Real Sociedad act as a father figure for all of the smaller football clubs located in their portion of the Basque Country. Except one.

When Luki Iriarte, director of the club’s Zubieta academy since 2015, speaks he shares a philosophy that has been in place since long before his time, and has echoed across a part of Spain that rightly takes pride in their food, architecture and football, but most of all their identity.

To be Basque can be longed for national identity, but also a feeling, a thought, a state of mind, whatever you want it to be really. But crucially to be different and to look after one another.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than across the region’s four La Liga clubs, each striving to matter in Spain’s top division while the eyes of the world are on their big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad are the Basque region’s two premier clubs

For Sociedad, their pride comes from developing young, local players, and in the vast majority of cases simply giving them back to the region when they don’t turn out to be a one in a million talent like a Xabi Alonso or an Antoine Griezmann.

Unlike the English academy system, where players can be signed up as young as six and immediately programmed to be a professional footballer and little else, Sociedad don’t bring players into their academies until the age of 13, instead leaving them at schools and local, smaller clubs while keeping an eye on their progress.

“We start late as we want them to have the chance to be kids first,”says Iriarte.

La Liga
Luki Iriarte explains Real Sociedad’s philosophy

“We have endless contact with their schools, and in their physical education classes they’ll work on six different sports every year up until the age of 12. Are we 100% certain that all the PE teachers are doing things well? No.”

No?! But what about controlling these youngsters’ destinies? Club DNA? Making them aware of just who they are representing and what is expected of them? Most importantly, what about winning?

“This sport is about winning,” continues Iriarte. “Our biggest achievement is the number of homegrown players we’ve developed in the first team, or to be professional footballers elsewhere.

La Liga
Sociedad mix young players with experienced names like ex-Arsenal man Nacho Monreal

“Some might make it but we also need to give to focus on developing an effective educational system. That way we can help our players become not only good footballers but also good people.”

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That trust, and finances, that Sociedad place in local clubs and schools is typical of a region where identity is everything, and there is a strong pride in representing just who and what you are as well as trust in those around you.

Take SD Eibar, the smallest club in Europe’s top five leagues and now the only smaller one in the Basque region that Sociedad don’t deal with. They’ve become a direct rival after all.

Mark Jones
Eibar’s Ipurua stadium

Located in a city of just 27,000 people, Eibar reached Spain’s top division for the first time in their history in 2014. An impressive mix of local and global action has helped keep them there ever since.

Having launched a crowdfunding campaign to help reach La Liga financial requirements, the club from the pretty 8,000-capacity Ipurua stadium in the hills of Gipuzkoa now have 11,000 shareholders in 69 countries around the world, all with a say in what goes on including an increasing number of foundation and youth sport projects.

Marketing-wise, their Japanese attacker Takashi Inui – who scored twice for his country at the last World Cup – ensures that the Eibar name rings out around the world and is especially popular in the Far East.

Eibar’s Takashi Inui lit up the 2018 World Cup

Six points outside the relegation zone at the time of writing, the club know that they are likely to return to their lower league roots one day, but are entirely comfortable with their place in the Spanish pecking order. Buses still leave the city for Real Sociedad home games every other week, and everyone is disarmingly cool about it.

Around 45 minutes south in Vitoria-Gasteiz lie Alaves, a club forever remembered by British audiences for their remarkable run to the UEFA Cup final of 2001 when they lost 5-4 to Liverpool after extra-time.

Their history since then has resembled the roller coaster nature of that game, with a spell in the third division acting as the nadir before a climb back up to the top-flight under the ownership of the Baskonia Group behind the successful local basketball team who play at the top level of the Euro League, basketball’s Champions League.

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Alaves lost the 2001 UEFA Cup final to Liverpool

Sky TV and Virgin TV customers across the UK can watch every LaLiga Santander fixture on LaLigaTV. LaLigaTV is the first dedicated channel to broadcast every live match and provide 24/7 access to “All of LaLiga, All in one place.”

