Back in July 2014, I wrote an article for The Roar about the remarkable rise of small town SD Eibar into the top league of Spanish football.
The article tells the story of how a town with a population of 27,000 (less than a third of the size of the stadiums that house Real Madrid or Barcelona) encountered off-field issues once they qualified.
Spanish football regulations required a larger capital base and due to the laws of the community-minded club, where no one can own more than 2 per cent, a global crowdfunding search ensued.
By completion time, people from 67 nations contributed to ensure Eibar’s position in La Liga.
These events saw the club attain a form of cult status with supporter groups starting around the globe, including the recently formed Eibaroos here in Australia.
The unexpected rise has been recently detailed in “Eibar the Brave – The Extraordinary Rise of La Liga’s Smallest Team” written by Euan McTear.
Most pundits predicted an inevitable quick demotion. They were proved correct, albeit briefly, with Eibar finishing their first season in 18th position after showing early promise.
However, Eibar were given a reprieve, in the form of mismanagement by 13th-placed Elche.
Over the last decade, several Spanish teams have been relegated to the lower divisions due to financial mismanagement as clubs take on too much debt in order to compete. Elche became the latest victim and thus Eibar was able to stay up instead.
From this moment, Eibar has thrived and consolidated their unlikely position in La Liga.
A lack of resources, including a stadium with capacity of 7,200 (up from 5,200 at the time of promotion) has made the club’s management extremely prudent with their purse strings and squad selection.
Additionally, the club’s junior academy doesn’t possess the resources to recruit anyone outside of the local Basque region. Even within the Basque region, the club is dwarfed by Athletico Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
According to Transfermarkt.com, the current Eibar squad has a value of 50 million euro, which is less than 10 per cent of Real Madrid. There are five players at Real Madrid individually with higher market values than the entire Eibar squad of 25.
As a comparison, the great underdogs of last year’s Premier League, Leicester City, is valued at around half of Manchester City and Chelsea.
The sporting director and managers at Eibar have been able to find value in players not wanted by other teams. Despite the squad having a turnover of 28 players over the last two years, Eibar has refuelled their roster with cheap but effective players.
Savvy recruiting of players from relegated clubs such as Getafe’s Pedro Leon has assisted immensely.
Roughly half the squad are on loan from other clubs, or on free transfers. In its second season, Eibar was able to improve to 14th position, largely due to 18 goals scored by Atletico Madrid loan player, Borja González.
González has since been transferred to the English Championship for a fee of 18 million Euros. Players who thrive at Eibar move on to big money elsewhere, and non-performers are let go. For instance, Raul Albentosa, Eibar’s defensive rock moved to Derby County for a 12-fold salary increase.
It is a credit to the management that Eibar is able to spot value and keep recharging a squad while improving to eighth position this season with only 12 games to go. Eibar has never paid a transfer fee of more than 3 million Euros.
The financial stability of Eibar, which holds no debt and a reputation for paying salaries on time, also attracts players to the club for slightly less than they could receive elsewhere.
Just as Moneyball allowed Oakland to compete with the Yankees, Eibar has shown that talent identification and living within one’s means can propel the smallest club to within sights of competing in The Europa League next year.
A new TV deal that spreads the broadcast dollars more evenly may see even a team of this diminutive size survive a few more years in La Liga.
If so, a problem of stadium size will emerge. League rules stipulate for stadium capacity to be a minimum of 15,000. Eibar plans to use its success to expand its stadium to 9,000 by 2019, which is all that the current stadium can be reconfigured to fit, given its cosy downtown location. But that’s a problem for another day.
In a league highly dominated by global powerhouses, Eibar has surprisingly held its place for longer than anyone predicted. In an age where football clubs are the domain of competing billionaires, Eibar is a refreshing sign that the little guy can still compete and prosper.