From War to World Cup Glory: The Incredible Rise of Croatia as a Footballing Nation

By Dan Parry

Key ingredients needed for creating a cult world cup side: an eccentric manager with innovative tactics and interesting methods, tick (Miroslav Blazevic). A midfield general and symbol of national pride, tick (Zvomonir Boban). Hard as nails Centre-Back, tick (Slaven Bilic). Forty a day smoker and creative genius, tick (Robert Prosinecki). A world class striker with supreme finishing skills and Pierce Brosnan-esque floppy hair, tick (Davor Suker). A whole lot of heart and a young nation pushing them on, tick, tick, tick!

Nothing much was expected of Croatia going into the 1998 World Cup, the nation was in its debut World Cup and only its second major international tournament as an independent state.

Croatia had only become a fully independent nation state in 1991, the football federation of Croatia only became officially recognised by FIFA in 1993, and their only experience of an international tournament before the World Cup came just two years previous in Euro 96 in which they were knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals.

It was believed that they would advance from the group stages of the World Cup but anything further than that would be a bonus. However, this charismatic Croatia side proved the entire world wrong as they fought their way through to the semi-finals, killing some giants along the way and making a couple more sweat for good measure.

For the crop of 1998, the story begins 11 years before in 1987. The gifted Croatians who formed the backbone of 1998’s heroic squad also played pivotal roles in the Yugoslavia side. In fact, players such as Suker, Jarni, Prosinecki and Boban were integral members of the famous Yugoslavian under-20 team that won the 1987 under-20 World Cup. The heralded side gained great acclaim and impressed throughout the tournament before eventually defeating West Germany on penalties in the final.

Over the next few years tensions in the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Yugoslav state began to boil. After the death of former president Josip Broz Tito in 1980 the former socialist federation state began to unravel, and nationalistic independence movements became more prominent. Ultimately, tensions in the Balkan state boiled over; Yugoslavia began to splinter, and bloody conflicts and violent wars proceeded.

At times, these tensions even manifested themselves on the football pitch. There was an infamous Yugoslav league game in Croatian capital Zagreb between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990 (historically the best teams from Croatia and Serbia) which descended into violence as ultras from both sides invaded the pitch leading to fierce clashes with the police. It was during this match that future national team captain Zvominir Boban became a symbol of Croatian independence when he kicked a policeman whilst trying to protect a Dinamo Zagreb fan.

On a wider and more devastating scale wars raged for many years and many horrendous atrocities were committed across the entire region as Yugoslavia disintegrated into smaller nation states. Croatia, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, declared itself an independent state in June 1991. In 1992 it was officially recognised by the Eurpean Union and the United Nations but the conflict with Serbia continued until 1995.

Although Croatia had declared itself independent in 1991, an unofficial Croatian national football team had begun to play exhibition games in 1990. The first of which came against the U.S.A. and resulted in a 2-1 victory. By 1993, the Croatian Football Federation gained full membership to both FIFA and UEFA but unfortunately the timing meant that Croatia would be unable to compete in the qualifying tournament for the 1994 World Cup. However, they did manage to qualify for the 1996 European Championships being held in England and got their first taste of international tournament football as an independent country.

In the lead-up to the tournament manager Miroslav ‘Ciro’ Blazevic took over full control of the squad in 1995 (he had been dividing his duties between the national team and Dinamo Zagreb since 1993).

Ciro was already Croatia’s most successful managers (they call him the coach of coaches) thanks to his exploits with Dinamo Zagreb and was certainly well-known to the players, many having come through the Dinamo youth system under his tutelage. Although most revered him, his methods, at times, lead to some friction and not everyone saw him in such a favourable light.

For example, whilst Slaven Bilic refers to him as father and sings his praises, his relationship with Prosinecki was somewhat more tumultuous. Blazevic famously claimed that he would eat boots if Prosinecki were to become a great player. Blazevic has claimed he said this not because he believed it but rather to give a lazy Prosinecki a proverbial kick up the backside. However, some others claim that he failed to properly recognize and manage the talent of Prosinecki during their time together at Dinamo.

Throughout his time as Croatia chief Blazevic stuck quite vehemently to his beloved 3-5-2 formation that he pioneered in the 80’s. Typically his line-ups would be quite consistent also, only chopping and changing when injury made it necessary.

Drazen Ladic was a regular in goal. Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic (both plying their trade in the premiership by time the world cup came around) took two of the three defensive births whilst the other one would be shared between Zvominir Zoldo or Dario Simic. The solidity of a defensive three gave Robert Jarni and Mario Stanic full license to attack from their respective left-wing-back and right-wing-back positions.

They lined up with an extremely creative midfield who all possessed an exceptional eye for a pass which helped to unlock the poaching abilities of Suker. A typical midfield three would contain Captain and AC Milan player Boban, Asanovic, and then either Mario Silvic or Prosinecki depending upon the opposition. The starting front two were normally Suker and Allen Boksic (he missed the 98 world cup due to injury), or Goran Vlaovic.

