It's something of a footballing miracle for me to be writing this article. These are the stories which attract people to football. These are the stories which rekindle your love for football after your team causes you to suffer heartache. These are the stories a grandfather tells his grandchild. SD Eibar weren't meant to qualify to play in La Liga; even then, according to many, they shouldn't have been allowed to compete. SD Eibar have already climbed one mountain this summer in being admitted to Spain's top football tier. They now have the task of trying to compete and succeed in the same league as Catalan powerhouses FC Barcelona, European champions Real Madrid and League champions Atletico Madrid.
Sid Lowe of The Guardian writes: "As you pass over the France-Spain border at Irun and begin your drive along the beautiful A8 motorway, west across the roof of Spain, you pass the stunning Basque resort of San Sebastián and gradually head inland where the coast recedes from view and the foothills of the Pyrenees rise and fall stubbornly, refusing to flatten out. About half an hour into the journey, the mountains rise again, Mordor-like, and as the motorway begins to twist and turn less comfortably, a strange town appears on the right, with sallow high-rise flats clinging to the hillsides above the semblance of what looks like a community tucked inside a narrow gash in the rocks. This is Eibar, population 27,378, once the centre of the north's armaments industry, but now a town struggling to survive in the current recession."
It can be described as a love it or hate it place. It's a small town, not populous, very quiet and tranquil. Magical and unique some say, claustrophobic and run-down others say. Hidden in amongst the mountains and hills with their narrow streets, it must be a fascinating place to live. A place to behold at night and beautiful in the morning. Sunny in the summer and snowing in the winter. Google "Eibar Images" and you'll see a truly stunning place.
Sid Lowe writes: "At the top of the town, up steep streets, stands Ipurua, the picturesque home ground of Second Division club Eibar. It is surrounded by mountains to the north and south and the best view may just be the one from the two blocks of flats that tower over the stand. Not that they have to tower much to look over the short, squat side of this stadium."
Ipurua holds about 5,250 spectators. There's something about Ipurua and Eibar, something locked in time, something from the 18th Century locked in the 21st. Old fashioned but genuine with character, something built on sacrifice and humility.
This is the kind of place where young players from the Basque Country's bigger clubs would come on loan to toughen up. David Silva was one and Xabi Alonso another. Ipurua can be said to be at times scented of rain and mud going back through much of Eibar's 75-year history. This may be the best moment in their history and yet supporters have mixed emotions. Bitter-sweet days if ever there was any.
Sid Lowe writes: "The seats in the flats began to fill just before kick-off on the opening day. The stadium was filling up too. The party had started early and it continued below, but it was evening now and it was the team's turn so the inhabitants of Indalezio Ojanguren Street No 1 and No 2 hurried home for a better look. On the side of the tallest buildings in the smallest town the first division has even seen, balconies filled. Thirteen floors where red and blue flags hung. Some carried the slogan: "Primeran Ikusten Zaitut Eibar." Loosely, "We can see you in Primera, Eibar." Below them, the Estadio Municipal de Ipurúa filled too. It was starting to feel like the whole town was there. Well, not the whole town, but not far off. There are 27,378 people in Eibar, in the valley of the Ego, where escalators carry you up steep streets. There were 5,173 of them were inside the Ipurúa on Sunday afternoon, with its squat, square stands tucked into the hillside, overlooking the town."
For the first time in their 74-year history, SD Eibar were about to play in the first division. They would only occur in their dreams and they genuinely never expected to be there, but it did, and it was almost taken away from them. There are no two ways about it: they were close to being another victim of a desperately flawed system. They had been close before, a decade ago with Gaizka Garitano playing for them.
Do not overspend and work hard: "One thing is non-negotiable, now and then: we're all the same, there are no splits and anyone who does not share that view has no place here," Garitano says. "That team came close. Now this team is too," he adds. It is an astonishing success story, as implausible as it is inspirational.
Out of the top two divisions in Spain, Eibar have the lowest budget. This deserves a lot of respect and is reminiscent of the golden days when the best team was the one that was the best team and not the richest. No town this small has ever been there. No team this small has either. Last season, Eibar's budget was just €3.2m; this year, their entire budget couldn't cover Cristiano Ronaldo's or Leo Messi's wages. They have been built on loan deals, players coming and going every year.
It's quite surreal, as Sid Lowe writes: "Their sponsor is a local scrap metal business that first appeared on the shirt when no one else wanted to. There are 4,000 season-ticket holders and 600 more on the waiting list. You could get the population of Eibar into the Camp Nou and still have room for 71,000 people. A 15-floor block of flats would tower over most stadiums, sure, but 14 of the 15 floors in the two blocks by the ground overlook Ipurúa. The stand in front of them goes back just five rows. Temporary seats increased the capacity - by less than 700 - and Ipurúa is smaller than the 6000 minimum required in the Segunda División, let alone the 15,000 for La Liga." You couldn't make it up.
