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Wednesday July 3 2019
The rise and rise of Eibar

The story of Basque club Eibar is unique within European football with their mass overachievement the new normal, explains David Whitworth.

Standing within the giants of La Liga are the tiny, but very lovable football club of SD Eibar. A modern day sporting fairytale. The story of the team, who are based in the Basque region, really does defy reality. For a club founded in 1940, Las Azulgranas, as they are known for their blue and carmine deep red colours, have historically plied their trade in the second and third tiers of Spanish football.

A small club based at the foot of a steep valley, Eibar were very much camouflaged and overlooked by the imposing hills which surround their small, but quaint Ipurua stadium. A club treading water until their first big break arrived at the end of the 2012/2013 season. This was when Eibar were promoted to the Segunda División, beating L’Hospitalet 4-0 on aggregate in their playoff final. Unbeknown to the Basque club at that moment, their victory would represent the first building block to realizing a dream.

Just one year later, Eibar hit the footballing jackpot and were promoted for the first time in their history to the Primera División. Two promotions in two seasons and better still, promoted as Segunda División champions with 71 points – two ahead of Deportivo La Coruña. Their mastermind for both promotions was Gaizka Garitano, a former Eibar player and the current Athletic Club Bilbao Coach. For a team with the smallest capacity in the second tier, let alone the elite, it capped a remarkable achievement.

In Eibar’s fledgling first season in La Liga, they finished in 18th position and in the last relegation place with 35 points - the same as both Deportivo and Granada - however, the Basque outfit had an inferior head-to head-record. With the club set for the drop, they were unexpectedly saved by fellow La Liga side Elche’s demotion for financial issues.

That bit of luck would shape their history forever as from then on, the club has risen substantially and have recorded five top-flight finishes in a row - finishing 18th,14th, 10th, 9th and last season in 12th place. At the helm now is experienced Coach José Luis Mendilibar, who replaced Garitano, and has continued his fine work. He and his team qualified for the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey for the very first time in 2017.

Also, in that year at Eibar played the colourful and charismatic Japanese player Takashi Inui. Signed from Eintract Frankfurt, he shone in his three years in the Basque region, lifting the club higher not just on the field, but off it too - attracting a whole new army of Japanese fans towards the team. So much so, the club is the third most popular in terms of television viewing figures in Japan, only behind the La Liga giants of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Fans play a huge role in the club - Eibar is one of the very few teams which is owned and run by its supporters association having over 10,000 shareholders from 69 countries worldwide. Known also as Los Armeros, (The Gunsmiths) they have shown to have enough bullets in the chamber to guard themselves against their more experienced La Liga rivals, and will defend their elite status with all the courage and determination which brought them to the La Liga dance in the first place.

Eibar have only been a staple Primera División club for five years but have made huge strides to cope with the demands of La Liga. Up until SD Huesca’s promotion in 2018, Eibar held the record for the smallest La Liga ground in history. Their Ipurua stadium, home since 1947, has seen vast redevelopments since their promotion to the top division such as a new north and east stand, underground parking, museum and a supporters shop. Only last year, work began on building their new west end, which is due to be complete for the upcoming season. This will bring the capacity up to 8,050 and will surely achieve a record attendance - currently set at 6,725 fans for a match against Barcelona in February 2018.

Records are what Eibar are all about. In the 2015/2016, Spanish striker Borja Bastón plundered a club record 18 goals in 36 games. Thanks to their continued success, the club have been able to attract the likes of experienced heads like current Chile international winger Fabián Orellana and former Real Madrid midfielder Pedro León. Players who have bought into the ethos of a club on the rise.

For all what they have achieved, given their lack of resources, is beyond comprehension. Many neutrals and romantics of the beautiful game deeply respect this team from the Basque valley. They may have the lush green rolling hills towering over them, but Eibar tower over La Liga like a proud lighthouse – with its beacon shining the brightest of bright.

They are, in fact, a beacon of hope for all smaller clubs that anything is possible with effective organization, despite being run on a small budget. The fact that Eibar punches above its weight demonstrates the clubs savvy business model both on and off the field. The rise and rise of Eibar continues apace.

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