The tournament debutants were drawn into a tough Group D, which also contained fellow newcomers Turkey, Portugal, and defending champions Denmark (Yugoslavia’s replacement in 1992). Croatia were managed by Blazevic and the squad included many of the same players who would go onto to compete at France in 1998.

First up came Turkey who were defeated 1-0 at the Nottingham Forest’s City Ground thanks to a late goal from young striker Goran Vlaovic. This was followed by an outstanding victory over reigning champions Denmark, a 3-0 scoreline came courtesy of a brace from Suker and a strike from Boban.

With qualification already guaranteed Blazevic decided to rest his key players and gamble on his squad’s fringe players, but a talented Portugal side, inspired by a certain Luis Figo, proved to be a step to far as they were thrashed 3-0. Defeat meant Croatia finished the group as runners-up below Portugal.

In the quarter-final stages they would go on to face eventual tournament winners Germany. In this game, the Croatians were undone by a red card and a German side with superior tournament experience but still managed to give the 1990 World Cup winners a run for their money.

Jurgen Klinsmann opened the account with a penalty in the 20th minute that came courtesy of a handball from Nikola Jerkan. After half-time Suker evened the scores with a typically stylish finish, putting the keeper on his backside whilst coolly rolling the ball from his left foot onto his right before finishing into an empty goal.

However, barely six mintues later Croatia were delivered an almighty blow to the solar plexis when important defender Igor Stimac was sent off for a foul on Mehmet Scholl. 3 minutes after that, a poorly defended cross allowed Mathias Sammer to put Germany ahead 2-1. Subsequently, Croatia were unable to recover as Germany took charge of the tie and the Croatians were sent out of the tournament.

Although it was undoubtedly disappointing to go out of the tournament in such manner, the tournament provided the side with vital experience. The competition played a monumental role in the rise of the small nation as an important European footballing power, and was a major learning curve for all involved. Without a doubt, the experience gained from the tournament played an important role in their 1998 success.

By time the 1998 World Cup came about Croatia were no longer an unknown quantity, and many pundits predicted a respectable showing from the small nation’s side with them expected to at least qualify from their group and advance to the group stages. In the group stages, they were drawn with fellow tournament minnows Jamaica (the only side to qualify that came from a country with a smaller population than Croatia) and Japan, as well as giants Argentina.

Proceedings began with a conclusive 3-1 victory over Jamaica. Stanic, Prosinecki and Suker all scored to put the tie to bed. Six days later Suker scored the only goal of the game as Japan were defeated 1-0. The victories meant that the final group stage tie against Argentina became a group decider. Croatia suffered their first defeat of the tournament as a goal from defender Gonzalo Pineda put the South Americans ahead. Nonetheless, Croatia progressed from the group in 2nd place and faced Romania in the 2nd round.

The newly-dyed blonde bombshells of the Romania team managed to frustrate the Croatians for large parts of the match, with an inspired performance from their goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea helping to keep the scores even.

However, in first-half injury time Croatia’s star striker, and tournament revelation, Suker popped up yet again as Croatia were awarded a penalty for a foul on the forward. The Real Madrid based Suker stepped up and sent the ball past Stelea into the bottom right corner before the referee called him back for a retake seconds later. Not to be deterred the Croatian scored again in an almost identical fashion. The Romanians were incapable of mustering a reply and Croatia moved on to the quarter-finals.

In the quarters they were drawn against their Euro 96 nemesis Germany and managed to produce arguably Croatia’s finest international performance and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup. Up until this point Germany had barely been troubled as they progressed though the competition with ease. Many expected them to breeze through this Croatia side on their inevitable journey to the final.

Initially, the Germans confirmed prior predictions as the Berti Vogts managed Germans strangled the life out of their opponents, not even allowing Croatia to register a single shot on goal.

In the 40th minute everything changed when Norwegian referee Rune Pederson, dubiously, showed centre-back Christian Worns a straight red-card for an ‘open-field’ tackle on Suker.

The red provided Suker and his teammates an incredible opportunity to break through the Germans ranks and they took full advantage. Croatia absolutely overwhelmed the more illustrious Germans in a blistering performance.

Left wing back Robert Jarni scored the first goal with a fine finish to break the deadlock in the 45th minute. Germany put up a brave defensive performance against the marauding Croatians but couldn’t prevent the second goal which came in the 80th minute as Vlaovic put one past Kopke.

Five minutes later, the tournament’s favourite predator Suker killed off the game with his 5th goal of the competition. In the space of 60 minutes, and thanks to some fortuitous refereeing, Croatia had gone from being the darkest of dark horses to tournament contenders with a realistic chance of leaving France with the Jules Remee.

