Fairy tales in football simply are not meant to last long. Not in today’s football. Not when spending power has reached astronomical levels, where clubs can essentially buy titles on a whim and reduce the level of competition in their respective leagues. Leicester City, nine months after one of the most shocking title wins in recent memory, is the most recent example.
In Spain though, one club’s fairy tale is not only far from over, they may have many more interesting chapters to write yet. SD Eibar might not be on Leicester’s level when it comes to creating shock waves, but their story might be the most electrifying one the 2016/17 La Liga season has to offer. The Basque side sit in seventh place through 24 rounds, just a point behind Villarreal for an automatic Europa League spot, largely led by a number of free transfers and aging castoffs playing an exciting brand of football that has been winning plaudits across Europe.
The baby in a region with big brother clubs such as Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Alavés, have grown up fast. A team whose home, the Ipurua Municipal Stadium, houses just a tad over 7,000 people in a city whose population is just over 27,000. A debt free, fan-owned club with more than 10,000 shareholders from 69 countries, whose story nearly came to an abrupt end before it even began, twice.
After winning promotion from the Segunda División in 2014, Eibar was nearly disallowed from participating in La Liga due to financial constraints, as they were court-ordered to raise share capital in excess of €2.1 million by August 6 of that year or face demotion to the third tier. However, they were bailed out by a successful share issue campaign, Defiende al Eibar (Defend Eibar), which reeled the money needed, thanks in part to promotional help from famous Basque natives, Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi.
Almost a year later, they were relegated from La Liga and it appeared the dream was over. But the club was handed an unexpected reinstatement as Elche CF, who finished 13th that campaign, were administratively relegated due to unpaid tax debts.
Since being handed that lifeline, Eibar have not looked back and, after a respectable 14th place finish in 2015/16, they have their sights set on an improbable berth in Europe, unthinkable for a club of such small stature.
While exciting, Los Armeros (The Gunners) don’t exactly play the type of stylish football compared to their nickname brethren, Arsenal. So far this campaign in La Liga, they rank 15th in successful passes, 17th in successful take ons, and have the longest average pass length in the division at just over 21m. But with a lightning quick counter attack, Eibar have managed to rack up 39 goals, fifth best in La Liga, led by Sergi Enrich with 10 and ex-Real Madrid and Getafe winger, Pedro León, with seven, nice filling the gap left by the departure of now Swansea City striker, Borja Bastón, who netted 18 times in the league last campaign. They also rank eighth in assists and key passes, with likes of Enrich (five assists) as well as Manchester United flop, Bebé, and Japanese international winger, Takashi Inui, proving to be key pieces in their attack.
On the defensive side, Eibar aren’t too shabby either, ranking second in interceptions, tied for third in tackles won and tied for eighth in goals conceded. Defensive midfielder and captain, Dani Garcia, has been the biggest source of the dirty work, averaging 2.3 tackles won and 2.5 interceptions won a game in 22 league appearances.
This combination of instinctive attacking impetus and grit has allowed Eibar to take points off La Liga’s top six, including a 1-1 draw at league leaders, Real Madrid, the same result at home to title-chasers, Sevilla, as well as victories at home to Villarreal and Sociedad. Additionally, Eibar’s rise coincides with the recent resurgence of football in the Basque Region. Between 2012 and 2014, Sociedad and Bilbao each qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage, with the former currently battling with 2013/14 La Liga champions, Atlético Madrid, for fourth place. 2001 UEFA Cup finalists, Alavés, back in the top flight for the first time since 2006, have been punching above their weight this season as they are currently 11th in the league table and made a surprise run to the 2017 Copa Del Rey final, where they will face Barcelona (who they beat 2-1 last September at Camp Nou) at the Vicente Calderón in late May.
If SD Eibar are to graduate to Europa League status over these last 14 matches, they will have to ensure they do not revert to type of their freshman and sophomore campaigns at this level. At the midway points of each season, Eibar also occupied top 10 places only to fall off a cliff. Over that time span, they attained a combined 21 points in 38 matches in the second half of the season. Already, Eibar have 12 points from a possible 15 since the midway point of this campaign.
After Eibar’s 4-0 rout over relegation-threatened Granada on February 13, manager, José Luis Mendilibar, who is in his second tour of duty at the club, has acknowledged that his players relish the opportunity to put their small side among some of Europe’s giants.
“The team does not want to settle just for good results, but now we must upgrade our aims for the season, and a top half finish would be incredible. Europe? That will be a big ask but the players aren’t ruling out anything, although it will obviously be a big effort from here on in.” – José Luis Mendilibar.
A top ten finish would indeed be a banner achievement for Eibar, but why stop there? They’ve already defied logic getting this far after so many potential roadblocks. Steering themselves to European competition would add further romance to a hugely admirable story.
This plucky Basque outfit can afford to bask in the glory a bit. They deserve to just for reaching this far.