Clubkultur is a new Box To Box series exploring the true essence of the beautiful game, a look at the intangible feelings that keep us coming back to support our club, no matter how they’re playing, no matter where. In Clubkultur, we will explore the important cultural aspects of football clubs from all over the world, as our contributors see them.
There will be no talk of the ‘plucky minnow’ here. SD Eibar are an anomaly in world football and should be viewed as such. To use that phrase would be to undermine the several cohesive elements of the club’s structure and following that has made their success a possibility.
Understanding Eibar’s achievements is an exercise in perspective and relativity. The team are doing relatively well, sitting in mid-table position in La Liga – but just how much of an achievement is that? Relative to England, Eibar has a population of 27,000, similar to Stratford-Upon-Avon, a leafy idyll or ‘civil parish’ in Warwickshire. The club’s stadium, located on the outskirts of the town’s centre holds 7,000 people, similar to Aldershot Town’s Recreation Ground and Stevenage Borough’s Broadhall Way. Remember though, these two team’s play in the Conference and League Two respectively – well within their means and size.
It’s safe to say then, that S.D. Eibar are playing well beyond their means and size. They aren’t the biggest club from Spain’s Basque Country, those are San Sebastian’s Real Sociedad, Bilbao’s Athletic Club and Vitoria-Gastez’s Deportivo Alavés who finished impressively in 6th, 7th and 9th in last season’s La Liga, a very impressive showcase from the north-eastern clubs. These are all relatively large teams though, certainly they have considerably larger stadiums, grater historical achievements and a much more impressive transfer budget. In the same season, only 10 points behind Real Sociedad and in 10th place, was SD Eibar. It’s worth mentioning that at the time of writing, they’re 7th in the league, the only Basque team to improve on last year’s position.
It would be easy to simply give them the moniker that shall not be named, but there must be something about this club that has given them the gall to transcend all the restrictions that usually keep teams of their stature in the lower echelons of competitive football. So, what is it?
They are a team of overachievers, the personification of being greater than the sum of all their parts – even when the club played in the Segunda Division they were considered to be punching above their weight. Former president Alex Aranzábal even concedes that “Eibar’s logical place is in the third division.” This isn’t negative, but realistic. Aranzábal’s leadership has been instrumental in turning the small mountainside club into a global brand. It’s his unique ability to navigate the scale of pragmatism and passion, depending on what’s required, that keeps the club functional and personal – beloved and constantly growing.
Their ground, the Ipurua Municipal Stadium, sits surrounded by hills and snowy mountains on one side and blocks of squared flats on the other. It’s a stadium with sun-bleached seats and the basic amenities, already having undergone necessary expansions twice in the last 20 years to fit the standards of the league they were being promoted to. Despite its size though, every year since 2014 the stadium has been graced by the biggest names in Spanish football as they come as Goliath’s to take on David.
The success of the club is a contradiction. It’s not only brought glory to the fans and players, but caused the club problems too. When moving up to the second division, they came up against a law in Spanish football that states clubs must have a certain capital (25% of the average expenses of all of the Segunda’s teams), an amount that low gates and local merchandise sales would never cover. They had already decided to abandon their youth club in 2013 to make more funds available, but it was in May 2014, with the club on the precipice of debuting in the La Liga, that they found out they had to raise €1.7 million, despite being one of Spain’s very few debt-free clubs. There was another problem. Knowing the financial mountain they had to climb had to be pushed out of their mind’s, they still had to qualify for promotion and it came down to the last game of the season.
The match was understandably tense. Everyone in the city gathered behind the club. The collective intensity energised some players, but unsettled others. At the 60th minute, a strike from Eibar midfielder Jota Peleterio on the turn broke the deadlock making the game even more agitated under the weight of a newfound hope. The frenzied feeling that the game had inherited rubbed off on opponents Deportivo Alavés. The score never changed.
Now there was the matter of the other game that they were relying on to secure promotion, a game that started one hour later and was being lead 1-0 by Las Palmas over Recreativo de Huelva. After their game, Eibar’s players made their solemn lap of honour, seemingly accepting their fate, before heading into the changing rooms to listen to the second-half on the radio. Everything seemed to fall apart when Las Palmas quickly scored another with just over half an hour left. Rereativo had to pull at least 2 back without conceding for them to stand any chance. Back outside in the stadium some fans had remained in the stands listening intently, waiting and wishing.
