Once upon a time, deep inside Spain’s lush green Basque Country, there lived a soccer club called Eibar. From its Ipurua home, which is parked below a series of verdant hills, it boasted panoramic views over its entire kingdom in the valley of Ego.
Eibar is admired not just for its views, but for its sheer determination and neglect of soccernomics. Following back-to-back promotions, it has become the smallest town to ever play in La Liga. And it’s not just been about the taking part, it’s been about the winning as well — at least it had until recently.
On Sunday Eibar welcomes Basque neighbors Athletic Bilbao into its home on the back of five straight defeats. It’s not quite at the season-defining-this-is-a-final level, but it’s a hugely important fixture. An Athletic win would see Eibar tumble further down the table, and despite its astonishing first half of the season, it would be foolish to blinker out the possibility of relegation.
Not that relegation would be the end of the world. Eibar has come a long way.
Last season it stunned the likes of Deportivo de La Coruña, Real Zaragoza and Mallorca as it cantered to the title in Spain’s second division. But there was a twist; there had to be. No fairytale is complete without one.
While Eibar was waving its wand on the field, Spanish soccer’s crooked overlords were cooking up hurdles for it to jump. LFP president Javeir Tebas had described it as a “model club” — it is debt free, which is more than can be said for Barcelona and Real Madrid — but rules are rules and the wicked Tebas forced Eibar to comply.
There’s a law and a long story which obliges the majority of clubs to ensure its social capital is at least 25 percent of the average expenses of all sides in their division (La Segunda, in this case), with the exception of the two biggest and the two smallest.
All of a sudden, Eibar had to find 1.7 million euros (taking them from 422,253 euros to just over 2.1 million euros). Less than 12 months previously it had been playing in Spain’s third tier, now, remarkably, it stood on the verge of successive promotions, only to realize it hadn’t read the small print. Oh, and failure to raise the funds would mean demotion back to the third division.
There used to be 40,000 inhabitants in Eibar but there are now only 27,000 (times that by three and it still would not fill Camp Nou), while the club’s average attendance last season was just 3,000 — the capacity is only 5,250. And even if they had huge pockets, it’s unlikely the locals would have been able to find that kind of money.
Alex Aranzábal, Eibar’s president, didn’t want to give too much of the club away, so capped the amount of shares anyone could buy at 100,000 euros (50 euros per share). Buyers poured forward: From former loan players Xabi Alonso and David Silva through to former Basque Country resident Asier Illarramendi. Shares were purchased in over 50 countries and Eibar, little old Eibar, was given its ticket to the ball.
On its first ever day in the Primera División, neatly dressed but not naive, Eibar beat local rivals Real Sociedad. Points continued to flow and by the middle of January it had 27 of them, enough to see it nestled in eighth position in the table. The fairytale was almost becoming unrealistic. Who wrote this?
However, things have taken a dive recently — and this time, it’s not Tebas playing the witch. Eibar has lost its last five matches in the league, slipping into the bottom half of the table. Now only five points ahead of the side in the final relegation position, Levante, who it plays next week, a return to La Segunda is not out of the question.
In that worst case scenario, Eibar will return a wealthier club than it was when it burrowed its way out of the second division, but that’s not worth thinking about yet.
As Aranzábal repeatedly stresses, this is a team full of alma, or soul. There are few La Liga sides, if any, that can honestly speak of such a strong bond between town and club. Unai Eraso, head of Eibar’s Madrid supporters club, told CNN: “The players reflect the nature of the town — humble, hard-working and with huge spirit. We still have the same people at the club; the same guy has washed the jerseys of the team for the last 10 years.”
On the pitch its playing style can be intense. There are no stars; most of the players have risen with them from the third division; and they deal in scraps in the transfer market — like the metal company that sponsors its uniforms. Every player works for every ball and opponents are rarely given a chance to breathe — especially at Ipurua. There’s something courageous about them. Before the first game of the season, coach Gaizka Garitano told his players “not to be scared, to be themselves. You can’t crap yourself.” Nobody can accuse them of that.
So why the slide? The most probable cause is a lack of quality. You can get by on guts, bravery and the element of surprise for a while, but in the end teams cotton on to what you are about, nullify your threat and take you out. That could be what is happening to Eibar at the moment.
Garitano played for the club when it last came close to promotion a decade ago; now as coach he has the chance to make sure the stay in La Liga is not a temporary one. For years it’s lived in the shadows of clubs like Athletic; now on Sunday it has the chance to end its five-game barren spell against Ernesto Valverde’s men — and make sure the fairytale doesn’t have an immediate ending.