APRIL 15 ― The Basque Country in northern Spain has always been at the forefront of the country’s footballing scene.
Athletic Bilbao, in particular, are one of the greatest traditional clubs in Spain, having been founded before either Barcelona or Real Madrid and never being relegated out of the top flight, and they remain renowned even today for only fielding players who were born or grew up in Basque territory.
A few miles along the coast, in San Sebastian, there have also been some glorious moments for Real Sociedad, who lifted the Spanish Cup as early as 1909 and won La Liga twice in a row in 1981 and 1982.
Closer followers of Spanish football will also be familiar with Alaves, who have bounced up and down between the top two divisions in recent years and famously reached the Uefa Cup Final in 2001, losing a remarkable game 5-4 after extra time against Liverpool.
In the last couple of years, however, a new Basque team has risen remarkably and completely unexpectedly to take their place in the elite: Eibar.
Unless you are from the Basque region, until 2014 you probably had never even heard of Eibar ― even if you are Spanish ― because it is a small, industrial and anonymous town, nestled deep in the beautiful Basque hills and with a population of 30,000.
But three years, against all expectations, the little town’s football team won the Second Division title and rose into the top flight for the first time in their 74-year history.
In these days of multi-million dollar contracts and cynical global marketing campaigns, it was extremely refreshing to witness the rise of a little club from a small town, whose stadium only had a capacity of 5,000 and whose record transfer fee was less than €100,000 (RM467,355).
But while everybody revelled in Eibar’s rise, there was a widespread assumption that their days in the sunshine would be brief, and that their first season in La Liga would also prove to be their last.
It very nearly was. Eibar finished the 2014/15 season third from bottom, dropping into the last relegation place on the final day when Deportivo La Coruna somehow manufactured a come-from-behind 2-2 draw at Barcelona.
Eibar were, as everyone had expected, back down into the second tier. But not for long, because there soon followed a remarkable reprieve when Elche, who had finished a few places above them, were automatically demoted for financial irregularities and Eibar were given their place back in La Liga.
Exactly as we had done the first time around, we all assumed that the reprieve would be temporary and, this time, Eibar would be relegated for real. But again, they defied expectations, finishing the 2015/16 season comfortably clear of the drop zone, in 14th place.
Once more, pre-season predictions ahead of the current campaign were gloomy, with pundits and fans of other clubs foreseeing another hard struggle against relegation for the tiny Basque club.
And once more they have proven everyone wrong, and this time they have done so in spectacular fashion by not only staying clear of the relegation places, not only enjoying a position of mid-table comfort, but somehow challenging for a place in next season’s European competitions.
Heading into this weekend’s games, which will see Eibar travel on Sunday to Real Betis (whose stadium is about seven times larger than theirs) they are in seventh place, just two points behind Real Sociedad in sixth and, incredibly, level on points with their vastly bigger neighbours Athletic Bilbao.
If Eibar can finish the season strongly and finish in the top six, next season they will be playing in the Europa League. And the way they’re going at the moment, that’s a perfectly feasible outcome – they have won their last three games, all against dangerous opposition in the form of Villarreal, Las Palmas and Celta Vigo.
The best thing about Eibar’s success this season is that they have achieved it by playing some brilliant football.
The natural expectation for a team of their profile (small stadium, small industrial town, no superstars) is that they must play a rugged and defensive style of football.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth, with experienced manager Jose Luis Mendilibar implementing a fast-paced and attacking approach which has yielded 52 goals from 31 games ― more than anyone else outside the top four.
Those goals have been spread around the team. Striker Sergi Enrich ― previously a journeyman who had spent most of his career in the second division ― leads the way with 10 goals alongside Eibar’s best-known player, midfield creator Pedro Leon, who briefly played for Real Madrid a few years ago.
Other key players include all-action right-back Ander Capa and canny midfielder Dani Garcia, but in truth Eibar are one of those teams where you don’t really need to know the identity of the individual players. They perform together as a team, subduing their egos and not trying to be over-complicated, but showing a great sense of conviction and belief in their collective ability.
In an era when many people complain that football is losing its common touch, Eibar are a breath of fresh air. So if you want a feel-good story, why not follow their exploits for the final weeks of the season ― they might even end up taking you on a European tour.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.