The eyes of the world set upon Paris for the semi-final as Croatia went into the tie hoping to cause an even larger shock by eliminating the hosts, France. Unfortunately, for the Croatians it appeared as though lady luck favoured France on this occasion.

For the first 45 minutes both sides seem to struggle under the weight of their respective pressures. Croatia gained the upper hand in the 46th minute as Suker scored yet again. But France responded in quick fashion only a minute later as their right back Lillian Thuram did something he had never done before in his international career, he scored a goal.

In the 70th minute Lillian Thuram turned up again to score the second of the game, and what would turn out to be the second goal of his France career. In the 76th minute Laurent Blanc was sent off and Croatia tried to force a breakthrough but France stuck to their guns and did not capitulate like the Germans who came before them. They held on and went through to the final which they won by defeating a distinctly out of form Brazil side.

Croatia were afforded a consolation of sorts as they defeated a Dutch side containing the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer 2-1 in the 3rd place play-off. Once again Suker lead from the front and scored the winning goal, whilst also bagging himself a very justified Golden Boot award in the process.

Due to some outstanding performances and fantastic support, Manager Miroslav Blazevic and his players led by the likes of Zvominir Boban, Davor Suker and Slaven Bilic put Croatia onto the world map. Not only in a footballing sense but also in a broader one.

The manager and his players created a footballing and national identity for the seven-year old state and it is one that continues to endure to this day, as can be witnessed by the seemingly endless supply line of technically and tactically adept footballers being churned out of Croatian academies. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Rakitic are some of the most prominent players from the current crop of Croatian footballers who claim to have been inspired by their 1998 predecessors.

Leeds United 1998-2002: David O’Leary and The ‘What If’ Generation

by Dan Parry

It was 2001, Bob the Builder was fixing it, Robbie Williams was rocking DJ’s, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were ruling the cinemas, and in the football world Leeds United were on the verge of creating history. Manager David O’Leary and his ‘Babies’ (as he famously referred to them) were upsetting the domestic status quo of the time by challenging the dominant powers Manchester United and Arsenal, and due to a remarkable Champions League run it looked as though the side would go on to become a major force to reckoned with in Europe as well. The overwhelming belief was that the young squad would become a strong and constant presence in both the domestic league and in Europe. This conviction was so entrenched that Peter Ridsdale (Club Chairman) and the club’s board took out a £60 million loan leveraged against their confidence that title challenges and European qualification would become a norm.

In the 1996/97 season Leeds’ last League title winning manager Howard Wilkinson was relieved of his duties. His replacement was former Arsenal boss George Graham, back after serving a one-year ban for accepting illegal payments from agents in dodgy transfer deals. Graham installed his former Arsenal centre-back and Republic of Ireland international David O’Leary –who had just finished his playing career at the Yorkshire Club- as his assistant manager. These years at the club, both as a player and an assistant would be massively influential when it came to his time running the club. He became acquainted with the club’s famed Thorp Arch academy and its starlets. The crop of 1997 showed substantial potential when they won the FA youth cup and the side included future first team players such as Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail and Harry Kewell. Overall, Graham’s time at the club was solid albeit unspectacular; he brought stability, defensive solidity and the return of European football to Elland Road.

Early in the 1998/99 season Graham left after accepting the newly vacated managerial position at Tottenham Hotspurs. The board’s first choice replacement had been Martin O’Neill but he rejected their proposal and chose to stay with Midlands side Leicester City instead. The board therefore decided to advance the young and untested assistant manager O’Leary. In a shift from the Graham years O’Leary began to focus on the prodigious talents being produced by the academy, he blooded players from the 97 Youth Cup winning bunch into the main squad where their development continued alongside more experienced professionals such as: South African centre-back and Captain Lucas Radebe and the recently returned, Leeds-born, central midfielder David Batty.

O’Leary utilised the youthful exuberance of his squad in order to implement an energetic and attacking style of play in which emphasis was placed on being creative and pressing high up the pitch. This allowed technically gifted players such as Lee Bowyer and Harry Kewell, who had failed to flatter under Graham, to absolutely flourish. O’Leary’s philosophy was perhaps best epitomised by the young, homegrown forward Alan Smith. Promoted from the youth team by O’Leary, his determined and enthusiastic performances captured the hearts of the Leeds United fans. At the end of O’Leary’s first season Leeds finished in 4th place and qualified for the UEFA Cup for a second consecutive season.

Several changes were made for O’Leary’s second season in charge; Dutch striker and top scorer Jimmy Floyd Hasslebank went to Atletico Madrid for £12m, and older heads like David Wetherall and Lee Sharpe made way for fresh additions. Ridsdale opened the cheque-book and O’Leary spent £30m on promising British talents like Danny Mills (£4m, Charlton), Michael Bridges (£5m, Sunderland), Darren Huckerby (£4m, Coventry City), and Oliver Dacourt was imported from France (£7.2m, RC Lens). The investments paid dividends and the young side impressed as Leeds United produced one of their best seasons in recent memory. A remarkable run in the UEFA Cup lead them to the semi-final where they were knocked out on away goals by eventual winners Galatasaray. Even greater success came domestically as the fledgling side ended up in 3rd place and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in a decade.

