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A month ago, Spanish soccer giant Real Madrid trounced its eternal rival, FC Barcelona, 3-1, in front of 85,000 chanting home fans.
On Nov. 22, Madrid is traveling to face a much different foe: tiny SD Eibar, located in Eibar, a city in the Basque Country near the northern coast of Spain. Eibar's population of 27,000 could fit in Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium three times over. Its own stadium holds all of 5,000 fans. And the team’s entire budget is less than Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual salary. Still, SD Eibar thinks it just might upset mighty Real Madrid.
When SD Eibar came to Barcelona to play Lionel Messi and company last month, no one really expected the little Basque team to win. But for 60 minutes Eibar kept Barcelona goalless by playing suffocating defense. They even missed a clear chance to score in the 41st minute. But then the inevitable happened — Barcelona scored.
Messi and Neymar added two more for Barcelona, but Eibar goalie Xabi Irureta showed the feline reflexes that earned him the nickname “The Cat” and kept the score to a gentlemanly 3-0. Still, Eibar was far from satisfied with keeping it sort of close.
“I’m not happy," Eibar coach Gaizka Garitano said after the game. Garitano said it didn't matter that his team was playing one of the world's best. "When I lose, it’s the same to me no matter where we are. I’m not happy because we lost 3-0.”
A Long Climb To La Liga
The town of Eibar has been punching above its weight since its birth in the 14th century. Shoehorned into a ravine between Bilbao and San Sebastian, the town was the prime arms maker for the conquistadores during Spain’s colonial era.
Eibar was almost wiped off the map during the Spanish Civil War, when General Francisco Franco’s forces obliterated the left-leaning pueblo. After that, the town’s two soccer teams merged to form SD Eibar in 1940. Three years later, the team was so poor that the regional soccer federation donated a box of jerseys in Barcelona’s scarlet-and-blue, the colors Eibar still wears today. The town’s survivor’s mentality infuses the team.
“They’ve just got a very clear identity," said Phil Ball, a sports journalist who has lived in Basque country for two decades. "And the identity is this kind of rough, tough Basque side that buys cheap, sells cheap and keeps it going somehow.”
For the next 70 years, Eibar played in the lower divisions of Spanish soccer. But then, last season, the little team ascended to the second division and, somehow, managed to win it. That earned Eibar a place in Spain’s top league, La Liga. It was like the dog had caught the car … and the dog was a Chihuahua.
“People are surprised," SD Eibar president Alex Aranzábal said. "Because this is all new, it’s never happened before. The whole world is looking at us with something like a mixture of admiration and surprise.”
One Goal: To Survive
Nothing comes easy for Eibar, however. Just as it was celebrating its ascent, Spain’s soccer federation told Eibar that it was short on capital and had to raise €1.7 million or be sent down to the third division. This didn't sit well with the financially prudent team.
“And we didn't understand this because we are the only team in all of Spanish professional soccer than has no debt," Aranzábal said.
[sidebar title="Pro Soccer In Spain: 'A Financial Mess'" width="630" align="right"] In August, Ian Mount reported on the inequality and debt that is holding back Spain's pro soccer teams. [/sidebar]Most teams would have looked for a sugar daddy. But Basque country is home to the world’s largest worker-owned cooperative, so Eibar turned to crowdfunding. It sold €50 shares on the Internet and limited any one person’s ownership to 2 percent. And it succeeded, raising €2 million from investors in 50 countries. Sizable chunks came from the U.S. and China.
“It’s got an extraordinary kind of international following," said Jimmy Burns, a Madrid-born English author who wrote La Roja, a history of Spanish soccer. "People simply getting in touch with each other through Twitter and other mediums. You know, this kind of thing just wouldn't have been conceivable about 10 years ago, even five years ago.”
Now the question is, can Eibar compete in La Liga or will the team be relegated after one feel-good season? It will be tough to survive — the team’s €18 million budget is one-thirtieth the size of war chests at Barcelona and Madrid. During the offseason, it only bought one player from another team, for a mere €75,000. And after spending most of their careers in the second and third divisions, many of its players are still adjusting to La Liga play.
“Moving from the second to the first division, there is a lot more speed in the game. The players are smarter," said defender Raúl Albentosa. "It’s an accumulation of things that makes it the top level. The ball moves very quickly.”
[sidebar title="MLS Playoffs" width="630" align="right"] Back in the U.S., Major League Soccer's playoffs are underway. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl breaks down some of the teams and picks a winner. [/sidebar]For now, Eibar has a simple goal -- to survive. Like many smaller teams, it plays defensive soccer, hoping to score on a counterattack and betting that Irureta’s quick reflexes will keep the ball out of its own net. So far, it’s worked. The team is currently ninth in the 20-team league. Aranzábal said he would be happy to finish the year in 17th place. The bottom three teams are sent down.
“For us, not being relegated would be like winning the world championship," he said. "But it’s going to be very difficult."
Next weekend, all eyes in Eibar will be on beating Real Madrid at home. David sometimes beats Goliath, and Eibar’s fans will do their full-throated best to make the game against Real Madrid one of those times.
“You can imagine the kind of reception the Real Madrid players are going to get," Burns noted. "I think not just the stadium but the surrounding mountains will shake.”
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This segment aired on November 15, 2014.
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