Back in 2012 Basque minnows Eibar were competing in Spain’s third tier. Two successful promotion campaigns later, they are set to celebrate their 75th anniversary in the rarefied atmosphere of the country’s top flight.
Their appearance in La Liga will bring a refreshingly down-to-earth touch to a league that has once again been in the headlines for the huge transfer sums paid out by its biggest clubs during the close season.
The smallest of the league’s 20 teams, Eibar’s budget is equivalent to Lionel Messi’s annual salary or a quarter of the fee Real Madrid paid for the services of Colombian ace James Rodriguez. Yet after their unlikely exploits of the last two seasons under coach Gaizka Garitano, they are ready to fulfil their dream of mixing it with the giants of Spanish football.
No easy task
Eibar’s main objective is to stay up, a goal that might sound modest but means everything to the Liga newcomers, who hail from a town with a population of only 27,000, the smallest ever to have fielded a side in the Spanish top flight.
The local economy is founded on metalworking, the manufacture of small arms (hence the club’s nickname of Los Armeros) and damascening (the art of inlaying metal into other metals) in particular. Also know for its sewing machine, motorbike and bicycle factories, Eibar is a place where honest toil and a modest approach to life are the hallmarks of its people and its football club.
As mayor Miguel de los Toyos explained, the town is looking to make the most of its time in the limelight: “Visiting teams will be bringing 1,000 fans with them and that’s a lot of people to us. We want everybody to feel at home and take some good memories of the town away with them.”
De los Toyos has already come up with a plan for capitalising on the football tourism that Eibar’s promotion to the big time will bring.
The club’s tiny Estadio Municipal de Ipurua has had its capacity increased from 5,200 to 7,000 with the installation of additional seating, though the surrounding hills and buildings, which combine to provide a fairly unique setting, prevent any further expansion. Tickets are sure to be in big demand, especially when the likes of Koke, Luis Suarez and Tony Kroos come to town.
Quite a journey
Though the challenge is a daunting one, the fact is that Eibar have already overcome some no-less-imposing obstacles just to get this far, not least winning the second division last season on a shoestring budget of €3 million, the lowest of the 22-team league.
Almost as taxing were the financial requirements the club had to meet in order to be able to take their place in the elite. After four months of uncertainty, Los Armeros finally managed to increase their capital to the €1.72 million demanded by La Liga, thanks to a fundraising campaign that had the game’s romantics digging deep into their pockets and which also had the support of players of the stature of Xabi Alonso and David Silva.
The Basque club, which wears claret and blue, has long had a tradition of taking promising players on loan from big clubs and bringing them on, and Silva was one such recruit.
“I will always be grateful to Eibar,” said the Manchester City man. “That’s where I learned my trade as a footballer. Some people thought that move was a backwards step, but for me it was a springboard.”
Though now a top-flight side, Eibar are by no means a star-studded outfit. The men they will be looking to for inspiration this season are midfielder Dani Garcia, wide man Dani Nieto and goalkeeper Xabi Irureta, who conceded fewer goals than anyone in the second tier last season. Experienced second division campaigners to a man, all three are committed to Eibar’s unlikely but inspiring dream.
“We have to make up for our shortcomings and lack of money and resources with other things,” said club president Alex Aranzabal. “We’ve got together a good team that knows how to play.”
Aside from the club’s decidedly modest finances, there are other reasons why Eibar are keeping their feet on the ground, as coach Garitano explained.
“We’ve had a very definite approach to things here, and it’s non-negotiable: we’re all equal,” he said. “There are no stars, and anyone who thinks they are has no place here. The team will always show them the error of their ways.”
Garitano played alongside Silva in the 2004/05 season, on the very final day of which Eibar almost achieved promotion to the top flight. For ten fleeting minutes they held a promotion slot only for results elsewhere to then go against them.
Nine years later the dream finally became a reality, one that will dawn on Sunday, when neighbours Real Sociedad visit the Ipurua for an enticing Basque derby. The entire population of Eibar could easily fit into Real’s Estadio Anoeta, a reflection of the gulf between the two clubs. But as the brave men of Eibar have shown in recent times, there is no gulf too big for them to cross.