SD Eibar encapsulates everything that modern European football currently lacks. The club and the town, in general, embodies community, integrity, and most importantly, personality. These traits are sparingly found across the top European leagues in this day and age, with the monopolizing nature of TV deals and astronomical transfer fees dominating the game.
Located in the deep mountainous area of the Spanish Basque Country, Eibar is a small city of roughly 27,500 inhabitants, with a long history of metal manufacturing. Once this industry began to decline, as former president club president Alex Aranzábal said, the city’s people needed a more positive society, with football providing hope, embodying the community’s underdog mentality.
Eibar’s achievements can be put into perspective by recognizing that in comparison with the domestic standings in the other major European leagues, the club finished higher in their league table than clubs such as West Ham, Bayer Leverkusen, and Lille managed in their respective countries. When considering that Eibar’s Ipurua Municipal Stadium has a 7,083 capacity (paling in comparison with the 40,000 average capacity of these clubs’ stadiums), it is even more surprising that a club with such limited resources managed such a respectable domestic season, finishing 10th in La Liga in 2016/17.
The financial stability of Eibar’s recent rise to the top of Spanish football has been critical to their top-flight success. Upon promotion to the top flight in the 2013/14 season, the club was forced to raise their capital by €2 million as a requirement of Spanish law for teams entering the top flight. If the club failed to pay this fee, they would be sanctioned with relegation to the Tercera Division (Third Division). Eibar was essentially paying the price for their overachievement, having been previously debt-free.
In response to this threat from the Spanish football authorities, Aranzábal implemented a truly unique idea that would make Eibar’s story even more remarkable. Aranzábal was a strong believer that fans participation was integral to the success of such a small club, and it was important for the fans to feel equal ownership of the club. Despite Aranzábal’s departure in May 2016, the legacy that he left has not only remained but grown. 10,000 shareholders from 69 different countries currently own the club, demonstrating the club’s progress in expanding their brand. €50 per share attracted many fans and contributed to a vastly successful crowd funding campaign.
However, Eibar’s recent success, particularly in the season, just gone, has gone relatively unnoticed. The Eibar story up until today is simply unheard of in its nature, and what makes their 2016/17 league season so incredible is the club’s ability to bounce back from the departure of Aranzábal as president. He lay the foundations for the club, and his legacy has not only been respected by new president Amaia Gorostiza but has been built upon for the team’s rejuvenated pursuit of reinforcing their top-flight status
The 2015/16 season was generally positive for new coach José Luis Medilibar, with the team finishing a respectable 14th place. However, two key departures in the following months were supposed to be the beginning of the end for Eibar’s short-lived dream in La Liga. Aranzábal resigned in May 2016, citing fatigue as his reason for leaving. Gorostiza replaced Aranzábal as president of the club, and she was facing an immediate uphill task in the 2016 summer transfer window. Borja Baston returned to Atlético Madrid from his loan, having scored 18 league goals for Eibar in the previous season. Instead of a direct replacement, Mendilibar turned to a more rigid tactical shape but allowed wide players and midfielders more freedom to arrive late in the box to score.
Outstanding performances across the season from and Dani Garcia and Pedro León, in particular, ensured Eibar’s consistency and attacking threat against not only their positional rivals but against the more higher quality opposition. Club captain Dani Garcia in central midfield started all 36 league matches last season, and despite scoring only one goal throughout, it was a contender for La Liga goal of the season, an exquisite volley in a 4-0 away victory against Valencia. Garcia led Eibar in defence and attack, with Eibar’s free flowing counter attacking and wide football becoming part of the team’s identity under Medilibar.
Pedro León’s contribution to Eibar’s goal-scoring return has been integral to the preservation of their La Liga status, occupying dangerous central and wide positions to create uncertainty in opposition defences. His 10 league goals and 5 assists and general flair in the build-up and counter-attacking play has been reflective of his pursuit for redemption after his unsavory departure from José Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2013. His performances throughout the league season have been truly remarkable for a 30-year old that had not previously settled or grown into his full potential.
Aside from some notable individual performances, the mentality instilled by Medilibar and his tactics revolve around a definitive team spirit. From central defence with journeyman Ivan Ramis to the invaluable contribution of Sergi Enrich up front (11 goals and 7 assists in the league), Eibar has proved they possess a strong enough central spine to not only survive but thrive in La Liga. Mendilibar has also taken various gambles away from his established starting XI. Manchester United outcast Bebé found a valuable place at Eibar, with 12 league appearances off the bench and 3 league goals, as well as taking up threatening wide positions to allow for crosses into Enrich.
Takashi Inui also showed his best form yet in his career, with 28 league appearances and 3 league goals, saving his best for the Nou Camp against Barcelona with 2 well-taken volleys. Width has been Mendilibar’s weapon of choice when it comes to Eibar’s chance creation, with Antonio Luna at left-back providing 5 league assists, demonstrating his license to make overlapping runs in the refreshing system that’s guided them to 10th.
Another one of Mendilibar’s strengths has been the team spirit that he has instilled in Eibar squad, with the hope being coupled with cautious optimism. Eibar matched the likes of Valencia, Villarreal, and Sevilla, beating Villarreal away from home 3-2 in a thrilling encounter, where their mentality was tested on different occasions. They also showed spirit against their ‘relegation’ rivals, recovering from going down to 10 men to beat Granada 2-1 away from home. Despite not gaining many points from the top teams in the league, Mendilibar has transferred his belief and confidence in his system to all of his players, making them believe they can achieve anything.
This self-belief has resonated in the city in recent years, especially with the club’s promotion to La Liga. It seems that everyone in Eibar supports their local club. All the children playing on the streets wear the blue and red colours of the team, with hundreds of the local shops sporting SD Eibar flags in their windows, displaying the unity of the city towards their new religion. The fact that the club’s 7,000 stadia is welcoming the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona means that the city’s atmosphere on match-days is unprecedented, totally alien to older residents of Eibar. The hidden city in the misty mountainous region of the Basque Country has been transformed into a united community, with inhabitants that have found a new hope, and the Ipurua stadium becoming a cathedral.
The story of SD Eibar’s rise to the pinnacle of Spanish football and its subsequent stability has gone unnoticed until now. The journey for all involved has not always been comfortable, with countless obstacles cropping up even when the going was good. Away from the rich and famous stars of La Liga, Mendilibar’s team, backed up by a unique and revolutionary fan base are undoubtedly the true heroes of the 2016/17 league season. Their spirit, style, and confidence have been truly refreshing, demonstrating that there is nothing wrong with running a club that encapsulates the hopes of only 27,500 people.