Under that experienced, driven organisation – who wiped off the club’s €21million debt in 2015, four years after purchase – Alaves are now taking impressive steps to consolidate their place among the elite, with the group branching out and into clubs elsewhere in Europe and the Far East.

There is a sense of the City Football Group and the Red Bull organisation about them, and British clubs are on their radar. They want to spread their values around the globe, and they look for all the world as though they’ll succeed.

Meanwhile at Athletic Bilbao – the most storied of the Basque clubs with their eight La Liga titles and a staggering 23 Copa del Rey trophies, second only to Barcelona – there is a sense of pride at the traditions they carry with them. That they own.

La Liga
The San Mames in Bilbao will host four games at Euro 2020

It is widely known that the club continue to operate a Basque-only policy in their squad, with all players having to have some connection to an area that they don’t have to have been born in, but at least feel an affinity with through a childhood spent living there.

First-team players and youth talents mix happily at the club’s Lezama training ground, where the likes of Aymeric Laporte and Kepa Arrizabalaga honed their skills before being spirited away to the riches of the Premier League. Kepa has just been dropped by Chelsea, so will he come back to Athletic one day? “Our current goalkeeper Unai Simon is even better than him,” insists Nika Cuenca, the club’s head of communications.

Things just roll on at Athletic then, despite the outside world often failing to grasp the club’s playing policy and sometimes misinterpreting it.

Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon is highly rated at the club

There will always be those that say they are hamstringing themselves by imposing such an outlook – or inlook – but as at Sociedad that means that there is more attention paid to the club’s infrastructure.

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It will be Bilbao – not Madrid or Barcelona – which plays host to this summer’s Euro 2020 finals, holding all three of Spain’s group games and one last-16 match at the 53,000 capacity, recently renovated San Mames stadium.

Plenty of Athletic’s 45,000 members will be out in force for those games, which could come just a few weeks after yet another Copa del Rey trophy is added to the cabinet.

Athletic and Sociedad beat Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively in the last eight, and both are one goal up after the first leg of their semi-finals. We know what they consider success, but this would be real, tangible, shiny trophy-looking success, and they still want that too.

La Liga
Ex-Real Sociedad man Xabi Prieto is looking forwar to a potential Basque derby cup final

“It is exciting for clubs like Real and Athletic that every year have to fight with bigger ones with huge budgets in the league,” says the former Sociedad stalwart Xabi Prieto, who retired in 2018 having won no major trophies and no Spain caps, but undoubtedly as a legend to the locals.

“For us and them the Copa del Rey is a coveted trophy. We have not won it since 1987 and they haven’t since 1984. We still have to get through the semi-final, but it would be nice to see a Basque duel in the final.”

It is tempting to say that such a final would be an event that would bring the Basque Country together, but then it already is together.

At last week’s La Liga derby between Sociedad and Athletic fans of both sides mingled and drank side by side on the streets outside the revamped, modernised Anoeta stadium, where Sociedad’s Alexander Isak would later score an 83rd minute winner to settle a tight, entertaining contest. Athletic fans were left disappointed but not bitter, and there were still beers suck together in the aftermath.

Alexander Isak scored Sociedad’s winner against Bilbao

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Could something similar happen in English football? It still does occasionally, but at the top level such sights are increasingly rare.

But it is that sense of ownership that radiates from these organisations which should serve as the real lesson, particularly for our clubs lower down our league pyramid who, in the shadow of giants, have come to rely on the riches of a solitary figure or group, sometimes catastrophically when they should be looked after better.

Driven by their identity, every one of La Liga’s four Basque clubs feels like they are offering a piece of themselves to you, the fan, because they are.

The memberships, crowdfunding, community projects and youth development are all giving a little back quite often, and that makes for a healthier game for all.

As the Premier League clubs get richer and those below them poorer, there is much to learn from the proud Basque way of life.

Sky TV and Virgin TV customers across the UK can watch every LaLiga Santander fixture on LaLigaTV. LaLigaTV is the first dedicated channel to broadcast every live match and provide 24/7 access to “All of LaLiga, All in one place.”





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