Tucked away in the province of Gipuzkoa, in the Basque Country of Northern Spain, is a small, working class, industrial city. The city is located between the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián, on the banks of the river Ego. The city is called Eibar. It is known as la Ciudad Armera, the Arms City, because of the amount of firearms it built for Spain during the Spanish civil war. The city is also famous for its cycling and the home of ‘Serveta’ scooter. Eibar has a small population of only 27,000 people, yet it is also home to one of Spain’s most exciting football teams; SD Eibar. For a team that has been stuck in the second and third divisions of Spanish football for its entire history, it is almost unheard of to see a team elevate from the dark and achieve what they have achieved recently.
Last season, Eibar made history. They won the league title straight after gaining promotion from the third division. ‘Los Armeros’, as the locals call their beloved club, were playing the struggling Alavés in their tiny home stadium, Ipurua. With three games remaining, a win and other results going their way meant that Eibar would be crowned champions of La Segunda División, the equivalent of the Championship in England.
The game against Alavés was approaching the 70th minute. From a throw in on the halfway line, a header landed at the feet of Jota. He found himself a yard of space, 35 metres from goal. Jota said: “I hit it as if it was the last ball I would hit in my life.” The ball was driven with ferocious power into the bottom corner of the east stand.
In front of the ever-singing Ultras, ‘Escozia La Brava.’ The crowd erupted. This goal from Jota secured the win, but not the league; yet.
Play-off hopefuls Recreativo de Huelva were playing an hour after the kick-off in Ipurua. Recre were also playing against fellow promotion contenders, UD Las Palmas. If Las Palmas were to drop points it would secure promotion for Eibar. By the 57th minute it was 2-0 to Las Palmas. The game finished in Ipurua. The players took a lap of honour around the pitch. Fans were waiting in the stands for any results from the game in the Canary Islands
Suddenly, the most incredible thing happened; Ezequiel Calvente, a winger on loan from Real Betis, scored his one and only goal as a Recreativo player to hand the league title over to Eibar. They had done it, for the very first time in their 74 year history, this tiny club had risen from the desolate Segunda División B to the prestigious Liga BBVA. Gaizka Garitano had taken everyone by surprise by doing the unimaginable: managing a team with near to no financial backing and achieving back-to-back promotions.
At the time of promotion, Eibar’s yearly budget was a mere €3.5 million. Not only did they win the league, but Los Armeros also achieved the lowest attendance statistics. For an average league game, 3,021 fans would come through the gates at Ipurua. In total, 63,441 fans watched the team at home in 2013-14. At full capacity, the stadium can hold 5,250 people. If every fan in Ipurua’s ground was sat in Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu, there would be a staggering 75,794 empty seats. However, the biggest problems were yet to face Eibar.
Gaizka Garitano is the manager of a fantastically run football club. They are the only debt-free team in Spain’s top two divisions. This is quite a feat, as 19 out of 42 teams of these top two divisions have been declared bankrupt in the past decade. After the league season had finished, their spot in La Liga’s 2014-15 season was “pending”. They were handed a cruel, unrelenting blow by RFEF; the Spanish governing body. Eibar could be relegated back to the Segunda B, the third division, if they didn’t earn the necessary €1.7 million to stay in the top flight. According to RFEF rules: “every team has to have a capital equal to 25 percent of the average expenses of all the teams in the Second Division.”
To any English Premier League club, €1.7 million is an minuscule fee that could be pulled out at any moment. In 2012, Manchester City were given a £49 million fine and restrictions on their European squad after violating transfer regulations. But for a small team like Eibar, €1.7 million is momentous. All of the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears over the previous campaign could have been all for nothing if they did not raise 1,724,272 euros and in only six months they would be relegated.
The board began selling shares with their ‘Defiende Al Eibar’ campaign. Shares could be bought for €50 each, nobody could buy more than €100,000 worth. Neighbouring clubs Athletic Club and Real Sociedad would loan their young players to Ipurua to gain first-team experience. Players such as Bayern Munich’s Xabi Alonso, Manchester City’s David Silva and Real Madrid’s Aiser Illaramendi and others helped out financially.
After a long hard summer, they did it. They had overcome an unnecessary hurdle. Football fans from 38 different countries all over the world came together and raised the required funds.
Eibar’s opening day could not have panned out any better. Sunday, 24th of August 2014 will forever be a significant day in the club’s history. Los Armeros were about to host their very first game in the big time. But this was more than a game. They were to play their rivals, Real Sociedad. Gaizka Garitano featured for Eibar 146 times between 2001 and 2005. He was the mastermind behind their success and he would stand on the touchline in front of the world. In a tense game, Garitano pulled off the unimaginable: his team beat Real Sociedad 1-0.
The next game they travelled to the capital to take on the champions, Atlético Madrid. Eibar fought hard but came up short, losing 2-1. As the season continued, Garitano’s boys soldiered on and played well in their games and picked up points leaving them in seventh position half way through the season.
Recently, however, Eibar have begun to struggle and drop the pace; going on an eleven game streak without a win. Since the turn of the year, they have only picked up twelve points. Whereas from August to December they had picked up a respectable 20 points. Now, with three games remaining, Eibar have found themselves in the drop zone. After hanging in midtable for the majority of the season, it would be a heartbreaking end to a marvellous first season in the highest division in Spain for Los Armeros.
Form is temporary, but class is permanent. Eibar have a chance to stay up this Saturday, on the final day of the season. As Barça were crowned champions against Atlético de Madrid last Sunday, all eyes will be on the relegation dog fight. Already relegated Córdoba, go to Ipurua to face Eibar. Anything but a win could bring Eibar down to la Segunda División. If Eibar can beat Córdoba and Deportivo lose to Barça, Depor will go down and Eibar will stay up. However, if Eibar lose and Depor somehow pull off the unimaginable and beat Barça, Eibar will be relegated.
New information has surfaced. The two teams sitting comfortably in 13th and 14th, Elche and Granada, could go down. These two teams have consistently not paid back debts they owe. Elche owe €5 million, they paid back €3,7 to la Hacienda, the Spanish treasury. They have two weeks to repay the remaining funds or could face relegation. The same goes for Granada, however they can be less concerned as they have 7-9 weeks to repay their debt.
At the moment, it would seem that Eibar can stay up. If they are to stay up, how can they progress? Firstly, they must sign some quality players on a long-term basis to build a solid foundation in La Liga. Secondly, Eibar must add more seating to Ipurua. Lastly, a cup run would do no harm. The furthest they have ever got in the Copa del Rey was the Round of 16 in the 2003-04 season. Another run awaits them.