By Dan Parry
It was my first journey on the regular coach from Bilbao to Donostia/San Sebastian, when at about the halfway mark we started to drive, quite literally, over an entire city. The city was sandwiched into a deep but narrow gorge amongst the dense Basque mountains. As I stared out of my window in awe I noticed how the city had started to overflow the bowl in which it was situated; the buildings had even begun to climb up the mountainsides and below me in the distance I could just about make out a tiny football stadium. Once we arrived in Donostia I asked my girlfriend about the city I had encountered and she informed me that it was Eibar (Ey-Bar).
Eibar lies roughly midway between the two larger Basque cities of Bilbao and Donostia. It has a population of 27,000 (all of its residents would fail to fill one-third of the Nou Camp) and before the impressive ascent of its football club the city was most famous for producing small firearms. It is from this part of the city’s history that SD Eibar (Sociedad Deportiva Eibar) takes its nickname ‘Los Armeros’ in Spanish or ‘Armagiñak’ in Basque (which translate as The Gunners). The club plays its home games at the miniscule Ipurua Stadium, which can hold a maximum attendance of a little over 6,000 spectators.
In the grand scheme of Spanish domestic football Eibar were, for a substantial amount of time, quite an inconsequential team. Bigger clubs would use Eibar as a feeder team, sending their young starlets up to the harsh and unforgiving Basque mountains when the talented youths were in need of more match experience or toughening up in the Spanish lower leagues. For instance, Xabi Alonso and David Silva both spent a season each at Eibar during the infancy of their respective careers. Traditionally, the club’s squad would be full of players like them, or academy rejects from their more storied footballing neighbours Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
SD Eibar was first promoted to the Segunda Division way back in 1989, and they became a mainstay of the league until the 2006/07 season when they were relegated back to the Segunda Division B. The following season they bounced straight back and spent a further two seasons in the Segunda Division until 2009/10, when once again they dropped into the league below. Over the next three seasons Eibar were the Cardiff City of the Segunda Division B, always reaching the play-offs but never jumping the final hurdle and achieving promotion; Eibar fans might have understandably felt as if their team had found its place in the footballing world. However, in the 2012/13 season, the side managed by Gaizka Garitano, finally restored itself to the Spanish second division. The succeeding season produced an even bigger shock. Miraculously, the minnows topped the league and were promoted to La Liga for the first time in the club’s history. The city celebrated wildly with the players even given tour of the city on an open-top bus.
The Spanish Football Federation brought an almost immediate halt to the festivities when the club were ordered to raise almost €1.7m in order for their capital value to reach €2,146,525.95. A Spanish Football Federation rule obliges all Segunda Division teams to have a capital value that is 25% of the average expenses of all the teams in the league or face being relegated to the Third Division. Although being a debt-free and ‘model’ club, Eibar lacked the necessary capital to pay such a large fee and the club’s hierarchy were weary of allowing the club to fall into the hands of foreign investors. It was at this moment that the then club president Alex Aranzabal started the ‘Defiende al Eibar’ (Defend Eibar) initiative. The club sold shares to anybody who was willing to buy them at €50 a piece, with a €100,000 restriction put in place. Aided by prominent figures such as Xabi Alonso the initiative was a grand success and over 10,000 people from 50 countries bought shares in the club. On the 15th July 2014 the club announced that they had obtained the required sum and their promotion was ratified.
In their debut season in the top league Eibar finished in 18th place and would have gone straight back to the Second Division if it were not for a stroke of luck. 13th placed Elche CF were accused of financial mismanagement and were duly relegated, Eibar were swiftly reinstated and given another chance to fight again. Improvements were made in the subsequent season, the newly re-appointed Jose Luis Mendilibar lead them to 14th whilst also picking up plaudits for introducing an attractive and attacking brand of football to the Ipurua. Several further changes were made to the playing staff over the summer before the start of the current campaign. Mendilibar added more La Liga quality to the side in the hope of establishing it as a team that could do more than battle in a relegation dogfight. These changes have born fruit, lead by ex Real Madrid attacking midfielder Pedro Leon (Summer signing from Getafe), ever-present Captain and defensive midfielder Dani García, and busy striker Sergi Enrich, the team now occupies 8th place, above sides with bigger budgets and more illustrious histories such as Valencia, Málaga and Espanyol.
The ambitions don’t end here though, Eibar are only 7 points from the Europa League spots and have their eyes set firmly to the horizon. They have an upcoming fixture against one of the current Europa League occupants, Villarreal, tomorrow and will be hoping to put a dent into the aforementioned points gap. Mendilibar himself has recently noted that there has been a shift of mentality within the club. He said that ‘Eibar now knows, and thinks of itself as being one of the more established clubs within the first division.’ It could be gathered from this statement that perhaps in the past the club had adopted more of a ‘we’re lucky to be here’ approach to life in La Liga.
It is difficult to find any article about Eibar that doesn’t wax lyrical about its ‘remarkable rise’ to the top. But as Mendilibar alluded to, it isn’t just the rise that should be applauded but also for that matter the lack of a plateau or decline upon reaching the top. Admittedly, luck has also played a convenient role. Nonetheless, this should not overshadow what has been achieved. Eibar are a perfect model for demonstrating how far a small club can go when it has a plan, patience, intelligent management and a lot of heart.
Eibar is a tiny city surrounded by mountains, which has a tiny football team in the top Spanish division that is also surrounded by mountains, that come in the form of gigantic footballing institutions such as Barcelona, Valencia, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Deportivo La Coruña and so on. In recent times Eibar have managed to do more than simply climb these peaks, they have moved them completely. Over the coming years it is entirely possible that this club will have more shocks and surprises in store for us fans of the game. Given the club’s current trajectory it is quite imaginable that even more foreign fans will become acquainted with the Azulgrana (red and blue) of Eibar, and for them, the city hidden between the mountains will be more than a passing sight from the window of a coach headed to a different destination. It will be the destination.