When the mighty Real Madrid journey north to the Basque town of Eibar on Saturday, they will come up against a team with tartan running through its veins.
Rolling green hillsides and trickling streams surround SD Eibar’s home ground, but the club’s Scottish association goes deeper than that. Deeper even than the Saltire which adorns the back wall of the club’s 5,000-seater stadium, illustrating Eibar’s inherent Caledonian connection, or the piper that led their promotion celebrations last season.
Having won back-to-back promotions, rising from the Second Division B to the Spanish top flight, Eibar’s fans will now savour trips to footballing hotbeds like the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu this season. But it was a trip by some Eibar fans to a rugby international at Murrayfield in 2001 that inspired the club’s personality.
“We were so impressed with how the Scottish fans supported their team no matter what,” said Joseba Combarro, president of Eibar’s Eskozia La Brava (Scotland the Brave) supporters group. “The Scottish identity connects with the philosophy of Eibar.”
Just like the Scots, Eibar’s fans had become accustomed to supporting a losing team before promotion to the top tier. Hailing from a town of under 28,000 people, attracting modest home crowds of 3,000, Eibar are undoubtedly La Liga’s smallest club – maybe even Spain’s smallest club, given that no club in the country’s league pyramid can claim to come from a smaller town.
But despite their status as La Liga minnows, Eibar have made an impressive start to their maiden top-flight campaign, sitting comfortably in tenth place after 11 games. The Basque club have made a habit out of proving their detractors wrong, which is just as well considering the tale of how they have made it this far.
Eibar clinched promotion by winning the Second Division title last season, although it nearly counted for nothing. Spanish football law dictates that every top-flight team must possess capital equal to 25 per cent of the average expenses of all the teams in the second division, excluding the two clubs with the biggest outgoings and the two clubs with the smallest outgoings.
So the debt-free club was required to raise 1.7 million euros (£1.3m) in the space of a few months. It’s a rule designed to guarantee the survival of La Liga clubs, but it very nearly prevented Eibar from getting there in the first place. Furthermore, had the sum not been found, Eibar would have suffered relegation back to the third tier.
“Totally unfair,” is how the town’s mayor described the situation Eibar found themselves in, but the campaign that followed caught the imagination of support beyond the club’s own fanbase.
With promotion to La Liga on the line, a share issue was launched, with supporters from all over the world stumping up. No one fan was allowed to purchase more than $100,000 (£80,000) worth of shares – a measure to prevent ownership of the club falling into the hands of an outsider – and the money was indeed raised, with the likes of Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi chipping in too.
Now with their place in La Liga secured, for the time being at least, Eibar face Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Co on Saturday. “The fans are all very excited for the game,” says Combarro, looking ahead to Saturday’s clash against the European champions. “The stadium sold out in just one day. It will be a historic day for the club and hopefully a game to enjoy.”
Eibar might hail from a town roughly the size of Falkirk, but they are more than just a Spanish Gretna. Their rapid rise through the divisions may lend itself to such a comparison, but to do so would ignore the manner in which the tiny club has overcome its obstacles.
“Of course we can,” Combarro bullishly insists when asked whether Eibar can bring the Galacticos back down to earth in the biggest game ever to be played at the club’s tiny home ground. “They have many stars, but if we play together we can topple Madrid. To believe otherwise would be against our Scottish spirit.”