La Liga minnows Eibar dreaming of Europe

There have been few more romantic tales in European football in recent years than that of Sociedad Deportiva Eibar. The tiny Basque club’s promotion to the top tier of Spanish football in 2014 captured the imagination of football fans around the world. The fact that nearly three years on, they are not only still in La Liga, but flourishing in the top half of it, is nothing short of remarkable.

The unlikeliness of their presence at the right end of one of the world’s strongest leagues is difficult to understate. The town of Eibar is home to just over 27,000 people, a figure that would only fill six of the current 20 stadiums in La Liga. There are quite literally hundreds of larger towns and cities in Spain, the majority of which have never hosted professional football. Therefore by even taking their place in the Segunda Division, where they’ve spent most of the last three decades, the club was considerably punching above its weight.

However, aside from consistently hovering above their natural standing in the Spanish football pyramid, the Eibar story was a fairly unremarkable one until as recently as four years ago. They went 18 seasons without a promotion or relegation between 1988 and 2006 and besides the occasional appearance in the last sixteen of the Copa del Rey, there was little that propelled them beyond their small, provincial town existence and into the eyes of the wider Spanish football public.They were almost a byword for stability, a rare example of a well-run, debt-free club in the Spanish lower leagues. However even in the town itself, Basque neighbours Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were undoubtedly much more exciting teams to follow.

The first inklings that things might be about to change began with the appointment of Gaizka Garitano in the summer of 2012. In his first campaign, Eibar made headlines in the Basque Country and beyond when they caused one of the biggest shocks in recent Copa del Rey history by knocking local rivals Athletic out thanks to a 1-1 draw 50km up the road in Bilbao.

Eibar rounded off that campaign by securing promotion from the Segunda B and all of a sudden found themselves on an unlikely rollercoaster ride to the big time. Despite the league’s lowest wage-bill and crowds of just 3,000, Garitano’s men took the Segunda Division by storm the following year, winning the title to secure back-to-back promotions and a first ever appearance in Spain’s top flight.

However within days of their shock title win, the dreams of what promised to be La Liga’s smallest ever participant, looked like they could go up in smoke. Despite not having any financial problems of their own, the club were ordered to raise a sum of around €2million to meet what was almost universally accepted to be unjust league regulations. A crowdfunding campaign saw football fans from around the world buy a small stake in the club and ultimately they were allowed to take their place in the Primera Division for the first time.

It was the first in a number of potential hiccups that Eibar have had to overcome in order to continue their unlikely progress. Garitano’s hugely successful tenure ended after just one season in the top flight, when Eibar collapsed in the second half of the campaign ending up in the relegation zone. However they were handed a fortunate reprieve when financial problems led to the demotion of 13th place Elche and enabled Eibar to retain their top flight status for another year.

It was a second chance they’ve wasted no time in taking. Garitano performed something close to a miracle by guiding them into La Liga but the job done by his successor José Luis Mendilibar has also defied almost all logic. He took over a deflated squad who had lost 15 of their 19 games in the second half of their debut top flight campaign and, with little funds, the 55-year-old has transformed them from relegation favourites into European hopefuls in the space of 18 months.

Eibar currently find themselves in 7th place in La Liga, which will be good enough for a place in the Europa League next term, assuming Barcelona beat Alaves in the Copa del Rey final later this year. What’s more this current side seems to improving rather than heading for a decline that has kicked in around this time during their first two seasons in the top tier.

This month they’ve recorded back-to-back 4-0 wins thanks to a convincing home victory against Granada, following on from a dynamic display away to Valencia. Their triumph at the Mestalla was perhaps their stand-out result and performance in what has been an excellent season. They again made a mockery of the theory that money counts for almost everything in modern day football by completely outplaying a side with a vastly superior budget in one of the great arenas of Spanish football.

If the big guns could’ve been forgiven for not quite taking Eibar seriously when they first ascended into the top flight, they can have no excuse now. The Basque minnows are achieving success with a re-jigged and more exciting brand of football. No side outside the current top four has scored more goals than them in La Liga this term and although once again it is the team unit, rather than individual brilliance, that has been the secret to their success, there have been several stand-out performers.

Sergi Enrich and Pedro León, both of whom were signed by Mendilibar on free transfers, have provided a consistent goal threat. The latter in particular, is one of a host of players flourishing at Eibar having not quite make the grade at considerably bigger clubs in the past. Full-back Antonio Luna is another who has impressed at both ends of the pitch this term having flattered to deceive at Sevilla and Aston Villa in recent years, while centre-back Florian Lejeune, who joined from Manchester City last summer, has also done well.

Perhaps inevitably much of the side that guided Eibar to successive promotions has since broken up but there are still remnants of the Garitano era and a strong Basque presence in the squad remains. Captain Dani García was part of the side that won promotion from the Segunda B in 2013 and continues to be a rock in the middle of the park. Meanwhile winger Ander Capa has been at the club since his early teens, when he could scarcely have dreamt he’d one day be playing top flight football at Eibar’s tiny Ipurua stadium.

In the context of what they’ve achieved over the past few years, maintaining their current form until the end of the season and securing a surprise place in Europe just seems like the next step in their unlikely progression. Of course it will be more difficult than that but a place in the Europa League isn’t necessarily beyond them. While Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal, the sides either side of them in the current standings, have just resumed their current European campaigns, Eibar can afford to focus on the domestic action and are currently playing like they believe anything is possible.

They have quickly become the dream model for small clubs in Spain and beyond. As a fan-owned club with no mysterious foreign owner calling the shots, Eibar have proved what can be achieved by recruiting smartly whilst not trying to live beyond their means. On current evidence, there is no reason why a few more chapters can’t be written into their fairy tale rise.

The Author

Mark Sochon

Freelance football writer based in Madrid. Featured in World Soccer, Guardian Sport, IBWM, Inside Futbol.

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