It was my first journey on the regular coach from Bilbao to San Sebastián, when at about the halfway mark we started to drive, quite literally, over an entire city. The small 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 it had started to overflow the bowl in which it was situated; the buildings had even begun to climb up the mountain sides, and below me in the distance I could just about make out a tiny football stadium. Once we arrived in San Sebastián, I asked my girlfriend about the place I had encountered, she informed me that it was Eibar.
Eibar lies roughly midway between the two larger Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián. 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 firearms. It is from this that SD Eibar (Sociedad Deportiva Eibar) takes its nickname ‘Los Armeros’ (The Gunners) in Spanish or ‘Armagiñak’ in Basque. The club plays its home games at the miniscule Ipurua Stadium, which can hold a maximum attendance of a little over 7,000.
In the grand scheme of Spanish domestic football Eibar were, for a substantial amount of time, quite an inconsequential team. Bigger clubs would use them 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. 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 Club and Real Sociedad.
SD Eibar were 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 before once again they dropped into the league below.
Over the next three seasons, Eibar were the Segunda Division B’s almost men. They were 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 next 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’s celebrations were raucous and the fans clamoured to see their heroes as the players were paraded around on an open-top bus.
The Spanish Football Federation threw water all over the fire and brought an almost immediate halt to the festivities when they ordered the club to raise almost €1.7m in order that their capital value reached €2,146,525.95.
A Spanish Football Federation rule obliges all Segunda Division teams to have a capital value that is at least 25% of the average expenses of all the teams in the league, failure to comply would result in being relegated all the way back to the Third Division.
Although it was 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 entity 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 maximum restriction put in place.
Aided by prominent figures, such as Xabi Alonso, it was a grand success and over 10,000 people from 50 countries bought shares in the club. On the 15th July 2014, it was announced that they had obtained the required sum and their promotion was officially ratified.
In their debut season in the top league, Eibar finished in 18th place on goal difference 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 duly relegated, Eibar were swiftly reinstated and given another chance to fight again.
Improvements were made in the subsequent season. The newly re-appointed José 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 2015/16 campaign. Mendilibar added more La Liga quality to his side in the hope of establishing it as a team that could do more than battle in a relegation dogfight.
These changes bore fruit. Lead by ex-Real Madrid attacking midfielder Pedro Leon (Summer signing from Getafe), ex-Captain and defensive midfielder Dani García, and busy striker Sergi Enrich, the team finished in 10th place, above sides with bigger budgets and more illustrious histories, such as Valencia, Málaga and Celta Vigo.
2017/18 saw further progress, for much of the season, Eibar were right in the mix for the Europa League and ended up coming in 9th place, only seven points away from a qualification spot.
This season, a Europa league spot will once again be the target for the Basque side. In spite of losing long-time Captain and club stalwart Dani García, right back Ander Capa and Japanese talisman Takashi Inui, Eibar have once again been smart in the transfer market.
The authorities and manager at Eibar are well aware of their limited means in comparison with the rivals, but this has never stopped the club from signing well. This success is predicated on placing as much focus on the personality of a player as his talent. For example, in the summer just gone speedy Chilean winger Fabian Orellana converted his loan into a full transfer, Sergio Alvarez has been brought in to replace García and the cultured centre-back Pedro Bigas has come in on loan from Las Palmas.
Mendilibar himself has noted that there has been a shift of mentality during his second spell at the club. ‘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 the lack of a plateau or decline upon reaching the top. Admittedly, luck has also played a convenient role but, 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. They come in the form of gigantic footballing institutions such as Barcelona, Valencia, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Athletic Club and so on.
Last season, SD Eibar finished as the highest-placed Basque club in Spain, a feat which would have been unimaginable only ten years ago. In recent times, Eibar have managed to do more than simply climb 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 fans. Given the club’s current trajectory it is also quite conceivable that sooner or later they will play in Europe. This will lead to even more foreign fans becoming acquainted with the Azulgrana of SD Eibar. Football has put Eibar on the map. The city hidden between the mountains is no longer just a passing sight from the window of a coach headed to a different destination. For many football fans, it is THE destination.
This article is part of a series on Basque Football made in collaboration with The Linesman. For more brilliant footballing content please visit the site here.