Real Sociedad: Thirty-Eight Years Unbeaten

“You can take away the record, but not the pride.” Alberto Gorriz.

For thirty-eight years it stood, and for many of those years it stood alone. The last in a long line of records that had slowly but surely succumbed to the land’s powerhouse duo, Barcelona and Real Madrid. It also served as a reminder of a time when Spanish football wasn’t dominated by those two. A hark back to one those brief moments that seem to skip generations where a club or two break their confines, escape the middle-table status imposed upon them, roll up their sleeves and set their sights firmly on the chin of the big two, hoping that if they hit hard enough it might be able to force a wobble, or even a knockdown, even if it’s just momentary. For Real Sociedad, the first punch thrown came in 1979/80. It wasn’t a knockout blow, but it did enough damage to ensure that Basque football got its renaissance, and that La Real got their own passage in the annals of footballing history. This is the story of Alberto Ormaetxea and his unbeaten legends.

Although the undefeated streak occurred from the end of the 78/79 and throughout 79/80,  the building blocks for this generation’s succcess were put in place some years before. After spending much of the sixties in the second division, La Real were brought back up into the top tier by Andoni Elizondo in 1966/67. Across three separate spells in charge, Elizondo established Real Sociedad as a strong side in La Liga and qualified them for the UEFA Cup on two occasions. He placed a lot of emphasis on utilising youth and developed a system that relied on being tough and resolute at the back. Many accused him of being overly defensive but he saw it as being realistic.

Elizondo left for good half-way through the 75/76 season, a run of eight games without victory saw him replaced by Jose Antonio Irulegui. In spite of finishing his time on a low Elizondo had managed to blood talented young players such as Luis Arconada, Jesús María Zamora, Santiago Idígoras and Jesús María Satrustegui, all of whom would become vital in the future. Irulegui spent three seasons at the helm, taking the club to three consecutive top half finishes before his assistant Alberto Ormaetxea took control.

Ormaetxea constructed a team in similar vein to his predecessors and he got the best out of those players who had been brought through by Elizondo and Irulegui. He liked his side to be strong and balanced at the back but at the same time they were able to adapt to different situations with ease. Going forward they were by no means long ball merchants and had some supremely gifted players leading the attack.

Throughout his prosperous reign at Real Sociedad the team had a clear backbone. In goal, he had the ever reliable Arconada, who by modern standards would be considered short at 5’10 but his power and agility made more than made up for what he lacked in height. The Captain was centre-half Inaxio Kortabarria, an old-fashioned defender, not the quickest but strong, he read the game well, and was a brilliant organiser. The midfield usually contained Periko Alonso (Father of Xabi), often described as being the lungs of the side, and Zamora, a mercurial playmaker and the one the team looked to in order to control a game. The front three consisted of: hard working Idígoras on the right; skillful Roberto López Ufarte, who would play on the left or through the middle; and leading the line was Satrustegui, a traditional number nine who loved a physical confrontation, liked to hang off the shoulder of the last defender and had a real eye for goal.

Ormaetxea was a man of few vanities, he appreciated hard work and dedication. He was quiet and contained a steely determination. All of which, without doubt, he conveyed to his players. This side were a team created in their manager’s image. He and his players displayed the kinds of qualities that have often being associated with Basque people throughout the ages. They were unassuming, professional, efficient, extremely competitive and very hardy.

In his first season in charge, Ormaetxea surpassed all expectations taking his relatively young side to fourth place. At the back end of the season, the blue-and-whites began to show some of their true potential during a six game unbeaten run that included draws against local rivals Athletic Club, Real Madrid and a 3-1 drubbing of Barcelona in the Camp Nou.

At the beginning of the 1979/80 campaign, La Real epitomised the expression ‘picking up where you left off’. The unlikely Basque contenders shocked everyone when they stormed into the campaign, the first scalp coming in just the second game when they defeated Athletic 1-0 in San Mamés thanks to a goal from Satrustegui.

