Real Sociedad have arguably become Spain’s most likeable club. From reaching the Copa del Rey final to developing wonderkids like Martin Ødegaard, Spanish football expert Euan McTear tells the story behind their success.
He ran up the stairs. He shook the hand of a congratulatory Casemiro. He entered the Bernabéu’s empty away dressing room. He crouched down. He put his hands over his face. He screamed. “Hostiaaaaa!!!!!”
The Spanish word doesn’t really have an English translation, but it doesn’t matter. Even a member of an uncontacted Amazon tribe could’ve worked out by now that Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil was the happiest man in Madrid.
It was February 6th and Real Sociedad had just knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey on the road, edging a seven-goal thriller 4-3. They were into the semi-finals, and even though they didn’t fully know it at the time, were on their way to their first cup final since 1988, with a chance to win their first piece of silverware since 1987. Standing in their way? Their Basque rivals, Athletic Club Bilbao.
However, the story of Real Sociedad’s 2019/20 season is much more than the story of a cup run. The trip to the final, which will be played in Seville, is the cherry on top of a perfectly constructed cake. There is so much to admire about Real Sociedad right now as you look down the layers.
For the fans of the Txuri-Urdin – the White and Blues in English – the most significant change that president Jokin Aperribay’s board have overseen has been at the stadium.
Anoeta has been the home of the San Sebastián club since 1993, but the running track did what running tacks do by creating a barrier between the fans and the action. A running tack can have the same effect on a football club as a garrote can on a human neck.
So, Real Sociedad got rid of it. A two-year stadium redevelopment plan was launched with the club able to fund most of the €50m project itself, having sorted out its finances just a decade after going into administration.
They wanted rid of the running track, so that’s what they did, by digging down and adding extra rows of seats where the running track used to be.
Now, the closest row to the pitch is just eight metres away when before it had been 40. Fans feel as close to the players as Calvin Harris does to those listening to his songs. There’s no more barrier. Just a force field.
This increased the capacity by around 8,000 seats to 40,000, but this project was more than a rearranging or adding of seats. The entire stadium was modernised, with a design for better acoustics, the number of turnstiles to access the ground doubling, club WiFi coming in, and an app that offers fans special discounts made available.
That’s all very nice, but fans want a winning football team as well as a comfortable venue. And that’s exactly what they got.
“The completion of the ground this season has coincided with absolutely brilliant planning off the pitch, as well and all these signings which have just happened at the right time, to coincide with this amazing atmosphere at the ground that they’ve redeveloped,” Phil Ball, author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, and a Real Sociedad season ticket holder, tells COPA90.
The signings he refers to are silky Norwegian playmaker Martin Ødegaard, thumpingly clinical Swedish striker Alexander Isak, experienced Spanish winger Portu, reliable Navarrian left-back Nacho Monreal, and goalkeeper Alex Remiro – the safe pair of hands they brought in from Basque rivals Athletic Club during the summer.
Even the previous year’s acquisition of Mikel Merino is proving to be a major success, with the midfielder tipped for a Spain call-up in the near future.
These just-add-water players have come together to combine with the existing talents, and with the young players that have emerged from Real Sociedad’s famed Zubieta academy, where director Luki Iriarte has done a superlative job. Xabi Alonso is also in charge of the B team after he was prized away from Real Madrid’s youth setup.
Sculpting all the pieces together on the first team training pitches is Imanol Alguacil – the perfect man for the job as he himself came through La Real’s academy, played for the first team, coached in the youth academy, was assistant to the first team, was caretaker of the first team, and is now the main man.
Nobody knows Real Sociedad like he does, nobody knows how to develop and incorporate youth like he does, which is important, since the San Sebastián club have the youngest squad in the whole of LaLiga.
It smells like teen spirit at Anoeta and that is a good thing. The youthful ambition and camaraderie is driving the team onwards. The two highest profile summer acquisitions were Ødegaard and Isak, with the former arriving on a two-year loan from Real Madrid and the latter on a permanent transfer with a buy-back clause from Borussia Dortmund.
Both these players have already been at bigger clubs with better facilities, and both will be moving onto bigger things before long, so it would have been all too easy for them to treat Real Sociedad as a doormat to briefly wipe their feet on as they enter the world of professional football. But that hasn’t been the case at all.
Ødegaard and Isak have immersed themselves in the club and have been taking Spanish lessons together. They’ve even developed a friendship, as seen in a recent Instagram video shared by teammate Adnan Januzaj where the two Scandinavian attackers combined for a piano duet, performing Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Heart and Soul’.
Watching a video like that, they don’t look or feel like multi-millionaire footballers. They look just like two students having a stay-at-home-and-eat-beans-on-toast week, as they wait on the latest instalment of their loan hitting the bank account. They look like real humans.
Part of the charm with this Real Sociedad team is they’re human. They’re professionals, some of the best in the world, but they’re not robots.
When Sociedad destroyed fourth-tier team Becerril 8-0 in a previous round of the Copa del Rey, they didn’t take their foot off the gas during the 90 minutes. But afterwards, they felt so sorry and emotionally connected to their opponents, they invited the entire town of Becerril to a game.
Sure, that’s only 754 people, but it was quite the gesture, and 502 of them did indeed make the trip in February to see a Real Sociedad vs Valencia league fixture.
Those visitors enjoyed the chance to experience the new-look stadium, called the Reale Arena for sponsorship purposes. It’s not named after a betting company, though.
That’s because Real Sociedad became the only club in LaLiga to refuse any sponsorship partnerings with betting companies, after putting the issue to a fan vote in December of 2018. They respected the wishes of 5,715 members being against working with a betting company, with only 841 in favour.
They forfeited a potential €3m per season, considering their fans’ opinion as more valuable. It’s almost like Real Sociedad are trying to make you like them. Who knows how they’ll approach the controversial Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, which they’ve now qualified for in 2021 through their Copa del Rey final appearance…
Even when there have been bumps in the road, Real Sociedad have landed on all four wheels. In January, it emerged that top scorer Willian José was looking for a transfer away and that a switch to Tottenham was a realistic possibility.
In the end, the Brazilian striker stayed put at the club, resulting in a degree of tension between the wantaway player and the fans he’d considered abandoning midway through the campaign.
Yet even that situation quickly smoothed over. After the Copa del Rey quarter-final victory at the Bernabéu, the players returned to the pitch to celebrate with their supporters in the top corner of the stadium. After cheering goal-scoring hero Isak first, Willian José’s name was also given the choral treatment.
“They always say that you’re at your most generous in victory,” Ball points out when reflecting on that episode. “But it’s true that the way they turned around the Willian José thing, I don’t think that would’ve happened at an unhappy club. In a happy club it’s possible to do that and they’ve kind of reincorporated him. It’s all been sort of forgotten.”
Willian José even started the team’s Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Mirandés, as La Real earned a 1-0 win against another of the feel-good teams of this year’s cup competition to complete a 3-1 aggregate victory that books their ticket in the final in Seville.
Just like at the Bernabéu, that win was celebrated with the travelling fans, even if this time they were just metres behind one of the goals, and not getting altitude sickness in the top tier of Real Madrid’s humongous ground.
That win was the club's sixth in a row in all competitions, with the team now fourth in LaLiga and heading into a cup final in search of their sixth major title. It’s all coming up roses for Real Sociedad. Hostia indeed.
Follow Spanish football expert Euan on Twitter @emctear