Recreativo quickly pulled one back to offer everyone in the mountainous silence a shard of hope. Only 10-minutes later Recreativo scored again, bringing the match level. If the score stayed this way, Eibar would be making history. At the very death of the game Recreativo put the nail in the coffin. Buoyed by the score, the players returned to the field and gathered around a radio in the dugout to wait for the final whistle. It blew and the stadium and city went into a short-lived celebration. Their place in the La Liga was there, they had earned it. Now their last obstacle was raising €1.7 million.
Considering the size of the club’s hometown, they hardly had a local population that would be able to raise that amount of money, so they opened the fundraising effort up to the world. The ‘Defiende Al Eibar’ (Defend Eibar) campaign allowed people from anywhere to buy a share in the club for €50 each, with a maximum of €100,000 to help maintain the integrity of the club. This crowdfunding effort made international news and struck a chord with dejected football fans all around who were becoming cynical to the ultra-moneyed world that was alienating them from the sport they loved.
It was a success, a triumph for the spirit of the game. Thanks to support from some of the country’s big names, including former player Xabi Alonso, the campaign helped make a dream come true – now they could celebrate. The players proudly toured the streets on bus-top, an opportunity to thank the fans and be thanked in return for restoring faith to the working-class city that had struggled to find prosperity after heavy industrial closures.
SD Eibar wear the same colours as Barcelona, thanks to this they managed to really have a party, by buying the cheap unused confetti from the Catalan giants to help the occasion along. It’s these small flashes of ingenuity in management that was the connection between on and off-field matters that allowed them to taste life in the La Liga. It’s not just the players, or the fans, or the management, but the spirit that they all share. The confetti isn’t the only things that they have Barcelona to thank for though.
Their colours aren’t just similar to Barcelona’s, they are exactly the same, coming straight from the club. When they were first founded they never had shirts to play in. It was here that Barcelona stepped in to give them the ones they didn’t need. In return, Eibar have dedicated their colours to them.
Founded in 1940 when two local clubs merged, they celebrated their 75th birthday in 2015 by playing Glasgow’s Celtic at the Ipurua. The ceremony welcoming the Glasgow side included bagpipes playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ as well as performances that merged Basque and Scottish culture together. A seemingly unlikely combination, the relationship between Scotland and Eibar is a very unique one.
The club feel that a strong and valuable connection exists between the Basque Country and Scotland – culturally, politically and ideologically. Take first the Basque flag. The presence of the Saint Andrew’s cross on the Ikurriña symbolises the region’s struggle for freedom and independence, something Scotland has carried for hundreds of years. The main supporters group of SD Eibar are ‘Eskozia la Brava’, or ‘Scotland the Brave’, founded after a 2001 trip to Scotland. Impressed by the passion of the people they saw there, they adopted many of the country’s symbols, so don’t be surprised if you see a fair few Saltires and Rampant Lions if you make the trip to the scenic city.
Joseba Combarro, head of the supporters group, makes it clear that it’s not just the rainy weather that draws the two places together, “It’s a country where we admire their passionate support and the colour and atmosphere that they bring to the ground,” for him “The Scottish identity connects with the philosophy of Eibar”. He sees the club as a ‘wee’ team, a team that is like an army running into battle every week, always outnumbered, but never outgunned.
The club’s supporters group, just like the team’s colours, are dedications, ways to say thank you for capturing our spirit, for giving us an identity. In a beautiful twist of fate, the club that have built themselves up on things they have come to admire, are now themselves one of world football’s most admired clubs.
They wanted to do something, to achieve greatness, so they done it. Now they are a model club for what can be achieved with the right mindset and values – being smart, humble and full of passion. SD Eibar will no doubt have a future filled with more record achievements, why would they stop here? They blazed the way for others to follow – from football and beyond, soon there will be songs, clubs, films and books dedicated to them, soon they’ll be the only club we think of when we’re about to use the phrase that shall not be named.