They further cemented their dark horse status in October with a thrilling 4-3 victory over Barcelona. In this game Real Sociedad displayed the kind of mettle needed to win championships. 3-2 down with twenty minutes of the game left, La Real came from behind to win the game with two goals in the last ten including an eighty-ninth minute effort from José Diego.

A month later Real Sociedad blew all their doubters out of the water with a resounding victory over Real Madrid. Many had expected that Madrid would be the ones to finally put down this group of pesky, hard-to-beat Basque lads, but they were sorely mistaken. Real Madrid, who hadn’t lost at Atocha for twenty-two years at that point in time, were thrashed 4-0.

By time the winter break came around Real Sociedad were proving to be a very dull pain in Real Madrid’s backside. La Real weren’t winning every game, but they weren’t losing either and in those days a win was only worth two points, so there was only a point’s difference between winning and drawing. They went into the break with eight victories and six draws. Their defence, lead by the powerhouse Inaxio Kortabarria and fellow centre-back Alberto Gorriz, was a Basque brick wall. It was as strong and resolute as it was organised, and only ten goals had found their way into Arconada’s net.

Like his forerunners, Ormaetxea was accused of being negative by his critics, they said that he set up his team not to lose rather than to win. Many Real Sociedad fans reject this claim, stating that the

criticisms were the Madrid media’s attempt to undermine the title challenge by discrediting it. The reality was that Ormaetxea was abundantly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of his team, and he therefore devised a system that made Real Sociedad tough to score against but  flexible in attack.

When play resumed La Real kept up their form. The challenges kept coming but the losses didn’t and by the end of the month they had taken over the top spot. On the 3rd of February, they contested the Basque Derby. Once again they swatted away the opposition, this time subjecting bitter rivals Athletic Club to a 4-0 defeat at Atocha. Real Sociedad always seemed to save their best performances for these sorts of matches. They would grind out the away wins and draws but take it up a notch for the big games.

A tit for tat title battle ensued between Real Madrid and the Basques, although Los Blancos had lost more games, the amount of draws being picked up by Real Sociedad ensured the two sides stayed fairly evenly matched, rarely being more than a point apart.

The pressure was on for both outfits. It became a war of attrition with each side churning out points and waiting for the other to make a fatal mistake.

Unfortunately, for Real Sociedad it was them who fell first. Their dreams were shattered by Sevilla, and more specifically, Sevilla’s Argentine winger Daniel Bertoni. In a tense affair, Sevilla went up 1-0 in the 30th minute courtesy of Bertoni. In the 65th minute, Zamora managed to pull one back for the Blanquiazul, and with Sevilla down to nine men the La Real players could have been forgiven for believing they might have gotten away with it. But Bertoni wasn’t finished just yet, and in the 83rd minute he popped up once more to kill off the game and break every single heart in the city of San Sebastián.

In an instant Real Sociedad had lost the title and their unbeaten run. Until, Bertoni’s punishment, they had gone a monumental thirty-eight games without tasting defeat. It’s a memory which still brings pain to some of the players, “We lost one game and we lost the league, it was very cruel.” Said centre-back Alberto Gorriz in an article for Mundo Deportivo .

Although they managed to win the last game of the season against Atletico Madrid, the damage was already done. Real Madrid picked up two wins in their final two games to pip the plucky challengers to the title. Los Madrileños finished with fifty-three points to La Real’s fifty-two.

What occurred in 79/80 was no flash in the pan, it ushered in a period of Basque dominance over the national game, and this particular generation of La Real players cemented their place as one of the greatest squads in Spanish footballing history by going on to win consecutive titles in 80/81 and 81/82 -albeit with a few defeats during those campaigns.

Their unbeaten record stayed in tact for a phenomenal thirty-eight years and while they may not have won the trophy they probably deserved that year, the record served as a consolation. In the eyes of many it was, and still is, seen as a ‘moral’ title, an achievement to be held in the same esteem as real silverware. The record may have switched hands -as records do- but the legacy is permanent.

By Dan Parry with artwork by Galih Pinandito

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.

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