Eibar: LaLiga’s Smallest Club that Continues to Grow
Despite operating on a shoestring budget, Eibar continue to defy expectations year-on-year. They’re now growing, with a sustainable business model that’s the envy of clubs across the country. Eibar expert, Euan McTear, lifts the lid on their success.
As the final whistle drew the last match of the 2018/19 LaLiga season to a close, Eibar fans celebrated like they’d won the league. Actually, it was their opponents who were that year’s Spanish champions, yet the Basque supporters from the town of just 27,000 people partied on as they witnessed Eibar draw 2-2 with Barcelona.
This wasn’t David and Goliath stuff. This was David’s skinny little brother holding his own against Goliath’s Special-Brew guzzling, brick-wielding skinhead of a dad. Two teams in different universes.
There can be no overstating just how vast the difference is between the resources available to Barcelona and to Eibar. The Catalan club’s budget for last season was €914.6m, according to Spanish football finance expert Roberto Bayón, compared to the €47.1m of Eibar.
This, though, is actually a major improvement. When Eibar won their first ever promotion to the top flight of Spanish football – competing at the top table for the first time in the 2014/15 season – the difference in the two clubs’ budgets was €503.7m to €13.5m.
Back then – in a season COPA90 produced a video around the Eibar vs. Barcelona fixture – Eibar’s spending ability was 37 times smaller than that of the Blaugrana, competing like a contestant on Dale Winton's Supermarket Sweep using a trolley with a jammed wheel. Now, though, that budgetary gap has narrowed to only 19 times smaller.
This is partly because of the new way TV money is now shared in Spanish football. Not only is the pie getting larger and allowing the giants like Barcelona and Real Madrid to keep adding income, but the pie is also being divided more evenly with a distribution model more in line with that of the Premier League, allowing smaller clubs like Eibar to grow by three-figure percentages.
It’s also because of some really intelligent decisions from Eibar off the pitch. When Los Armeros – a nickname meaning The Gunsmiths, based on one of the town’s traditional industries – came up to the top division, they saved a lot of their newfound income and invested it in redeveloping the stadium, new training facilities, hiring more workers for the club office, building an online store and much more.
They even built a physical store for fans to buy merchandise, something that previously didn’t exist. Just a few years ago, if you wanted an official Eibar shirt, you had to go to one little store sandwiched between a hairdressers and a perfume shop on the not-even-high street.
Times have changed, though, as Eibar become more and more global. When they were promoted to the top division there was a need to increase their social capital by €1.7m due to a strange Spanish law. Even though they had no debt, they were essentially so small that Spain’s sporting rules required them to get a little bit bigger in order to be allowed to compete at the top level.
“They [Eibar] find themselves now able to open up to the world and dealing with foreign people asking for the shirts”
Charmed by the little club’s story, the footballing world responded and the club now has more than 11,130 shareholders from 65 different countries. Many of them simply wanted to help out a likeable club in need. Others became fairly dedicated fans, but it’s not exactly feasible for a shareholder from Oman or Peru to pop over to Eibar and visit the store between the hairdressers and perfume shop. There was a need for an online store and a proper e-commerce offering.
In Japan, Eibar are particularly popular as a result of signing Samurai Blue star, Takashi Inui. His arrival at the club in 2015 brought with it a huge interest in Eibar and the Basque Country, as no Japanese player had ever lasted more than one year in LaLiga.
Thanks to the interest in Inui, Eibar became the most-watched LaLiga club by the Japanese audience after Barcelona and Real Madrid, but they also put in place a multi-pronged plan to attack the Japanese market, signing their first commercial deal in the Asian country after Inui had left to the club to join Real Betis – although he has now returned in true prodigal son fashion.
“They [Eibar] find themselves now able to open up to the world and dealing with foreign people asking for the shirts,” Guillem Balagué told COPA90 in 2015. “That’s a wonderful position to be in, but they know what the essence is.”
It’s true that Eibar have largely been able to retain what made them so special in the first place. There are more international fans at their Ipurua Stadium than ever, but most of the things that made the club unique still remain.
“One of the keys to our model is that people feel close to the club. Eibar has always been more or less for everyone.”
The air raid siren that sounds after every home goal; the voice of Axel Riaño through the speakers; the apartment blocks that overlook the pitch; the support of the Scotland-loving Eskozia la Brava fangroup; the ‘See You Jimmy’ hats of those Eskozia La Brava fans; the blue and red umbrella of Blas, Eibar’s most famous fan.
