A young Iñaki Iribarren enjoyed floating between midfield, striker and goalkeeper during street soccer games in Pamplona, Spain, where he ultimately captained La Liga side Club Atlético Osasuna’s academy team against the likes of European soccer clubs Manchester City, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
This past fall, he completed his last season playing for the Wisconsin Badgers men’s soccer team and now has to decide whether to pursue soccer professionally or choose another career route.
“Since I was a kid, I loved soccer,” said Iribarren, a 6-foot-2 midfielder who has played 62 games for the Badgers since 2019. “I just played it everywhere, in school, after school.”
Iribarren was born in Pamplona, the capital of the Navarre province in northern Spain and host of the world-renowned ‘running of the bulls’ tradition that careens through the city’s cobblestone streets every year in July.
After picking up the world’s sport at age two, Iribarren played among his friends, family and a local team where he experimented in almost every position on the field. He then at age 10 transferred to play for the academy team of Pamplona-based CA Osasuna, a club that competes in Spain’s top professional soccer league La Liga.
Iribarren developed his strong ability to pass the ball out from the center of the field around age 13 or 14 when he began playing in the midfield consistently for CA Osasuna, he said. Those formative years included games against Ansu Fati and Eric García, names you might recognize today in FC Barcelona’s starting lineup.
“In Spain, what we are taught since we are young is [to] keep the ball [and] play the ball,” Iribarren said. “You don’t need to run that much if you are smart and know how to play the ball. So I was used to that.”
For Iribarren, that style of play differs from the one required for the Badgers in Big Ten competition, where there is a higher emphasis on physicality.
“I got here, and the mentality here is more like run, run, run … be big, strong and just run,” Iribarren said. “Overall, the playing style here in the U.S. looks more like that, so you [have] to adapt to it. My freshman year and sophomore year were kind of tough in that sense because I had to get used to this playing style that I was not used to at all.”
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Now, Iribarren describes his playing style as physical but technical when needed, and compares it to that of fellow Spaniard Rodrigo Hernández Cascante — known as Rodri — who plays as a defensive midfielder for Manchester City in the English Premier League.
He is primarily a distributor on the pitch who can also make the occasional dashing run. As seen with his four shots against Michigan State on Oct. 7, he puts pressure on the opposing team’s back line and goalkeeper.
In Spain and most of Europe, soccer players from an early age have to decide if they want to pursue a professional career in the sport. To do so, they play full-time for an academy club program that prioritizes soccer training in place of a more traditional academic curriculum, Iribarren said.
“In Spain, if you want to go to play in the higher level, it’s either you focus on academics or you focus on soccer,” Iribarren said. “Doing both at the same time is very difficult.”
Iribarren strongly values academics, and when offered the opportunity at age 18 to study and play soccer for the Badgers in Madison, he said he “couldn’t say no.” He didn’t even visit Madison before arriving for his freshman year.
Beyond adjusting to a more physical soccer playing style in the U.S., Iribarren also had to navigate a series of cultural differences off the pitch. He said his English was not great when he first arrived, making it difficult to communicate with coaches and teammates.
Four years later, Iribarren is close friends with fellow senior players Ignasi Marques and Aron Elí Sævarsson. He said that the team has become socially close this year despite having a large number of freshman and transfer players.
“I consider almost everyone in the team my friend that I can hang out with outside soccer,” Iribarren said. “I think that’s great and that helps the team a lot, especially on the field. Chemistry that you have outside the field, you bring it to the field too … this year we have created a really good group.”
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The Badgers also added a new head coach this year, Neil Jones, who joined the team after eight years as head coach of the Loyola University Chicago men’s soccer team. That change added adversity to a turbulent season, Iribarren said, though the team still managed to make the Big Ten tournament with a decent record.
“This season has been ups and downs everywhere,” Iribarren said. “We had to adapt to a new coach, changes in the program [and] new players coming into the team, [but] I think overall it has been good.”
The Badgers ended the season with a 6-6-4 record but had mixed results throughout the season led by trouble converting scoring chances. In September and early October, the team went four straight games without scoring a goal, three of which were against Big Ten opponents.
But the team bounced back with an Oct. 7 win over Michigan followed by a tie with nationally ranked Maryland. The Badgers then went on to secure a Big Ten tournament berth with a win over Northwestern before losing to Rutgers on penalty kicks in the first round of the tournament.
That loss to Rutgers marked the end of Iribarren’s collegiate soccer career, which included four seasons that combined for 5,407 minutes played, eight goals and seven assists, according to UW statistics.
Iribarren split his summers during college playing soccer in the U.S. and Spain, he said. He went back to Spain to play for his local team after his freshman season during the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer. But after his sophomore season, he went down south to Texas to play for Corpus Christi FC, which competes in the semi-professional soccer league USL League Two.
Now, he has to decide if he wants to continue playing soccer professionally or do something else. That decision is still up in the air, Iribarren added.
“I have no idea, honestly,” Iribarren said of his post-college plans. “I’m still thinking about it. I haven’t made that decision yet.”
In the meantime, Iribarren can be found listening to rapper Bad Bunny, watching his favorite soccer player Xavi coach FC Barcelona or eating a poke bowl — a Hawaiian dish of raw fish and fruit — at one of Madison’s multiple poke restaurants.
“I love it here,” Iribarren said of Madison.