The question is: Where you have the league's very own president describing SD Eibar as a "model club", with no debt, how can they possibly be in financial difficulty? The answer is simple, the law is deeply flawed. As Andy West of BBC said, "it's well-intentioned but inflexible". According to it (Real Decreto 1251/1999), for all clubs except Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Osasuna to become SADs (PLCs) in 1992, their social capita and values in shares had to be at least 25% of the average of all Segunda Division teams, minus the two biggest and the two smallest. This meant that they had to raise their social capita to €2,146,525m, so over €1.7m in share issues. If not, through no fault of their own, they would be denied promotion, and top of that, they would also be relegated to the Segunda B (where Real Murcia are at the moment). Eibar's President Alex Aranzabal was spot on when he said: "It was nonsense because our economic situation was solid." But the law is the law, so they had to find a way around it.
Social media did its thing and worked wonders. Sid Lowe writes: "A campaign began. Fans bought shares; shops became stakeholders. No one could buy more than €100,000's worth: they did not want to fall prey to speculators. Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi were among those supporting it. Amazingly, it worked. Luis Maria Cendoya, a 90-year-old who has been a member since 1945, bought the share that saw them go over the threshold. On the main wall of the ground, the names of shareholders are going up in gratitude. There are lots of Basque names, but look carefully: "Paul Reidy, Ireland." 10,000 people bought shares in 50 countries. Before kick-off, a message went round the perimeter in a series of languages: thank you." They got over the threshold with a few weeks to spare, even.
Sid Lowe continues: "And so here they were, where they never imagined they'd be. "If I'd said so, you'd call me a lunatic," wrote one veteran reporter. It could not have been more perfect. Their first game was against Real Sociedad, the other team from the province of Guipuzcoa - the Primera División team many Eibar fans "support" after their own. Support-ed. It felt right somehow. At kick-off on Sunday, all 22 players were Spanish, the first time that had happened in four years. Thirteen of them were Basques, nine of them from Guipuzcoa. In the Real Sociedad starting XI, four had played for Eibar. Yuri Berchiche was there last year, on loan."
Last season, Javi Lara scored against Eibar for Ponferradina. Now, with a minute to go before half-time, he scored the first goal Eibar had ever scored in the top division. It was a wonderful goal. A golazo (defined as an "awesomely amazing goal" by the Urban Dictionary). A right-footed shot from the left wing, spinning and dipping all the way into the top far corner. It was the perfect goal. The sort of goals usually only scored on Playstation, Xbox and various other consoles available nowadays. Eibar had been the better team. They couldn't say it wasn't deserved.
"We knew where we were coming and we knew who we were facing. I saw the same Eibar as always," the Real Sociedad manager, Jagoba Arrasate, added. Playing with intensity; the off-the-field atmosphere transferring itself onto the pitch, players chasing every ball, never letting their opponents settle. Bold, brave and refusing to be cowed. "I told them not to be scared, to be themselves," Garitano revealed.
Sid Lowe writes: "Under the stand, you could smell the deep heat from the dressing rooms. Fading photographs covered the walls. Eibar in 1940, the year the club was founded. The forerunners: UD Eibaresa in 1927, CD Gallo in 1934. Every Eibar team picture since 1947. A photo too of one of the region's traditions: the world record beech tree axe-chopping. One hour and 13 minutes to hack through three and a half metres of wood."
Behind several cameras, the midfielder Jon Errasti, impeccable throughout the game said: "This is the first of 38 battles." It will most certainly be a battle. Even though they have no debt, it will still be a struggle. There will be promotion costs, the salary costs will be at least doubled, there was almost no money available for signings and they have very little La Liga experience. The vast majority of their signings have been loan and free players.
Yet, none of it matters: they are just happy to be there and will relish every moment. The great thing is that they have a sustainable financial model for the future. It was dark now but the night, like the season, had only just begun. Gergori Prieto, an Eibar employee added that a 'fantasy land' atmosphere has prevailed since promotion, saying: "The feeling in the streets and within the club is the same; it's almost like a dream. This season is a gift which we just have to enjoy, and with some luck perhaps there will be more." And Saturday's match is particularly significant."Barca is the only top team we have never played against before," Prieto said. "We have met the others like Real Madrid and Atletico in the cup, but never Barca. So it will be a very special day."
"The players have worked so hard for this. I'm proud to coach them," Garitano said. "What have I told them? I've told them to enjoy this." It's exactly what they are doing.
SD Eibar has brought in as well as let go of several players. It wouldn't be farfetched to say that this is almost a completely new team. They did this without spending much at all, and without recuperating anything at all. Yet they broke their own transfer record by spending approximately £132,000 on Dani Nieto.
SD Eibar bought Dani Nieto from FC Barcelona B for £132,000 and Javi Lara from Ponferradina for £11,000.
