Phil Ball: Weeds in the fairy garden for Eibar

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  • Eibar players try to win the ball from James Rodriguez.

    The trouble with fairy tales is that they tend to focus on things that never happened, or on things that probably never could or would. The trouble with the Eibar fairy-tale is that it did happen, and it’s still going on.  

    Nasty monsters (Real Madrid) will appear from time to time to spoil the party – which is more or less what happened on Saturday at Ipurua – the fairy-tale garden – but even after a numbing 4-1 defeat, the club-that-you’d-never-heard-of are still within reach of Europa League qualification. In the rough-and-tumble mountain kingdom of Eibar, the humble folks are still dreaming.

    Saturday afternoon was a big day for the club, with the official opening of the refurbished  Eastern Stand carried out by the new Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui, who just happens to be a Basque from down the road.  

    He brought along his own scissors to cut the ribbon.  Even Javier Clemente was there, looking as grumpy as ever, and this time Florentino Pérez deigned to turn up (he made some feeble excuse last season) to finally experience the kingdom of Mordor in the flesh.

    Eibar, a gash between two steep escarpments filled with high-rise flats, houses a population of 25,000 – about the capacity of the Bernabeu’s own eastern stand.   The whole of Eibar could be packed into one stand in Madrid. Pérez should invite them all down one day. Now that’d be nice.  

    I was invited to the game, to sit in the new shiny eastern stand behind the goal.  I was there with the USA-Eibar ‘peña’ (fan-club) a collective of shareholders and La Liga obsessives whose last visit had coincided with the final months of the now departed President, Alex Aranzabal – the young local lecturer-cum-entrepreneur who had dragged the club from Segunda ‘B’ obscurity to top-flight fame, only to fall on his own sword last summer – for reasons best known to himself.

    When Eibar were promoted in the late spring of 2014, the Spanish league required them to raise cash collateral of €2 million (AED 7.8 million) as surety before they could be admitted, despite the club’s balanced books.  

    Aranzabal’s initiative was to open a share issue at €50 (AED 194), limiting the amount to be purchased but permitting anyone from overseas to contribute.  It worked like a charm and the club now boasts 11,000 shareholders from 60 countries, whilst 14% of Eibar’s population is a paid-up member of the club.  

    The American delegation – whom Aranzabal was smart enough to both thank and to be photographed with in his final season, were part of the share issue.  Now they’re back, publicly patronised by the new regime – and I’m with them in the gleaming new stand.   

    The sky looks black with possible rain over the western stand opposite as Real Madrid trot into the tiny green realm.  The weather here is volatile, and Real Madrid would prefer the afternoon to be a placid one.

    They appear to be losing their grip on the league, with a midweek 3-3 home draw against Las Palmas, and with Tuesday’s tricky trip to Napoli in the offing, Zinedine Zidane has Gareth Bale and Alvaro Morata suspended, Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos rested, and a gnarly opposition who are fired up.

    Eibar have only lost once in the last six games (to Sevilla) and are in 7th place. If Alavés fail to defeat Barcelona in the King’s Cup Final, this position will be rewarded with a Europa League spot for next season. Small beer for some, but champagne for Eibar.

    On top of that, back in early October they nicked a point from the Bernabéu in a historic 1-1 draw. No-one underestimates Eibar now, not even the European Champions.

    The coach José Luis Mendilibar is up in one of the TV cabins, suspended from the party, and looks down in horror as Real Madrid overrun his soldiers and are 3-0 up within 29 minutes.

    The American to my left, so excited and pop-eyed by the whole spectacle at the beginning – amazed at how physically close the players are to us – visibly deflates as the goals rattle in to the net just below.  ‘Maaa-aan!’ he wails.  ‘What is happening man?  They just can’t DO this to us!’  He seems genuinely offended that Madrid could spoil his day out, in such a brutal manner.

    So aghast is he at the events that he turns to me for some sort of explanation.  ‘Maaaan!  No Bale, no CR7, no Kroos, and they’re KILLING us!  Why?’  I suggest that it’s because those given a rare chance, Marco Asensio and James Rodriguez particularly, are playing with the same zest and commitment as Eibar.

