The Miraculous Rise of the Club From the Basque Mountains
Situated in a Basque valley, halfway along the Autopista AP-8 linking Bilbao and San Sebastian in Northern Spain, is a town with a population of no more than 27,500 inhabitants. Historically known for creating armaments, it suffered heavily from damage during the war and economically since. Yet more recently its football club has gathered recognition. It is a town with fighting spirit, where miracles happen. You should always expect the unexpected in Eibar.
It is said that if you want to make money in the Basque Country you should open an umbrella stall but Sociedad Deportiva Eibar experienced their own downpour in the summer of 2014. After spending their previous 74 years of existence lingering between the 2nd and multi-tiered, regional 3rd divisions of Spanish football, Eibar won the 2nd division and promotion to La Liga in 2014. Manager Gaizka Garitano, an enthusiastic poet, had achieved back-to-back promotions with the Basques. However, their promotion party, in late May, took place against the backdrop of possible relegation before they had even kicked a ball in the top tier.
Eibar were, and still are, a well-run club with no debts or deficit – this immediately makes them unique in Spanish football – and their then-president, Alex Aranzabal, played a major role in enforcing this sustainability. However, their orderliness did not guarantee them a place in La Liga due to Spanish sports law; it required Eibar to raise €2million as capital within 2 months. If this was not achieved, they would not only relinquish their position in La Liga but also face relegation to Segunda B (the 3rd division). Aranzabal has since described how the clubs emotions changed in the space of a number of weeks from amazement to incredulity to fear.
Yet Eibar showed that they were not going to go down without a fight, and began the improbable task of raising the required capital by welcoming football fans from around the world to buy shares in the club. Eibar’s fate was now in the hands of anyone yet everyone. Former club loanees, Xabi Alonso and David Silva, helped spread the word beyond the Basque mountains and soon enough shares began to be sold. The campaign went viral and by the July deadline Eibar had raised the required sum whilst gaining 10,000 shareholders from over 70 countries. The Eibar spirit had now resulted in sporting success and the realisation of a dream.
Eibar entered La Liga with the aim of survival but merely being able to welcome Real Madrid and Barcelona to the 5,000 capacity Ipurua stadium was an achievement. Even given the dramatic recent months, no one saw them being placed in 7th position at the winter break but that was exactly the case. They had exceeded every pundit’s expectations, their attack of Dani Garcia, Javi Lara and Arruabarrena compensated for their more susceptible defence. Yet, Eibar struggled after Christmas – losing 15 out of 21 games led them to 18th position with one match of the season to play. They faced already relegated Cordoba at Ipurua on the final day but it was out of their hands as a point for Deportivo La Coruna would guarantee their survival and relegate Eibar after a single top flight season. Eibar won comfortably 3-0 but an unlikely last minute Deportivo equaliser at the Camp Nou signalled the end of the road for Eibar even though they finished the season with the same number of points and a better goal difference than the two teams above them.
Yet on the first matchday of the 2015/16 season, Eibar walked onto the pitch at Nuevos Los Carmenes to play Granada…. in La Liga. Once again, Eibar had experienced a dramatic summer and been reinstated in the top division with Elche moving in the opposite direction due to their financial issues with the tax authorities. A financial matter had almost cost them their place in La Liga initially, now another had presented them with at least one extra season of top-flight football.
Eibar have now settled as an established La Liga club; Mendilibar replaced Garitano as the coach, returning for a second spell in charge, and improved the defensive frailties that had cost them previously. The Ipurua stadium has been improved and expanded from a capacity of 5,000 to 7,000. The quality and depth of squad have increased each season, with fewer players loaned and more bought, exemplified by table finishes of 14th and 10th respectively. Flirtations with qualification for the Europa League and taking points off Real Madrid and Atletico have made lifelong armeros pinch themselves. Having been to Eibar during their recent successes, the positive impact that the club has had on the town itself and the area is apparent.
Eibar are still the tiny club from Gipuzkoa but their character has parallels with the town itself, experiencing great successes and deep disappointments but always showing resilience and fight. As Aranzabal said in 2015, “SD Eibar is a football club, but above all, it is an expression of the identity of the town”. They have certainly exceeded expectations in La Liga but, then again, their journey has been a case of expecting the unexpected.