They have invested in a number of free signings, including, Jaime Jiménez from Real Valladolid, Saúl Berjón from Real Murcia, Ander Franco Tejerina from Haro Deportivo, Ángel Rodríguez from Levante UD, Borja Ekiza from Athletic Club, Derek Boateng from Rayo Vallecano, Dejan Lekic from Genclerbirligi, Iosu Ozkoidi and Dani García (both from Real Sociedad B).
They have also loaned Raúl Navas, Manu del Moral, Federico Piovaccari and Dídac Vilà Abraham.
Eibar haven't sold a single player. All the players that have left have either left for free or on loan. Diego Jiménez, Raúl Navas, Diego Rivas, Matías Ibáñez, David Mainz, Urko Vera and Gorka Kijera were allowed to leave on a free.
Ander Franco Tejerina, Iosu Ozkoidi, Aitor Ortega Asenjo, Aitor Arregi and Julen Iriarte were all loaned out to the Segunda Division. A number of players returned back to their clubs after their loan spells ended.
SD Eibar's form has been mixed so far, with two wins, two losses and three draws. Their highlights were beating Real Sociedad at home and taking Atletico Madrid close at The Vicente Calderón Stadium. They haven't been embarrassed and have been competitive in every single game. The signs are looking good and Eibar will be more than happy with their start to the season. In fact, they'll be ecstatic.
Jurdan Artetxe of Basque Tribune writes: "Defense and stability have been the foundation in the approach of this miraculous Eibar, whose offensive strategy is far from the historical stereotype of playing long balls in the frequently muddy "Ipurua" field, but instead has chosen to play a tighter, quality game with a passing attack. And it has written a different story, as its President acknowledged in another interview: "Football is in need of different kinds of stories. The epic, David who can beat Goliath. The underdog, with fewer resources, faced against its more powerful opponents. Nowadays, with so many people unemployed and upset, this kind of story is really appreciated."
He continues: "Off the field there are no mysteries either. The philosophy is easy. They apply the simple family rule: always spend less than you earn. A basic theory, yet one that so few football clubs apply, with the majority drowning in debt. "Doing things right, being austere, being responsible, valuing what they have, and taking great care of it, they are making history. In fact, they have been operating this way for many years," says Xabi Alonso in a conversation with journalist Iñaki Gabilondo. Football has gone overboard now even more than at the beginning of the first decade of the millennium."
A Few Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About SD Eibar
Football Espana writes: "Formed in 1940 by the merger of Deportivo Gallo and Union Deportiva Eibarresa, the club was originally known as Eibar Futbol Club before changing its name to Sociedad Deportiva Eibar. Promoted to La Tercera in 1950, the Basques reached La Segunda five years later. However, after a five-year stint they suffered relegation and spent all but three of the following 28 years in the third tier of Spanish football.
Eibar returned to the ‘silver category’ in 1988, yet much of the time since then has been spent alternating between La Segunda and Segunda B. Nonetheless, back-to-back promotions ensured top-flight football at Ipurua for the first time following a 1-0 home win over Deportivo Alaves in May 2014.
Los Armeros (The Gunners), as Eibar are known, had perhaps their finest moment in the 2012-13 edition of the Copa del Rey when they knocked out neighbours Athletic Bilbao on the away goals rule before falling to Malaga in the last 16."
The same team that started in the 3-3 home draw against Levante is expected to start against FC Barcelona, unless the manager decides (understandably) to play more cautiously with the game being against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
Xabi Irureta will start in goal. Eneko Boveda, Raul Albentosa, Raul Navas, Abraham Minero will all start in defence.
Dani Garcia and Jon Errasti should as double-pivots. Saul, Arruabarrena and Javi Lara should start further forward with Angel Rodriguez and Federico Piovaccari fighting it out for the main striker position.
Possible XI (4-2-3-1): Xabi Irureta; Boveda, Albentosa, Raul Navas, Abraham; Dani Garcia, Errasti; Saul, Arruabarrena, Javi Lara; Angel
With the fact that team battles are more pertinent, this week's edition will focus on team battles.
Ability to break down vs A compact defence: This is the battle which is usually key in this sort of matches. The attack usually either scores an early goal and then a few more, or does the opposite and struggles to even score one. There is no doubt that Barcelona will attack in numbers and Eibar will try to defend well and counter-attack.
The counter-counter: With both sides liking to attack, maybe the counter-counter could play a part.
Set-pieces v Set-pieces: How will the two teams fare in set-pieces?
Complacency v Hunger: If Barcelona are complacent or simply not up to it then they will struggle, but with it being at home, Barcelona should be hungry.
It will be an interesting, fascinating and historic battle. Eibar haven't lost by more than a single goal this season. Barcelona players will be rested and you never know which Barcelona team turns up after the international break. Yet with it being at home, Barcelona should still win this. And fairly comfortably too. 3-0.
I respect Eibar's fairy tale and their fans passion for the game. They have somehow made it when clubs five times its size didn't. I therefore wish them the best of luck for the rest of the season.
Thank you for reading, take care and goodbye until next time!