With a European campaign in sight Ridsdale provided O’Leary with another blank cheque for the 2000/01 season. Aussie strongman Mark Viduka came from Celtic (£6.5m), Dominic Matteo crossed the Pennines from Liverpool (£5m), and a massive statement was made as Leeds broke the British transfer record to sign promising centre-back Rio Ferdinand (£18m). In Ferdinand, O’Leary saw a leader who he could build a Europe conquering team around, and the Irishman set about creating a footballing dynasty.

In 2000/2001 the exertions of competing in the Champions League midweek proved to be too much for the players’ young legs and caused their league form to falter. They ended up finishing in 4th just outside of the Champions League spots. The stand out performances came during that season’s Champions League as the young players repeatedly bested expectations on a dreamlike journey to the semi-finals.

In the first group stage they were drawn with Barcelona, AC Milan and Beskitas. Nobody gave them much chance of surviving the group, especially after an opening fixture in which they were drubbed 4-0 at the Nou Camp by Barcelona. But they produced some magnificent home performances, including a 6-0 hammering of Beskitas, and a 1-0 defeat of AC Milan that came thanks to some good fortune in the form of poor handling by Milan keeper Dida who fumbled a long range Bowyer effort into his own goal. Leeds came 2nd in the group, below AC Milan but above Barcelona, and went through to the second group phase stage. The second group phase draw was equally as difficult as the first, and yet again not many expected Leeds to qualify. Nevertheless, the young Leeds side showed their potential and churned-out some important victories to help them progress to the quarter finals. Famous away wins over Italian champions Lazio 1-0 and a 4-1 thrashing of Belgium’s Anderlecht left indelible marks in Leeds United’s history.

In the quarter finals they faced the reigning Spanish champions, Deportivo La Coruña. Certain players from Deportivo had stated that they were happy to have drawn Leeds United, describing them as the weakest side left in the tournament. The Leeds players used this criticism as motivation and it resulted in one of Leeds’ most memorable European nights. The inexperienced yet brave underdogs were completely unfazed by the situation and ran out unlikely 3-0 victors thanks to goals from Ian Harte, Leeds native Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand. A 2-0 defeat in the away leg at El Riazor Stadium in La Coruña meant that Leeds United had done enough and they progressed to the semi-final where they faced the previous season’s Champions league runner-up, Hector Cuper’s Valencia. A dogged home-tie finished 0-0 with Bowyer picking up a suspension in the process, thus leaving him unavailable for the return leg. Many felt that it his presence that was most dearly missed in the midfield on that night in the Mestalla as Leeds were over run by an unstoppable Valencia side. The size of the moment got to the inexperienced Leeds players and an early, controversial goal from Juan Sanchez meant that they were always chasing the game thereafter. Valencia swept them aside in a crushing 3-0 victory and the European dream was over.

Although disappointing, Leeds fans had a lot to look forward to. The squad was still in its formative years and it had demonstrated that it had more than enough potential to succeed and compete at the highest level in the coming years. They had failed to re-qualify for the Champions League but further investment would lead to a renewed assault on the league title, and hopefully more Champions League football.

The 2001/02 season would be O’Leary’s last and it was the beginning of a dramatic and well-documented decline in fortunes for the Yorkshire club. A fantastic run of form saw them topping the league by the turn of the year but off-field issues derailed the campaign. An incident involving Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and the assault of a student in Leeds city centre two years previous had finally come to court. Unexpectedly, the case served as a morale booster and brought the dressing room closer together. It was in fact David O’Leary’s decision to publish a book about the trial that plunged the club’s season into chaos. The board, staff and fans alike felt somewhat let down by O’Leary, it was felt that his decision to publish was wholly inappropriate and consequently he lost the dressing room. A dreadful period for the side commenced after a 3rd round FA Cup defeat to Cardiff at Ninian Park and Leeds did not taste victory for two months. Although seven wins from the final ten games of the season saw Leeds drag themselves into 5th place and the UEFA Cup, it was not enough to stop O’Leary from facing the axe. He had alienated himself among the fans, the players, and most importantly the board. In the eyes of the board, failing to qualify for the Champions league was insufficient after the level of investment made in the transfer market (by time he left £100m had been spent on transfers).