Some of the charming little aspects around the club have gone, that’s true. The ‘Scotland the Brave’ mural on the wall of the east stand disappeared when that stand was rebuilt. The chance for a kickabout on the pitch the night before a match is no longer possible. The busiest pre-match bar has closed down.
Even the stadium toilets now have working light bulbs. No more weirdly satisfying pees under the scarce light from a few burning cigarette tips. It’s life and change happens. Some good, some nostalgically sad.
But there was never any risk of Eibar falling into the hands of a Russian billionaire or sheik. When they increased their social capital, a cap of 100,000 euros worth of shares was set for any one individual or company.
As Álex Aranzábal, the club president at the time, explained: “One of the keys to our model is that people feel close to the club. Eibar has always been more or less for everyone and there has never been a major investor, a sheikh or a big business which has controlled the club. Such an approach wouldn’t work here.”
Aranzábal is no longer at the club, but those who replaced him in the posh seats – well, less posh seats – were voted in by the fans and shareholders. Eibar native Amaia Gorostiza is the current president, one of two female presidents in LaLiga along with Leganés’ María Victoria Pavón.
With 77.43% of the votes, Gorostiza won the most recent presidential elections at the club by a landslide and leads a board of directors with a strong female influence. It makes sense; 36% of fans at Ipurua are women, 6% above the league’s average.
Eibar even had the first female director general of a LaLiga club in Patricia Rodríguez, who did an excellent job before leaving to take up a similar role at Elche this year.
It’s interesting that Rodríguez is going to Elche, a second division club whose ‘Sliding Doors moment’ is inextricably linked with Eibar. At the end of Eibar’s first season in the top division of Spanish football, the club actually finished in 18th place, inside the relegation zone.
“Every year we start the season with the unknown of ‘will this be the last year?’”
It was close, they were tied with two other clubs – Deportivo La Coruña and Granada – on 35pts and would likely have been safe had Barcelona not rested half their team in their 2-2 final day draw with Deportivo at the Camp Nou (one week before a Copa del Rey final and two weeks before a Champions League final).
As narrow as it was, Eibar were mathematically on their way down. Their fairy tale adventure to the top league in Spain was seemingly over after just one year. Seemingly…
Elche were as financially unsound as Eibar were sound. If Elche were a phone battery, they’d be in red single digits by the end of breakfast. Eibar would still be at 90-plus percent by dinner.
While Eibar had no debt and had built a decent squad by spending within their means, Elche had bitten off more than they could chew. They owed more money than someone opening their door to a Vinnie Jones character in a Guy Ritchie movie. €15m to be precise. €9m to the Spanish taxman and €6m to the staff.
As such, Judge Manuel Rivero González ruled at the end of the 2014/15 season that Elche were to be admiratively demoted despite their 13th place finish on the pitch, leaving one more spot in LaLiga, which went to Eibar, the yin to Elche’s economic yang.
Despite this reprieve, promotion-winning coach Gaizka Garitano stepped aside, feeling as though he’d failed in his job, but this was a blessing in disguise for Eibar as they were able to hire the no-nonsense, just-add-water veteran coach, José Luis Mendilibar.
Mendilibar is now the second-longest serving coach in LaLiga behind Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid and, along with the tireless work of sporting director Fran Garagarza, has established Eibar as a mid-table club, leading them to 14th, 10th, 9th and 12th placed finishes in the subsequent years.
He even helped Eibar end the 2017/18 season as the highest-placed Basque side ahead of neighbouring giants Athletic Club and Real Sociedad, both of whom had literally been in a league of their own for most of Eibar’s existence.
This is all wild. Really wild. As Aranzábal said when Eibar were promoted in 2014, the club’s natural place is probably in the third tier of Spanish football. Yet here they are, in their sixth season in one of the best leagues in the world and, as they take on Barcelona again this Saturday, they’re still in mid-table.
“This is the 75th anniversary of the team and we are very lucky to live it in the first division of the Spanish league,” said Eibar fan Unai Eraso in COPA90’s 2015 video. As Eibar prepare to enjoy their 80th anniversary still in the top flight in 2020, Unai spoke to COPA90 again:
“Every year we start the season with the unknown of ‘will this be the last year?’. And then we stay at the top level for another year. One more year standing tall in the league of stars.”
Stars like those of Barcelona, with a budget 19 times that of Eibar’s. Even with such a budgetary canyon, remember their last meeting finished 2-2. How will this Saturday’s go?
Want to learn more about Eibar? Pick up a copy of Euan’s brilliant book, Eibar the Brave: The Extraordinary Rise of La Liga's Smallest Team
Follow Euan on Twitter @emctear