"Futbol is in our DNA; it's as central to our culture as our architecture and gastronomy."
Mikel Barcena speaks for Deportivo Alaves, the Spanish Primera Division club where he serves as sponsorship and activation manager. But he could very well be speaking for soccer in all of Spain -- in particular, the four clubs that are the heartbeat and pulse of the Basque region.
Consisting of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, the Basque region is home to some of Spain's biggest clubs. The four -- Athletic Bilbao, Sociedad Deportiva (SD) Eibar, Alaves and Real Sociedad -- are proud members of the top league in Spain, arguably the best league in the world. Each team holds tight to philosophies specific only to them, but an inquisitive fan might detect more similarities than the clubs, with their loyal and rabid fan bases, would care to admit.
While part of one of the richest leagues in the world, with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona sitting atop the financial mountain with what seems like an embarrassment of riches (in both talent and resources), the four teams from Basque Country collectively embrace a philosophy of achieving excellence but not at the risk of sacrificing their strong cultural traditions. The quartet happily play the role of David while the rest of the world is Goliath.
Athletic Bilbao is the only side in top-level European soccer to restrict itself to local players from the Basque region, a rule designed to maintain the team's identity but not necessarily their racial makeup. SD Eibar, the epitome of the "little engine that could" and playing only its fifth season in Spain's top division, is one of the smallest clubs in La Liga with a total market value of $72.49 million, a pittance compared to powerhouses like Real Madrid (total market value: $1.18 billion). Their home city (population: 27,406) is quite content with its 8,000-seat Ipurua Municipal Stadium and has little interest in growing for the sake of it.
Small or not, SD Eibar isn't at the mercy of Messi's wrath when Barcelona comes to town as he did on Feb. 22, scoring four goals in a 5-0 win. "It's literally about surviving," explains Mark Jones, senior online sports reporter for the Mirror. "Eibar got promoted to La Liga in 2014 for the first time ever, and they just want to stay. Staying above the relegation line means another year; another year of global exposure; another year of playing against Messi and all that that brings; for them, surviving is success."
Like Athletic Bilbao, SD Eibar recruits heavily from the Basque region, the only notable exception being Takashi Inui, the Japanese attacking midfielder whose presence has worked on and off the field, from a global marketing perspective. Athletic Bilbao believe that their sweet spot is fourth in the La Liga table, in the shadows of (but not too far from) mainstays Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. "They want to see themselves as the fourth biggest side in Spain," Jones says of Athletic Bilbao, whose eight league titles are fourth in Spain behind Real, Barca and Atletico.
"They've established a 53,000-seat stadium and they've got the European Championships coming in the summer, and they matter. So for them, mattering in the Spanish system is a bigger thing over the championships, the trophies they lift or the records they set."
At best, success looks different for all four.
"For Real Madrid, perhaps, success for them is to be the most important club in the world, including throughout the U.S., China, South America and Europe," explains Javier Ibanez, a La Liga communications manager. "For a team like Eibar, the goal is to remain in first division and for a club that used to be in the third division [and] fourth division for such a long time, for them, they say staying in first division is like a miracle."
Alaves, founded in 1921, can understand that. They've lived it, having toiled in the bottom divisions for years before earning promotion to La Liga in 2016. Historically a second- or third-division club, Alaves had a good run in the early 2000s: their peak came in 2001, when the club made the final of the 2001 UEFA Cup against Liverpool, losing a heart-breaker, 5-4, to a "golden goal" (a "next goal wins" mechanism no longer used in the sport) in extra time. Relegation would come after the 2002-03 season and by 2007, the club was close to bankruptcy, having accrued a debt of nearly 21 million Euros under Ukrainian-American businessman owner Dmitry Piterman.
"After going back down again to the third division, they would need to be saved by the local basketball team," explained Jones, speaking of Saski Baskonia, one of the 11 teams in the 16-team EuroLeague that eventually purchased a collective 81 percent stake in the club. The lifeline helped Eibar extend its footprint to other clubs in Europe.
"And they'd come back up again," Jones continues. "So for them, they have a slightly different outlook given that they've been there before, and know what to expect from the level."
Real Sociedad, meanwhile, sits somewhere in the middle. The club followed the Basque-only homegrown player policy for years, but diverted from it in 1989 when it signed Irish international John Aldridge from Liverpool. The club boasts a strong youth development program, having successfully developed internationally renowned players like World Cup winners Xabi Alonso and Antoine Griezmann, who joined the club as a 12-year-old.
Ask Luki Iriarte, director of Real Sociedad's Zubieta academy since 2015, and he will tell you that Sociedad hangs its hat on player development, with strong ties to the more than 50 clubs throughout the Gipuzkoa footprint: they also hold fast to a rule of not bringing players until they're at least 10 years old.