What followed was the darkest period in the club’s history. It soon became apparent that chasing success had come at a massive cost for Leeds United. Ridsdale had acquired a £60 million loan from the bank based on the belief that Leeds would be a constant presence in the Champions League, the business model meant that the debt would be payed for by elevated gate receipts and extra income from TV money. Essentially the hierarchy gambled the club’s future and lost. With the debt spiralling out of control selling the club’s talent became a necessity. The squad that O’Leary had expensively assembled was dismantled over the next couple of years and the players were sold to rival clubs for, at times, bargain prices: Ferdinand was sold to Manchester Utd for a British record fee and became the bedrock upon which Sir Alex Ferguson built his Champions League winning side; Kewell was sold to Liverpool for £5m where he also won a Champions League; Bowyer and Woodgate went to Newcastle, Paul Robinson to Tottenham, Dacourt went to Italy and so on, but the most painful transfer was that of Alan Smith to Manchester United. Alan Smith was the fans’ darling player from this generation and he had once famously stated he would never play for their bitter rivals.

Leeds United fans and football fans in general were never to know that 2001 would be the peak of success for David O’Leary and his Babies. Leeds United were so badly damaged that even Bob the Builder would not have been able to fix them. The following years would see Leeds United drop out of the Premiership in 2004 and three years later after further relegation they found themselves in the English game’s third tier. O’Leary’s future followed a similar trajectory, he spent three years without great acclaim at Aston Villa before being replaced, ironically, by Martin O’Neill, and his latest managerial feat was a fruitless period in the Middle East with Dubai based Al Ahli.

What if O’Leary had stayed? What if he had never written that book? What if they qualified for the Champions League in 2002? What if they had beat Valencia? What if the players had stayed together? What if Ridsdale had said no to some of the transfers? Terrible financial management from a reckless board, inflated transfer fees and misinformed decisions consigned this potentially world conquering Leeds side to the most sober page in the great big book of football history, the page of ‘what ifs’.

SD Eibar: The Club that Moves Mountains

By Dan Parry

It was my first journey on the regular coach from Bilbao to Donostia/San Sebastian, when at about the halfway mark we started to drive, quite literally, over an entire city. The city was sandwiched into a deep but narrow gorge amongst the dense Basque mountains. As I stared out of my window in awe I noticed how the city had started to overflow the bowl in which it was situated; the buildings had even begun to climb up the mountainsides and below me in the distance I could just about make out a tiny football stadium. Once we arrived in Donostia I asked my girlfriend about the city I had encountered and she informed me that it was Eibar (Ey-Bar).

Eibar lies roughly midway between the two larger Basque cities of Bilbao and Donostia. It has a population of 27,000 (all of its residents would fail to fill one-third of the Nou Camp) and before the impressive ascent of its football club the city was most famous for producing small firearms. It is from this part of the city’s history that SD Eibar (Sociedad Deportiva Eibar) takes its nickname ‘Los Armeros’ in Spanish or ‘Armagiñak’ in Basque (which translate as The Gunners). The club plays its home games at the miniscule Ipurua Stadium, which can hold a maximum attendance of a little over 6,000 spectators.

In the grand scheme of Spanish domestic football Eibar were, for a substantial amount of time, quite an inconsequential team. Bigger clubs would use Eibar as a feeder team, sending their young starlets up to the harsh and unforgiving Basque mountains when the talented youths were in need of more match experience or toughening up in the Spanish lower leagues. For instance, Xabi Alonso and David Silva both spent a season each at Eibar during the infancy of their respective careers. Traditionally, the club’s squad would be full of players like them, or academy rejects from their more storied footballing neighbours Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.

SD Eibar was first promoted to the Segunda Division way back in 1989, and they became a mainstay of the league until the 2006/07 season when they were relegated back to the Segunda Division B. The following season they bounced straight back and spent a further two seasons in the Segunda Division until 2009/10, when once again they dropped into the league below. Over the next three seasons Eibar were the Cardiff City of the Segunda Division B, always reaching the play-offs but never jumping the final hurdle and achieving promotion; Eibar fans might have understandably felt as if their team had found its place in the footballing world. However, in the 2012/13 season, the side managed by Gaizka Garitano, finally restored itself to the Spanish second division. The succeeding season produced an even bigger shock. Miraculously, the minnows topped the league and were promoted to La Liga for the first time in the club’s history. The city celebrated wildly with the players even given tour of the city on an open-top bus.

The Spanish Football Federation brought an almost immediate halt to the festivities when the club were ordered to raise almost €1.7m in order for their capital value to reach €2,146,525.95. A Spanish Football Federation rule obliges all Segunda Division teams to have a capital value that is 25% of the average expenses of all the teams in the league or face being relegated to the Third Division. Although being a debt-free and ‘model’ club, Eibar lacked the necessary capital to pay such a large fee and the club’s hierarchy were weary of allowing the club to fall into the hands of foreign investors. It was at this moment that the then club president Alex Aranzabal started the ‘Defiende al Eibar’ (Defend Eibar) initiative. The club sold shares to anybody who was willing to buy them at €50 a piece, with a €100,000 restriction put in place. Aided by prominent figures such as Xabi Alonso the initiative was a grand success and over 10,000 people from 50 countries bought shares in the club. On the 15th July 2014 the club announced that they had obtained the required sum and their promotion was ratified.

