SD Eibar, a little Basque miracle in the Spanish top division

A small population with little history. It’s almost impossible to picture Sociedad Deportiva Eibar competing not only against Real Madrid or Barcelona, but even with the likes of Sevilla, Valencia or Atlético Madrid. Yet, this tiny club form northern Spain should have taught us by now that organisation and good old long-term planning can stun almost everyone, pushing you beyond your own limits.

In fact, that town of 27,000 has already overcome many hurdles, starting from the scepticism such a small reality had to face. Due to financial problems in 2014, after the promotion from Segunda División Eibar risked a sudden descent to third-tier football because of the lack of a share capital of €2 millions. Yet, the incredible campaign – “Defiende al Eibar” – was just a sample of what the club achieved in the last four years.

Eibar can do it. Always and despite the difficulties.

They proved it in recent years by retaining their La Liga status despite a small budget and a 7,000-capacity stadium, the Ipurúa. In order to dig out all the secrets of such reality, we talked to whom has closely followed this growth – Euan McTear currently works for the “Marca” English edition and is the author of “Eibar The Brave”, a book which tells the extraordinary story behind the promotion to La Liga obtained in 2013-14.

«Why I wrote about Eibar? I simply thought it was an incredible story and one which many readers would find interesting. In my opinion, the best story is that of the fans. The main fan-group is called Eskozia La Brava and they go to every home match and almost every away match too. They were there even when Eibar were in the fourth division and they are just as vocal now».

In fact, Eibar spent the 80s playing in the fourth division and they were still playing third-tier football by 2013. Yet their rise was manifest after that, since Eibar got promoted twice between 2012 and 2014, bringing the club in La Liga for their first time. Plus, the Basque club were in the race for a European spot and improved their performances year by year. A surprising display also for McTear, who keeps following the club. He explained to us the reason for this growth.

«I didn’t expect that they would have stayed in La Liga so long, but they keep improving year by year. It has helped that the La Liga TV money is now distributed more evenly, so smaller clubs like Eibar get a fairer share and are able to grow».

TV revenues were fundamental to help the club («Being in La Liga has seen Eibar massively increase their revenues through TV money, while their attendances have improved as well»), but there’s more to know about the secrets of their success. The managing aspect was crucial, as Eibar have been coached in La Liga by two well-known figures.

On one side you have Gaizka Garitano, on the other one José Luis Mendilibar. So different, but equally important for this reality.

As today, Garitano is coaching the B-team of Athletic Club, the club he dreamt of playing for since he was a child (born in Bilbao), but he has played five seasons for Eibar, the same club with whom he would make his debut as a manager. While on the pitch, Garitano was coached by Mendilibar, who’s the current Eibar manager and also had a precedent experience at the Ipurúa. Mendilibar, though, established himself also outside of the Basque Country, leaving a mark especially in Valladolid.

McTear explained to us what makes the two managers different: «Both are similar characters and they both have previous ties with Eibar. But I would say the main, and most important, difference is that Mendilibar has lots of experience. Garitano was a bit of a rookie and made some mistakes, whereas Mendilibar is a veteran and has seen it all before». In fact, Eibar were technically relegated after their debut year in La Liga under Garitano, but a post-season relegation for Elche CF – due to economic mismanagement – allowed Eibar to stay in La Liga for another year.

Several interesting players featured for Eibar, but there’s a deeper trait characterising Mendilibar’s squad: «The most important thing for Eibar is their play on the wings. They have attacking full-backs and pacey wingers and this means they always get to the byline and get crosses into the box. That’s their main strength».

To this, you have to add a good defensive phase, since in the first half of 2017-18, Eibar were the second best team for less shots allowed in the Top 5 European leagues.

This is Eibar’s fourth La Liga season and, reasonably, there will be a fifth, with or without Europe. Some wonder what the next goal of the club might be in the medium-long view: «The experience is important, but the money is more important. Each year they spend in La Liga they make more money and it means they can strengthen every summer. There is a chance Eibar could earn a Europa League spot this year or next, but realistically they will be competing in mid-to-lower table positions in the next year or two».

Photos of cover, José Luis Mendilibar and Inui vs. Girona: © LaPresse