“OK,” Fran Garagarza says, “what have we got?” Quite a lot, as it turns out. Tuesday evening in Eibar and five men sit around a table in a smart new meeting room overlooking the pitch at Ipurúa, where heat lamps light up the gloom. A sixth joins on a screen. One by one, Mikel Martija, Arkaitz Lakanbra, Eneko Romo and Fran Rico run through the players they have been watching this week, a small sample of the 19,000 in the system. Conversation starts: a catalogue of qualities – “striker, very much our style” – and classification. Red, amber and green: stop watching, keep watching, move to the next phase.
Every now and then, Garagarza asks for some extra detail: a spelling, an age, an agent. As they go round, Unai Ezkurra enters everything into the system. Garagarza used to travel around in a van, delivering packages for a courier; now he travels to watch matches for a club – or did before the pandemic, remote tracking taking over since. He has been at Eibar for 16 years, as under-19 coach, assistant manager and academy director. For the past decade, he has been sporting director, overseeing one of the greatest success in Spanish football, a model of debt-free, sustainable overachievement.
On Tuesday night, Eibar travel to the Camp Nou to play Barcelona. Back then, they travelled to Guijuelo, La Muela and Lemona. When they went to bigger clubs – Athletic, Real Sociedad, Osasuna – it was to face their B teams. Eibar were in the semi-professional Segunda B, one of 80 teams spread across four regionalised groups.
From a town of 27,378 wedged into the Ego valley, blocks of flats towering over the main stand, they had never played in the first division and never expected to either. Not even in 2014, when they got there: their unexpected promotion was almost blocked because they were too small. They haven’t left since. This is Eibar’s seventh season in primera, each a little miracle.
“I never imagined this,” says Garagarza, but the club with a ground that holds 8,000 and didn’t fill even pre-pandemic, traditionally a by-word for humble, tough football on muddy pitches, belongs in the elite now.
If budgets have grown and facilities have changed, the ground impeccable and overhauled, the ideals have not and the limitations remain. As watching briefs are assigned in this meeting, none of the games are from the Premier League, Serie A or the Bundesliga and only one is from Spain’s first division. That’s Eibar’s division but, Garagarza says: “It’s not our market.”
He outlines the process from scout to technical secretary to sporting director to coach. This is not a place players dream of, not a club that seduces with salaries. Even at youth level, they cannot compete with those surrounding them. They must invent imaginative solutions, contribute to the club’s development off the field too. “Financial management is central to our focus at all levels,” he says. “The idea has always been: ‘If I have five, I spend four’.”
“Last year for example we sold well – Joan Jordán [to Sevilla for €12m], Rubén Peña [to Villarreal for €8m] – but we never spend everything we make. It’s not just fees, it’s salaries too and other players always find out. Balancing that, managing renewals and increases, is one of the hardest tasks. Money isn’t everything, but if you can’t get close on salaries, forget it: players won’t come.
“We talk to the family, get friends to convince them, show what we offer. Investment in the stadium, training ground, medical facilities, the stability we have means we can convince some. But we couldn’t spend €10m, say”.
Eibar’s record signing is Edu Expósito, at €4m. The first-team squad cost less than €25m. Which is not to say they won’t invest. With every year investment increases and not spending was almost a costly early lesson.
When they played their first primera game, seven of the starting XI remained from Segunda B. Midway through that season Raúl Albentosa left for the Championship club Derby , who offered a seven-fold salary increase and trigged his €600,000 buyout clause. “We didn’t want to sell, but they got him easily,” Garagarza says. “We already had 27 points, a long way towards survival, and decided not to invest any of that. We got it wrong. We finished third from bottom, relegated, but Elche were administratively demoted because of their financial problems, saving us. We said: ‘We’ve been lucky; we can’t do that again.’
“We hadn’t expected to reach the first division. We had built a squad to survive in the second division: no money, players on loan. But we find ourselves in the play-offs, going up. Even in primera we couldn’t compete with some second division teams for players and within the club there were two currents of thought. One was a kind of fear of primera, the other a feeling that it was just a year to be enjoyed. See Madrid here, play a derby, increase income, go down again. We can’t survive. It was like an unexpected gift and it came too soon.
“But going down and surviving anyway – and we finished third from bottom, not last – changed things. That’s where we said: ‘We have to invest.’ If we had gone down, we would have had a good economic cushion to build, but we got a second chance to do so from primera.”
“Zaragoza, Sporting, Oviedo: they’re in the second division or Segunda B. And you ask what’s happening to allow smaller clubs like Leganés, Huesca and Eibar to appear in the first division. Why are clubs from small towns with little history here when big cities like those or Alicante, Córdoba or Murcia aren’t represented?
“We’ve done a lot right but also benefited from the timing and from big clubs being badly run. Some have debts to service, embargoes on income; we never had that. We don’t live above our means. We also have a small shareholder model, responsibility delegated in professional hands, rather than a sole owner making decisions sometimes for the wrong reasons.”
That provides some protection from the pandemic and poses broader questions about the foundations of modern football. “Not filling the stadium has less of an impact on us,” Garagarza says. “In relative terms we’re better off than clubs who depend on 50,000 coming through their gates. We got to primera at the right moment because despite having only 5,000 members, our ‘customer’ is television and that’s grown.
“For how long, though? Without TV, we may not be sustainable. We live well within that bubble; without it, we have little chance to diversify. We can’t really grow our catchment area. School kids are growing up thinking of Eibar as a first division team, which might help, but what about when we’re not? We have members who’ve always been there, down in the third tier. Others came since we reached primera. If we went down – which probability says is getting nearer – would they continue? I’m less optimistic.
“I’m not sure about the word: settled. What’s settled? How many years? What does it mean? Can we build a big stadium? No. Although we’re in primera, our limitations remain big, maybe even more than before. Alavés and Osasuna are back and they’re competition here. There are only 27,000 people in the town and Athletic and Real Sociedad dominate the surrounding area.
“The Basque element is important and we may have lost that identity a little. We had Dani García, Yuri Berchiche, Jon Errasti, Mikel Arruabarrena, Txema Añibarro. In our squad now there are only two: Roberto Olabe and Anaitz Arbilla.”
There’s a pause. “That concerns me. Luckily, the coach, José Luis Mendilibar, is Basque and fits the club perfectly: a leader whose values carry everyone with him.
“I also feel like that ‘Eibar fever’, the image, the repercussion, is dropping. We’ve seen Messi here seven times, Sergio Ramos seven times, Koke seven times. People might think: ‘What’s the attraction of a season ticket now? I’ve seen Atlético, Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Athletic.’ There’s a sort of comfort you can feel.”
The miracle of Eibar is that it no longer seems like a miracle. On Tuesday they face Barcelona, reason enough to celebrate, but these games have become normalised. “People know survival is a success and appreciate that,” Garagarza says, “although maybe it has flatlined. Yet what’s been done can’t be undone now.
“If one day we’re not a first division team, it won’t be like before. The history we’re building, the infrastructure, the foundations – youth football, women’s football, stadium, training ground, the sense of belonging – is the legacy. We’ll realise what Eibar have done when we’re not on this stage any more.”