In their debut season in the top league Eibar finished in 18th place and would have gone straight back to the Second Division if it were not for a stroke of luck. 13th placed Elche CF were accused of financial mismanagement and were duly relegated, Eibar were swiftly reinstated and given another chance to fight again. Improvements were made in the subsequent season, the newly re-appointed Jose Luis Mendilibar lead them to 14th whilst also picking up plaudits for introducing an attractive and attacking brand of football to the Ipurua. Several further changes were made to the playing staff over the summer before the start of the current campaign. Mendilibar added more La Liga quality to the side in the hope of establishing it as a team that could do more than battle in a relegation dogfight. These changes have born fruit, lead by ex Real Madrid attacking midfielder Pedro Leon (Summer signing from Getafe), ever-present Captain and defensive midfielder Dani García, and busy striker Sergi Enrich, the team now occupies 8th place, above sides with bigger budgets and more illustrious histories such as Valencia, Málaga and Espanyol.

The ambitions don’t end here though, Eibar are only 7 points from the Europa League spots and have their eyes set firmly to the horizon. They have an upcoming fixture against one of the current Europa League occupants, Villarreal, tomorrow and will be hoping to put a dent into the aforementioned points gap. Mendilibar himself has recently noted that there has been a shift of mentality within the club. He said that ‘Eibar now knows, and thinks of itself as being one of the more established clubs within the first division.’ It could be gathered from this statement that perhaps in the past the club had adopted more of a ‘we’re lucky to be here’ approach to life in La Liga.

It is difficult to find any article about Eibar that doesn’t wax lyrical about its ‘remarkable rise’ to the top. But as Mendilibar alluded to, it isn’t just the rise that should be applauded but also for that matter the lack of a plateau or decline upon reaching the top. Admittedly, luck has also played a convenient role. Nonetheless, this should not overshadow what has been achieved. Eibar are a perfect model for demonstrating how far a small club can go when it has a plan, patience, intelligent management and a lot of heart.

Eibar is a tiny city surrounded by mountains, which has a tiny football team in the top Spanish division that is also surrounded by mountains, that come in the form of gigantic footballing institutions such as Barcelona, Valencia, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Deportivo La Coruña and so on. In recent times Eibar have managed to do more than simply climb these peaks, they have moved them completely. Over the coming years it is entirely possible that this club will have more shocks and surprises in store for us fans of the game. Given the club’s current trajectory it is quite imaginable that even more foreign fans will become acquainted with the Azulgrana (red and blue) of Eibar, and for them, the city hidden between the mountains will be more than a passing sight from the window of a coach headed to a different destination. It will be the destination.

Valencia CF: A Fallen Giant or a Sleeping Giant?

By Dan Parry

Valencia CF is the third most well supported club in Spain, and it is the premier club in Valencia, the third largest city in Spain. In addition to being one of the founders of La Liga, it has also topped the league on seven different occasions throughout its history. Valencia was probably at the peak of its powers during the early noughties, when an extraordinary period of excellence saw them gain 2 La liga championships and 1 Uefa Cup (former Europa League) under Rafa Benitez in 2004, as well as being losing finalists in the Champions league for two consecutive seasons; losing to Real Madrid 1-0 in 2000 and being defeated by Bayern Munich on penalties in the 2001 final. Valencia are currently lying in 13th place in the league after two extremely disappointing seasons and five different managers. This is a club that has some of Europe’s finest training facilities, a proficient youth academy, a huge fanbase and a billionaire owner in the shape of Peter Lim. So how has this former footballing giant managed to slide into the abyss? And will it ever return to the peaks of European football upon which it used to stand so proudly?

Before Peter Lim’s acquisition of the club in 2014, Valencia had debts that reportedly amounted up to between 350-400 million euros. These debts severely restricted the club’s ability to compete with the big guns of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and ultimately lead to Los Ches (nickname used by fans) lagging behind clubs of a similar or smaller stature such as: Atlético Madrid, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, and perhaps most painfully Villarreal, their close neighbours based in nearby Castellón. The aforementioned debts were accrued in part due to the decision to build a desperately needed new stadium. The club’s hierarchy at the time, buoyed by the Spanish economic boom and the city’s inflated property prices of the 2000’s, began to plan and build a replacement for the decaying Mestalla, the Nou Mestalla. They erroneously believed they could build the new ground and pay for it by selling the prime real estate land upon which the Mestalla still sits. However, the 2008 economic crash and the subsequent recession left this masterplan in shattered pieces and stuck Valencia CF with a half-built stadium, its bill, and not enough finance to finish the construction. Today Valencia CF owns two stadiums, one that is too old and rusting, and one that remains incomplete. Peter Lim’s administration had been promising that work would begin again on the Nou Mestalla since their takeover, but they have recently admitted that it won’t be ready for the club’s centenary season (2019/2020) as had previously been hoped.

