New Project: Basque Groundhopping

The Basque Country in Spain (Euskadi) has a population of just over 2 million people yet since football arrived to these shores in the late 19th century thanks to British miners and sailors the folk of this region have taken the sport to their hearts.

In its current state La Liga contains four Basque teams (20% of the league): Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alavés. Each club has its own unique history and vibrant fanbase, each of which I will be exploring.

But what about the clubs below these four? In the leagues below the Segunda División, Spanish football becomes regionalised, the size of Spain and the financial limitations of the clubs deem this a necessity. This, however, does not necessarily mean that there is a lack of quality, some of the greatest footballers the Basque Country has produced have cut their teeth in these leagues. Over the next season I will be ‘attempting’ to see one home game of every Basque team from La Liga down to the regional Segunda División B and Tercera División.

In addition to watching some great football matches I am also hoping this journey will provide me some memorable moments as I travel to all parts both big and small of this incomparable land; with its great cuisine, mountains landscapes, respected people and singular culture.

I’ll endeavour to produce a regular journal of my adventures, which will include some information about the clubs themselves, their fans, the places to which they belong and, of course, a report of the match I have seen.

If you have an interest in Basque football, lower-league Spanish football or Spain and the Basque Country in general then I hope my journey will be of interest to you.

John Aldridge: Real Sociedad’s Unlikely Scouse Idol


In 1989, for the first time in 40 years, Real Sociedad decided that they needed foreign blood to compete. Step forward Liverpool hero John Aldridge.

Full article featured in These Football Times.

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.