Could there have been a more welcome promotion as SD Eibar’s to La Liga in 2014-15?
Fittingly, it was the club’s oldest supporter, 90-year-old Luis María Cendoya Elorza, who made the difference. This summer, his beloved Eibar were threatened with relegation, as opposed to a first-time promotion to La Liga they had earned as Segunda champions in May.
However major, however modest, each league club must have a budget equivalent to the average expenses across the division. Having battled and won against the former big names of 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 as champions with five points to spare, Eibar represent the modest little Basque settlement of the same name. Step off the Euskotren at Ardantza, almost exactly halfway between 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.
There, a whole wall of the nearby Terraza bar has been faithfully decked out in team line-ups, season-by-season, as old regulars play games of mus, cards laid out on a green baize. You could hear a pin drop. This is community-level football at its best.
At downtown bars such as Txoko, Barzoki and Ez Dok, locals simply hung out another flag for totemic value and kept focused on the league standings that decorate every back-bar wall. Having seen Eibar lead the Segunda for eight straight weeks from early February, no-one could believe that history could repeat itself so cruelly.
Some thought the club could turn to a couple of old boys for a hand-out – Real Madrid star Xabi Alonso spent half a season here on loan, before Manchester City’s David Silva a whole season under the same arrangement, the famous campaign of 2004-05. That year, with current manager Gaizko Garatano as captain, Eibar came with a few minutes of promotion to the elusive top flight.
They failed, Silva flew and Eibar finished bottom the following year.
After a spell at Real Sociedad and Alavés, Garatano returned to Eibar as assistant, then B-team coach, then in charge of the first team from 2012-13. Promoted in his first season, from the third flight to the second, Garatano also led Eibar to an aggregate win over Basque giants Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey.
Scorer of the crucial goal at the San Mamés, striker Mikel Arruabarrena was a near ever-present in Eibar’s successful 2013-14 campaign in the Segunda, as was goalkeeper Xabi Iruretagoiena and centre-back Raúl Albentosa.
Promotion was achieved but not assured – Eibar had to raise some €2 million.
A rapid share issue was immediately. Though Eibar is a community of only 27,000 souls, even as early as May some 12,500 shares had been sold in 48 countries, in a worldwide campaign to see justice done.
It was Señor’s Elorza’s purchase of share No.46,200 that tipped the balance, generating the wherewithal needed satisfy league officials and join the likes of Messi, Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014-15.
And Eibar’s top-flight debut this August could not have been scripted better, a 1-0 win over local rivals (and recent Champions League competitors) Real Sociedad at a packed Ipurua. And at just over 5,000 capacity, some 20 times smaller than the Nou Camp, the Ipurua is now scheduled to welcome Real Madrid in November and Barça in March. Something, then, for the old boys in the Terraza bar to look forward to.