Los Che’s transfer policy has been a point of contention among the fandom for some years now. In the years between 2005 and 2014 (the pre-Lim years) the majority of the fans came to terms with the selling of major talent, firstly in order to help fund the new stadium, and afterwards in order to keep the club afloat under the pressure of crippling debts. This lead to a major exodus of top players, including: David Silva (Manchester City, £26m), David Villa (Barcelona, £35m), Juan Mata (Chelsea, £23.5m), Jordi Alba (Barcelona, £14m) and Raul Albiol (Real Madrid, £12m). However, the worrying point for most fans is that even under the Lim regime the hemorrhaging of the club’s most precious talents has not ceased to occur. During the previous summer tranfer window, club captain and top scorer Paco Alcácer (£27m), and talented midfielder Andre Gomes (£41.7m) were lost to La Liga rivals Barcelona; whilst important defender Shrokdan Mustafi (£35m) and attacker Sofiane Feghouli (free transfer) were sold to Arsenal and West Ham respectively. Furthermore, in the opinion of some fans, players expensively recruited to replace important members of the squad have failed to live up to expections. Aymen Abdennour (£22m from Monaco) and Ezequiel Garay (Zenit St.Petersburg, £20m) who were signed to replace centre-backs Nicola Otamendi (Man City, £32m) and Mustafi, are prominent examples of this belief.

People have started to point fingers, and most being angled towards one man in particular, Portuguese super-agent, and in the opinion of some, nefarious footballing supervillain, Jorge Mendes. He is a close friend of owner Peter Lim, which has resulted in players and coaches managed by him being brought to the club in recent years. Ex-manager Nuno, and players Joao Cancelo (Benfica, £12.75 ), Rodrigo (Benfica, £25m), Andre Gomes (Benfica, £17m), Eliaquim Mangala (Loan from Man City) and Ezequiel Garay are a few of Mendes’ clients who have been signed by Valencia for at times huge fees since the Lim administration took control. In the eyes of many, the recent results have been rather disappointing considering the vast sums spent on these players. Mendes has even been accused of being a dark presence, reportedly using the club and his position of influence over Lim, to structure club transfer policy in a manner that helps to line his own pockets. Although it must also be said that many have leapt to his defence and argued that it is unfair to scapegoat a man who they say is using his considerable reputation to bring premium talent to the club in order to help it progress. However, critics of Mendes will continue to point towards the cases of Deportivo La Coruña and Real Zaragoza to highlight the negative impact that the ‘Mendes effect’ can have on once successful clubs.

All the problems suffered by the club have been exacerbated in recent times by the managerial revolving door that seems to have been installed at Mestalla. Nuno, Gary Neville, Pako Ayestaran and Cesare Prandelli have all passed through the door in the past two years, leaving fan favourite Voro (full name: Salvador González Marco) to take up the position of caretaker manager for the fourth time since 2008. Since taking the reigns at the beginning of the year he has managed to steer the ship away from a relegation battle to the safer waters of mid-table obscurity. The club also gave a reasonably good account of themselves in their most recent game, a 4-2 loss against Barcelona, managing to put up a fine fight in spite of being down to ten men for the majority of the match.

For the rest of the season Valencia will be looking to further consolidate their mid-table standing and keep their distance from the relegation spots. They will fail to qualify for a European Competition for a secon consecutive season and it is this prolonged absence that has left the notoriously demanding Valencia fans so embittered towards the current regime. They look towards the recent domestic and  European successes of clubs they once sneered down at such as Atlético Madrid, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal etc, and are filled with feelings of anger and envy. These clubs have demonstrated how stability on and off the field, focus, a clear plan, proper structure, and a footballing philosophy can help to propel a club like Valencia to national and European prominence once more.

Although recent times have been tough and full of false hope and fake dawns, Valencia continues to possess all the ingredients needed to reposition itself as one of Europe’s elite football clubs and reachieve the successes of yesteryear. It is easy to understand the ire and desperation of the fans when these things are taken into account, but surely it is just a matter of time before a club of this stature starts to click again, and regains its seat at the top table of European football, whether that be under the current regime or a new one. All of which begs the question: Is Valencia truly a fallen giant? Or is it a sleeping giant that could awake at any moment to wreak havoc yet again? Presumably, over the next few years the answer will become more clear.

Basque Iron vs. Galacticos Stardust

By Dan Parry

Most of my previous knowledge of Athletic Club de Bilbao comes from my dismal attempts to achieve success with them in Football Manager games and being utterly frustrated by the ‘Basque players only rule’.