Culture and identity
In American sports circles -- read: professional leagues with no relegation system in any of the top five domestic sports -- it's blasphemous to deem oneself successful without the championships to show. Winning, not merely surviving, is the only barometer for success. It's why words like "repeat," "two-peat" and "three-peat" have become ingrained in the lexicon of American sports fans. Perfection, not near-perfection, is the very reason fans argue the G.O.A.T. status of Tom Brady (6-for-9 in Super Bowls) and Lebron James (3-for-6 in NBA finals). That mentality is far from the one that made Spanish soccer the mountain of success that it is, and there's a very good reason for that.
"You have to understand that for soccer in Spain, most towns couldn't begin to tell their story without soccer, and that doesn't happen in the U.S.," explains LaLiga's Ibanez. "Now you see teams are starting to build this kind of culture around soccer. "The teams [in the United States] just need time ... and I know nowadays sports, and especially in the U.S., patience is not the easiest thing to find. But it will come.
"The U.S. has a strong history of building: the NFL and NBA are the best leagues in the world. America might not have [soccer] history like Spain, but you can still create identity, something that makes the people feel closer to you and part of it."
And that is the road ahead for Major League Soccer, which just kicked off its 25th season last weekend. Bigger and stronger than ever -- Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper was recently awarded the league's 30th franchise, which is set to begin play in 2021 -- the league is successfully shedding the narrative as a "retirement league," a final stop for aging former top-tier players to finish out their careers. America has done well to grow the game at home -- the success of the women's national team should get a large portion of the credit -- and with initiatives like Relevent Sports Group's International Champions Cup and their joint venture with LaLiga, have amplified the growth and profile of the sport throughout North America. But there is still some way to go before America's domestic league can rival the level of success found in La Liga or the English Premier League, or that its games yet come close to creating soccer environments like the Basque Country derby.
In a Feb. 9 match featuring rivals Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad at Anoeta Stadium, Sociedad fans set the atmosphere with a chorus of songs and chants, never taking their seats, roaring at every touch and successful connected pass. Within that heated contest, Athletic Bilbao and Sociedad see themselves in each other -- a sea of red and blue vs. red and black, holding court at separate ends of the stadium -- reveling in the pre-game festivities in surrounding bars as children in full kit played small-sided games wherever they could make space.
This particular game, a scoreless first 45 minutes, turned out to be a traditional "tale of two halves" -- two foes so familiar in makeup, brand and philosophy that the first stanza is boring to watch, even by La Liga standards. Then came the second half and two players, one from each side, entered the game at the same time (the 55th minute), creating an instant sea change. "You could feel the game change immediately after [Sociedad forward] Alexander Isak and [Athletic striker Inaki] Williams came on," said Mikkel Lundby of Denmark-based Ritzau News Agency.
"Almost in an instant, you felt the region come together."
Isak, the young Sweden striker (and crowd favorite) whom Sociedad fans hoped to continue his impressive scoring run (he bagged two goals in Real's stunning 4-3 road win against Real Madrid in their Copa del Rey quarterfinal victory) was part of the reason. Williams -- born in 1994 in Bilbao to Ghanaian parents, Félix and María, who had emigrated to Spain -- made his presence felt first, bagging an equalizing goal in the 71st minute (after a 65th-minute goal by Cristian Portu that was assisted by Isak). Isak would get one last laugh, notching a goal in the 83rd minute to propel the hosts to their fourth win in the last five Basque Country derbies.
At full-time, Real Sociedad serenaded their rising star, singing his name in a thunderous chorus of Iiiisak ... Iiiisak-Iiiisak while waving flags of white and blue; the Athletic Bilbao faithful, seated in a smaller section on the opposite end of the pitch, could only look on quietly, their flags lowered.
"It was a great game, especially in the second half," says Egyptian soccer journalist Gehad Orabi, sports editor and digital media manager at yallakora.om, the biggest sports site in Egypt. "But you see what made the difference: a player Real got from the outside [who] proved to be the advantage in the end of the biggest game for both of their fans."
The victory moved Sociedad to sixth on the La Liga table, while Athletic Bilbao stayed ninth. For fans of Athletic Bilbao, though, this loss to Sociedad cut deeper. "We play without foreigners in the good way [and] we don't import talent," explained 33-year-old Athletic Bilbao follower Ekaitz Telletxea Babarro, whose family is from the Basque Country. It's a veiled shot at Real Sociedad, of course, in reference to Isak's rise, which might seem a competitive edge. "In Bilbao, football is a religion that is taught since birth."
In the end, all four teams might begrudgingly agree that their bond is part of what drives them to not only win, but succeed.
"They know their place," explained Jones. "They can all say they're rubbing shoulders with the best Spanish players in the top flight watched by millions around the world." That might perhaps be the biggest win of all.