doing?! — until the inevitable happened. Sent off in the 78th minute, he protested, complained, shook his head and looked as upset as he could. Played the part, basically. Faked it, which would be a recurring theme — something he would end up doing for too many years. Secretly, he says, he was thinking: Zuhaitz, you’ve played a blinder here.

Yet that wasn’t something he would think often. He left other games early, too — inventing injuries to escape, the pressure becoming too much. He talks about trying to remember which leg he was supposed to be limping on as he headed off, happy to have conned everyone until Clemente made it crystal clear that he had rumbled him. “I reached the point where I no longer want to play. I prefer to be on the bench because I am so scared of making mistakes and I start to think that primera [Spain’s top division is too good for me,” he says. Eventually, primera thought so, too.

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Zuhaitz’s show lasts 91 minutes — one for every minute he played the 2002-03 season when Real Sociedad finished runners up. Not that it stopped him going out and celebrating the team’s success, of course, returning home three long days later, a mess in every way. He had played one game plus a single minute from another in which he was sent on to waste time, which he says was about all he was good for by then. Not long enough to do anything… except get snapped by the photographer from Panini. No, really: Zuhaitz puts the resulting football sticker up on the screen.

That’s not pretty either.

It gets a laugh, though, and that’s the way it has to be. Zuhaitz talks about comedy as therapy, on stage and off it, his show very raw and very funny. “Comedy saved my life,” he explains a couple of days after his latest show.

That year was his last in primera. He was gone six months later, not so much slipping down the leagues as spiraling, from being in a Champions League team — or, more to the point, not being in a Champions League team — to Spain’s regionalised, theoretically amateur Segunda Division B with its 80 clubs and four groups, never to return. Something was going on that no one saw, a suffering he didn’t share. Until now, many a true word was said in jest.

One day Zuhaitz got a call from Marcelo Bielsa, the manager of Athletic Club, inviting him to Bilbao. But this was not to play, at least not like that. It was 2013 and Zuhaitz was still playing for tercera division side Beasain, but stand up was already emerging as a potential career, and the Athletic manager thought that his routine might be good for morale before facing Espanyol.

“He called me personally, which says a lot about him,” Zuhaitz recalls. “He asks: ‘what do you charge?’ I said no, I’ll do it for free. There were players there I knew: Aritz Aduriz, Iraizoz, Gabilondo. He got angry with me and said that art and culture needs to be valued; he wasn’t going to let me perform without charging.”

“I was leaving football soon, coming to the end, I had this other job. But I was playing that day for Beasain,” he continues. “Well, I was sitting on the bench. And all I could think about wasn’t the game, but the jokes I would be telling when I got to Lezama, Athletic’s training ground. ‘I wonder if they’ll like it…’ Bloody hell. I was quite tense. I was thinking: I hope the coach doesn’t put me on because my mind’s not on this; I’m thinking more about my monologue. Why? Because I was scared.”

“I thought my stand-up set worked, but it worked with people who weren’t footballers — fans who enjoyed being told stories from inside the game. How could they be interesting to actual primera players? They have thousands of stories like this of their own, and miles better than mine. They were at the Bernabeu yesterday, they’ll be at the Camp Nou tomorrow. They won’t like what I have to say.”

“But I went there and bloody hell, they were the best best audience I’ve had in my life. Do you know why? Because I realised I was their voice. I said the things they can’t say because tomorrow, it’s a headline. People think you’re a machine, but you’re a person. I say what a player really thinks when he scores a goal or misses a penalty, what really happens. I felt that they were laughing because they were saying: ‘bloody hell, this bastard’s telling the stories I wish I could tell’ or at least that I reflected how they feel. Afterwards, Marcelo Bielsa said thanks. They were really motivated for the next day’s match.”

Athletic lost 4-0.

If some of the routine is the voice of every player, much of it is more personal. Very personal, in fact. Zuhaitz talks about how he struggled with the pressure, how he came to hate football. How much he feared being on the field. How that gave way to his OCD.

Zuhaitz had to cross every line, including those on the pitch, right foot first. He became obsessed with hygiene, endlessly washing his hands. The only time he appeared on El Dia Despues, Spain’s flagship TV football show for two decades, was when cameras caught him sitting on the bench repeatedly applying cream to his hands. Over and over again, obsessively. Everyone laughed — and it was funny — but something was seriously wrong.

“I suffered in silence. Even I didn’t know what I was doing, all sorts of strange things. It became an obsession and I tried to hide it all because it was embarrassing,” he says. “With time you can’t hide it any more, your behaviour is so odd. My mum was the first to notice it, and she took me to a psychologist. My teammates Gabilondo and Jauregui helped. I would wash constantly and part of the treatment involved breaking that behaviour. They would literally ration the shampoo I used in the shower, not letting me have more.”

When did it all start going wrong? Players are often asked when they realised they were really good at football; so when did he realise that he was not good at football? Or, more accurately, when did he believe it? Because Gurrutxga was good.

“I had been at la Real as a kid. At 15 I played at the old Wembley, against England. I was a European champion at U16 level with Iker Casillas. Third in the World Cup at U17. At that age, I felt that I was quite good. At youth level we won a Spanish title for la Real. I was one of the best players in the final and immediately joined the first team for preseason training. Everything’s flying. I make my debut with Clemente at 19 against Atletico. I man mark their best player, Hasselbaink. It worked, despite the red card: he doesn’t do anything.”