However, since moving to this part of the world I have encountered a football team and a city that are intricately linked, on a scale perhaps not seen anywhere else in the world. Bilbao is a true one-club city. The most similar comparisons in English football would be those of Leeds United or Newcastle United. But I would dare to say that even these examples don’t match the intense bond Athletic Club shares with the city of Bilbao. This is due to the fact that Athletic (as it is referred to by its fans) isn’t just a football club. The policy of selecting ‘Basque-Only’ players has lead to the club becoming a symbol of Basque identity and culture. It is a policy which the fans and the city take immense pride in.

Bilbao is a post-industrial city in the North of Spain,that sits approximately 10 miles south of the coast of the Bay of Biscay in the province of The Basque Country. The city used to be most renowned for its iron mines and factories, shipbuilding, general industry-heavy economy and conflict born from political tension. The citizens of Bilbao and the Basque Country are fiercely proud of their culture and are especially protective of their language (one of the most unique languages in the world). Furthermore, Bilbainos (the collective term for people from Bilbao) have a reputation for being stern, down to earth, and industrious.

Over the past twenty-years the city has undergone a cultural revolution of sorts and it is now more famous for its cuisine and culture, as exemplified by the impressive Guggenheim modern art museum (the official name is Guggenheim Museum Bilbao). However, all over the city you can see remnants of the city’s industrious past, such as the Palacio Euskalduna, a theatre that is half made out of iron. In spite of all the changes to the city itself, one thing has remained constant, Athletic Club de Bilbao. Its importance to the city lies not only in the fact that it is the city’s most prominent sports team.

The people of the Basque country were heavily oppressed under the regime of General Franco. Due to Franco’s desire to rid Spain of anything that could be considered not Spanish the Basque culture and language were nearly annihilated. The club was even forced to change its name from ‘Athletic’ to ‘Atletico’ (the latter English interpretation originated from the club’s historical connection to Britain through the British sailors and workers who came to work in Bilbao, and Basque students who learnt the sport in Britain). Undeterred by this though, the club defiantly kept to their policy of only selecting players with Basque ancestry or players who had been trained as youth players by clubs inside the Basque Country.

Obviously all of this history has lead to a certain amount of animosity between Athletic and other Spanish teams, none more so than Real Madrid. Although this footballing rivalry may lack the glitz and glamour, and the international popularity of ‘El Clásico’, make no mistake, it is one of, if not the first match that Athletic fans seek when the fixture list is released. Real Madrid can expect a hostile atmosphere inside the new 60,000 seater San Mamés Stadium, also referred to as La Catedral (‘The Cathedral’) when they exit the tunnel for kick-off tomorrow at 16.15.

The current Athletic team, although not quite reaching the lofty ‘Europa League finals’ heights as the side assembled by Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, is a strong and well organised side that likes to attack and who have on recent past-occasions unstuck both Barcelona (defeating them 5-1 over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup in August 2015) and Real Madrid at San Mamés who were defeated 1-0 a couple of years ago thanks to a fine header from the midfielder Mikel Rico.

Taking into account their superb home record this season (unbeaten in their previous 13 home matches) and recent confidence-boosting derby victory over Real Sociedad, Athletic will be going into this game looking for a positive result to help them with their charge towards Europa League qualification. Real Madrid, on the other hand, will be hoping that this match doesn’t put a dent in their title hopes and Zidane has declared that with the exception of centre-backs Pepe and Raphael Varane his league topping side are at full strength.

Aside from the aforementioned political backdrop this game also represents an obvious clash of recruitment styles. Real Madrid often spend big money in recruiting the worlds best players such as Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo where as Athletic, restricted by their particular transfer policy, are forced to rely on nurturing and developing talent from their esteemed youth system as well as plucking and improving Basque players bought from other clubs. This policy has paid its dividends in recent times with Athletic generating huge profits from the sales of players such as Ander Herrera to Man Utd and Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich before that.

With the exception of midfielder Mikel San Jose, Athletic will also have a full roster of players to pick from. Some current Athletic players to watch out for, if selected, are: ex Atlético Madrid midfielder Raul García, the pacy Juventus coveted winger Iñaki Williams; and the Prince of Bilbao Aritz Aduriz, the striker who continues to turn back the clock and bag goals with a return of 8 goals from 21 appearances so far this season. All of whom are managed by the astute Ernesto Valverde. The man who according to many is the favourite to become the next Barcelona manager. It comes as no surprise that he is supposedly sought after by another club whose identity is intrinsically intertwined with the culture and history of that region.

They say that Bilbainos don’t go to church at the weekend, because they go to ‘La Catedral’ instead. Well you can expect that the bells will be ringing loud and clear when Ronaldo and the rest of the Galacticos turn up. But don’t forget that unlike other clubs, these bells aren’t made of the finest metals imported and paid for by foreign investment and super rich owners; they are made from iron. Pure Basque-made iron. And if recent evidence is anything to go by we should be in for a cracking game.