Alex Aranzabal: Eibar’s reign in Spain’s La Liga is a remarkable football tale

It was raining in Eibar when football club president Alex Aranzabal afforded Gulf News the courtesy of a one-to-one interview.

Mind you, it always rains in Eibar, according to the locals. A close-knit group of people as you might expect for a small town nestled high up in the mountains roughly half way between Bilbao and San Sebastian.

Eibar itself has a rather uninspiring industrial and enclosed feel and after disembarking from the main train station, you’re hemmed in by tall buildings on every side as you make the 15-minute pilgrimage to the intimate Ipurua stadium at the top of a long, winding hill road.

Everywhere you look there are Blaugrana flags flying, scarves hanging.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Barcelona itself but that’s no surprise given that it was via the Catalans that the club inherited its current colours.

Founded in 1940, just four years later Eibar were short of a kit to play in and so were lent a full Barca kit by the regional federation. The colours have remained, but until last season Eibar were destined not to wear it in the Spanish top flight.

The contrast between the two clubs could not be greater and Aranzabal shares the feelings of the vast majority of supporters in the town. “Well I think it’s a miracle to be in La Liga. A 27,000 inhabitants town and a 6,000 capacity stadium. It’s a miracle each year we get to remain in La Liga, it’s a big success for us.”

A 6,000 capacity stadium that it must be said has arguably the most stunning landscape of any in the division, perhaps in the country. The sharp inclines of vast hillside and distant mountains so high is the most beautiful of vistas, seen from the main stand.

The only eyesore blocking the panorama are the twin high rise blocks of flats. No need for season tickets there, supporters come together in their masses to watch the action from on high. Balconies chock full of friends 20 storeys up. It’s quite the sight, and indicative of the recent success of the club.

That view is nothing compared to being sat inside the smallest stadia in La Liga however.

Where else in the world are you within literal touching distance of players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? Where you can hear shouts of encouragement from players on the opposite side of the pitch and where you can almost feel a crunching tackle or two.

It’s all a far cry from Aranzabal’s early days of following the club as a teenager in the 1980’s. “I had been a supporter of the club since I was a child, my first memories of coming to Ipurua were when we were in the third division – actually it was the fourth because you know in Spain we have the ‘Second B’ which is actually third and third is actually fourth,” he said. “So, we were in the fourth division and it rained a lot and we stood – there were no chairs in that part of the stadium.”

For years, the hard core of supporters had very little to shout about as Eibar remained in the lower reaches of the Spanish football pyramid. That all changed in 2009 when Aranzabal, then a 34-year-old marketing director with a PHD in economics, was hired as the president of the club he had supported his whole life.

“The vision was to take the club to the first division,” he said.

“It was a kind of dream for us because a small town like Eibar has never been before, in 75 years of history, in the first division.

“I was hired on 29th January 2009 and the club was in a difficult situation. We were in the second division, I think in 19th position in the middle of the season, and the beginning was terrible.

“In the previous 20 years Eibar had been a second division club but we were finally relegated to the third division, so that was really tough at the beginning.”

So tough in fact that each time the club reached the promotion play-offs back to the second division – in each of the first three seasons of Aranzabal’s tenure – they failed to negotiate the final hurdle.

Yet in a sign of the grit and determination that marks out Eibar folk from their countrymen and women, the club would again reach the play-offs in the following campaign and this time would find success.

“I don’t think most people believed it could happen ever,” Aranzabal admits.

Aranzabal, however, needed to balance out the books – this is a club with a zero deficit policy – with the realisation that if he wanted the ultimate dream to be realised that a better standard of player needed to be recruited.

Offering amongst the lowest wages in the division was hardly ?an incentive, but it’s testament to the president’s powers of persuasion and genuine belief in his vision, that an upscaling of playing staff eventually materialised.

But on the final day of the 2014/15 Eibar were dramatically promoted to La Liga for the first time in their history.

The carnival atmosphere that followed lasted for days until the realisation of an old Spanish decree would not only deny Eibar their rightful place at the top table, but would actually relegate them back down to the third division.

Despite being the only club in the top two divisions in Spain to be completely free of debt, the Real Decreto 1251/1999 law meant that Eibar needed to raise €1.7 million (Dh7.1 million) in capital – 25 per cent of the average expenses of all of the teams in the league – within a few months.

This is where Aranzabal’s business acumen came into its own.

“I remember in the first months we had to raise the money and most people didn’t believe we could get that.

“We started the crowdfunding and marketing campaign and suddenly we saw that we were making a small club like Eibar a big club. We were selling shares not in Eibar but in China, in Singapore, in Lebanon, in the United Kingdom, in Germany.”

Eibar’s plight made world news.

Followers of the beautiful game like nothing better than a ‘David and Goliath’ scenario.

And in what was once the epicentre of the armaments industry in northern Spain, there was more than a hint of romanticism about the situation.

Key moment

Such was the feelgood factor that the football family came together as one and in a show of solidarity with their Basque brethren, ensured that the full amount of money was raised with time to spare.

“It was incredible to sell 36,000 shares, among 11,000 shareholders in 67 countries,” he said. “I think that’s outstanding, and that was the key moment.

“When you connect with people, suddenly success can come very quickly. That’s what happened to us.”

A stunning opening half-season in the Primera Division saw Eibar sit proudly in eighth position on 27 points – but from January 2015 onwards, they’d take just another eight points to end in the relegation places.

In a strange quirk of fate, Elche were demoted for financial irregularities meaning that Eibar were reprieved.

Lessons were learned and this season Eibar have escaped the drop zone and could be set for a mid-table finish.

“We are a small club and we want to be a small club in a small town but that can be combined with a wide supporters club with a lot of fans,” he said.

“We try to keep our soul, our real soul. It’s a part of the strength that we have and I think that’s our identity, we have to be honest with that. For Eibar to continue in La Liga is like other clubs winning the Champions League.”

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