    They have a point to prove.  Asensio indeed looks excellent – his touch and vision matched by his physical strength.  You really do wonder why he doesn’t get more minutes. What I don’t tell him, because I fear it might not sound appropriate, is that the absence of CR7 liberates a whole set of players, releases them from the glares and over-focus of their Alpha-male Portuguese colleague, and binds them as one.

    Karim Benzema just does it himself and scores twice, Luka Modric dances around at will, and James’ exquisite touch controls the game from just in front of the holding midfielders. Ronaldo (from his sofa in Madrid) seems to have realised this at last, and in the last few games has been noticeably more ‘associative’, but in his absence the truth is plain here in Ipurua.

    Take him out of the equation, and the team looks both fluent and deadly. One day, even Pérez will understand and free Zidane from the (unspoken) obligation to always pick him.

    The fans in front of us, mostly comprising the ‘Eskozia La Brava’ peña fan-club (Scotland the Brave), so-called because of an empathic Braveheart association and links with Celtic football club, cheer on their soldiers ceaselessly, although their tendency to remain standing means that I can only watch the game between their heads – a throwback to when I was a kid on the terraces of Grimsby.

    The new stand has neither dimmed their enthusiasm nor changed their behaviour, much to the rather tired expressions of the security guys to either side of the bouncing mass. When Eibar pull things back to 4-1 in the second half, Ruben Peña scoring in our end, the fans explode as if they had won the Champions League.  

    The hard-core followers of the club are so committed to the cause that neither relegation nor bubonic plague would dilute their love.  But some of those I spoke to after the game are unsure of the present board, accepting that they will win re-election unchallenged in June but unhappy with certain developments at the club.

    Behind the old stand, the ‘Eskozia La Brava’ graffiti mural was a symbol of the gritty urban grassroots of the club. Football tourists would queue to have selfie shots there, but now it has gone, covered by the new metallic exterior.

    One of the Americans points out that it would have been easy to have built the new structure around the wall, and he’s right.  But you get the feeling that the new board, headed by female President Amaia Gorostiza, are trying to move on.  

    In a sense you sympathise with them, since to not build new stands or VIP lounges would attract criticism, but the creeping modernisation of the club – a process admittedly begun by Aranzabal –  makes the hard-core nervous.  Gorostiza herself is a local, but once her family could afford it, she moved to Getxo, in the posh part of Bilbao, and never really came back.

    There is a certain suspicion of her, and of her motives.  As one fan commented, when the club was running on an annual budget of 800,000, no-one was interested in holding the reins – except Aranzabal.  

    This season the budget is €43 million (AED 167 million), and suddenly the tiny community has a major financial asset in its midst. As they say, money attracts money.  Maybe that’s ok. The times they are-a-changin’ in Eibar and competent financiers move in.  

    You do feel, however, that the high amount of small shareholders that the club now has is a millstone around their neck – a legacy of the previous administration. The board is gritting its teeth, but the show is unconvincing.  

    Gorostiza’s administration boasts of the high number of women in executive and management positions, but when the video sex-scandal broke at the club last October, the fairy-tale was besmirched by the lack of action on the part of the board regarding the players involved, Sergi Enrich and Antonio Luna.

    Instead of publicly criticising the players and expressing sympathy for the victim, the club closed ranks. Luna may be on his way in May, but Enrich is the top scorer and remains, although the victim has begun legal action. The Eibar fans can’t quite decide whether to celebrate Enrich or not. His financial value to Eibar seems to have mattered more to the board than taking the appropriate moral action.

    Nevertheless, whilst the team performs on the pitch, the present board will reap the benefits and the fairy-tale will remain intact, at least to the public eye.  No local journalists have questioned the regime, and international writers continue to gush.

    It is indeed a great story, but sometimes in those fairy tale gardens, the occasional weed breaks to the surface.  It would be a shame if those weeds were to grow any higher.