Halfway between Bilbao and San Sebastián, little Eibar is perhaps the unlikeliest community to support a top-division club in Spain – but probably the most deserving.
Representing a friendly little town of 27,000 souls, SD Eibar take on Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga in 2016-17 – their third season with the big boys.
Armaginak (‘The Gunsmiths’) accessed the top flight in 2014 despite the logistical hurdles that nearly prevented it happening.
However major, however modest, in Spain every league club must have a budget equivalent to the average expenses across the division. Having battled and won against former European finalists such as Zaragoza, Alavés and Mallorca, as the smallest club, with the smallest budget, the smallest stadium and smallest average crowd, Eibar simply didn’t match up where it mattered: on the balance sheet.
They couldn’t take it away from Eibar – or could they?
Promoted in 2014 as champions of the Segunda with five points to spare, Eibar and their achievements were celebrated all across town. Step off the Euskotren at Ardantza station, an hour or so from either Bilbao and San Sebastián, and flags of claret and blue hang everywhere – from the many bars around the main square immediately ahead, from the windows of the tower block alongside, and certainly around the Ipurua Stadium, a calf-crunching 15-minute climb from the station.
This has been the club’s home for most its history, a history which started in 1940.
The newly formed amalgamation of Deportivo Gallo and UD Eibarresa, SD Eibar first played in Elgoibar, a couple of stops up the rail line towards San Sebastián.
With the 1947 opening of the Ipurua in Eibar itself, the new club invited their former hosts for a curtain-raising friendly – won by Elgoibar.
The near neighbours played each other in the third flight through the 1950s and early 1960s, but by the 1980s, Elgoibar dropped off the radar. The club missed out on local boy Joseba Etxebarria, who went on to become one of greatest Basque players of the modern era.
SD Eibar left local rivals behind when they shot from the Segunda B to the Primera in two seasons from 2013.
Promotion was achieved but not assured. Having joined the big boys in May 2014, Eibar had to raise some €2 million in order to sit at the top table.
A share issue was immediately set up. Straight away, 12,500 shares were sold in 48 countries, in a worldwide campaign to see justice done. But would this be enough?
Fittingly, it was the club’s oldest supporter, 90-year-old Luis María Cendoya Elorza, who made the difference. It was Señor’s Elorza’s purchase of share No.46,200 that tipped the balance, generating the wherewithal needed to satisfy league bureaucracy.
So it is that from 2014-15, the likes of Messi, Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo have strode out into the 6,000-capacity Ipurua Stadium, towered over by the slopes of Gipuzkoa, to face Eibar as league opponents of equal status.
And, judging by early form in 2016-17, it’s a happy situation that may yet continue.
The nearest international airport is Bilbao’s, 53km (32.5 miles) away. San Sebastián’s, 72km (44.5 miles) away, is for internal flights only.
Bilbao Airport is 9km (six miles) north of the city itself, connected by Bizkaibus line 3247 (€1.40) that runs every 30 minutes to Plaza Moyúa. A taxi (+34 944 800 909) to Bilbao should cost about €21-26, and to Eibar itself around €70.
A direct Pesa bus runs fives times a day between Bilbao Airport and Eibar (journey time 35min), tickets €8 one-way.
A Euskotren train runs every 30min-1hr from Bilbao Atxuri (70min journey time) to Eibar Ardantxa, tickets around €5.
Three bus companies serve Eibar and region, details on the Euskotren website – but the town itself is easily walkable.
For a local taxi, Untzaga (+34 943 203 071) is based on the town’s main square of the same name.
Eibar has no tourist information office.
The main hotel in town – in fact, the only hotel in town – is the comfortable, modern three-star Unzaga Plaza, a short walk from Ardantxa station. Everyone gathers in the bar/restaurant for TV football, not only guests in the 88 rooms.
The only other local option is the Sosola, restored rustic farmhouse accommodation of four rooms less than 1km north of Ardantxa station at Mandiola Balle 36.
Most kick-off times will allow you to see the match in Eibar and get the 70min train from Ardantxa to the many accommodation options in Bilbao.
Eibar is full of bars displaying claret-and-blue flags and showing football. Three line one side of the main square of Untzaga, round the corner from the Unzaga Plaza hotel, with adjoining terraces: Bar Txoko, Sayoa and O’Jay’s Irish Tavern.
Just behind, Gurbil (Zezenbide Kalea 1) is a handy, football-centric hidey-hole of a bar, while slightly further up from O’Jays, the Bar Alberto (Juan Gisasola Kalea 10) offers friendly football-watching.
On the other side of the main square, the Guridi Rugby is far from focused on all things oval. Alongside runs pedestrianised bar-lined Torïbio Etxebarria Kalea. There the Bar Buenos Aires, Bar Ongi-Etorri, Ez Dok and Birjinape, next to the members-only Eibarko Klub Deportiboa, provide a bar crawl of a few hundred metres.
Further down, by the church, Kultu on Zuloagas-Tarren Kalea is a popular terrace bar with TV football within.
Nearby, on parallel San Juan Kalea, evening-only O’Hara Irish Pub makes a change from Basque bars and beers – there’s also a Laurel & Hardy Pub s-la.facebook.com/pages/Laurel-Hardy-pub/39766049969 by Ardantxa station.
Coming back round to the main square, by the Unzaga Plaza hotel, Batzoki provides fine wines, quality tapas and TV football in a grown-up atmosphere.