“So we did it against everyone: Salva, Savo Milosevic, Raul, Tamudo. I stop them all. I get great ratings in the paper. I’m going to be la Real’s centre-back for 15 years. They love my fight, my character, it’s huge. Everyone knows me suddenly.”

“That year is magnificent, but the second season I’m no longer this youth team kid who’s forgiven anything. It’s no longer enough just to follow their best player. I have to hold the line, play offside, be in contact with the ball. I have a responsibility I’m not ready for. When I was a kid I wasn’t Franz Beckenbauer, sure, but I could play. Now I feel I can’t play, I make mistakes, I keep playing people onside, I start to sink, heading down, down, down until I reach the point I no longer want to play. I prefer to be on the bench because I’m so scared of making mistakes and I start to think that primera is too good for me, which is where it all starts.”

Even then, he gets a call for the Spain U21 side. That’s when he scores two own goals. He doesn’t get called back.

“At 19, you’re a kid,” Zuhaitz says. “All my mates from home go out every weekend and have just one concern: how they’re going to get over their hangover on a Sunday morning. I go from playing in front of 100 people to 30,000, to the papers rating me, people saying things on the street. That changes your life, and I wasn’t ready. The first year was simple: be strong, go in hard, that’s it. But from the second year I have more responsibility and I feel an incredible fear of getting it wrong. If the game is on a Sunday I’m already nervous by the Thursday. Don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up, don’t mess it up.”

“Looking back, I think to make it at that age, you have to be really mature or just totally unaware of the implications of it all, what football means. I was neither, sadly. I couldn’t handle it. There was always a touch of sadness inside me. I made people laugh at football, in the dressing room, with mates, but not so much at home: I always carried a sense of responsibility and anxiety. I think the pressure of primeraignited something that was already inside me and it exploded, becoming something that can actually be diagnosed.”

It’s a cliché, admittedly, but he insists that laughter really did become the best medicine. How though do you go from footballer to comedian?

“Going down to Segunda B so fast changed my life. I felt I had failed as a footballer and I tried to find a way of feeling special, worthwhile,” he explains. “Although I was still playing, I felt the need to find something else to identify with, to make me stand out, to make me worthwhile. I started to learn to play the guitar. I wrote songs, lyrics. It sounded more or less ok. And when I was at Real Union …”

An aside here, which Gurrutxga doesn’t say, but should be said: When he was at Real Union, despite being a Segunda B side, they knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey. OK, carry on…

“… when I was at Real Union, we set up a band called Van Popel, after the Dutch cyclist. I wrote songs and sang. We started to do gigs in small bars in the Basque Country, making the most of the fact that here’s a footballer who’s also a singer. People would come and watch because it’s a bit different. If I’m not a good player, at least I’m an unusual one. Between songs I would explain the lyrics or tell stories about my team. And I realised that people were laughing, they really listened. They were more interested in what I said than the music.”

“I’d always been funny. I wasn’t happy on the pitch, I just suffered there, but I was in the dressing room, on the bus. I would crack jokes. I reckon almost all my jokes have been tested on teammates before — not consciously, because I didn’t know I would be a comic one day. If former teammates come to my show, they’ve heard them before.”

There’s a pause. “Javier Clemente came once, too. I did a show in San Sebastian and when I looked out over the audience I saw him. That was quite hard. I’m nice to him in the set, I talk about him giving me my debut, but there are jokes — and he has his character. I’m there on stage and every joke, I’m thinking: ‘is the next one going to annoy him? Should I change it?’ He comes to the dressing room afterwards. ‘Javi, I didn’t annoy you, did I?’ And he says: ‘Bah, I don’t care. You can make it all up if it works for you.’ Life, eh: if you had told me when I made my debut that 20 years later, my manager would be coming to see me do a stand-up routine in a theatre…”

“That started with the band. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt that comic side of me coming out on a stage — not as a comedian but a singer. I started to risk it, push the boundaries, tell more and more jokes. And one day, I think: ‘bloody hell, Zuhaitz: a singer? I’m not so sure. But a stand up…?’ I had never really thought of it and there wasn’t much of a stand-up culture in Spain, unlike the UK or the US. I didn’t really know how a monologue worked but I gave it a go. I went on a stage to tell stories about my days as a footballer: no script to start with, just stories. People laughed. I thought: ‘blimey, this could be a job’.”

More than a job. There’s a line in the show when Zuhaitz asks: why pay a therapist to listen to me go on, laying myself bare, when I can be paid to have a whole audience listen instead? He’s only half-joking. That old line about tears of a clown? There’s something in it, he says.

“There’s the OCD, the depression. I don’t know if I am a sad person, but I turn things over and over. I’m introspective. Talk to my family and sadly I’m not so funny at home. Comedy is a kind of armour, protection. Humour is a way of surviving, keeping going. It’s survival and it became therapy, treatment, a way of dealing with things.” A way of recovering what he lost.

“Football was my passion, but I started to suffer with it and ended up detesting it,” Zuhaitz says. “I would stop people watching it at home, refuse to go to a bar if it was on. I wound up hating my passion. But with this monologue, I’ve started to make peace with football. I’m falling in love with it again, via comedy, my stories, nostalgia, the connection with the audience. I’ve started to go games again. For me, this has been closing a circle, understanding at last. And that makes me happy.”

“I said I felt I had failed as a footballer, and I play on that in the routine, but looking back now I don’t feel that I failed any more. I failed in only one thing, which was ending up detesting this great passion I had always had as a kid. I hated what I loved. And this stand up set, being a comedian, laughing, has allowed me to love it again.”


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