Last weekend’s LaLiga round featured a match between Leganés and Eibar. Two small-town teams which just a few years ago would have been a Spanish third division fixture. Today both ‘Los Pepineros’ (Cucumber growers) and ‘Los Armeros’ (The Gunsmiths) have established themselves as members of the Spanish football elite. In a world where football clubs are multi-million euro businesses ran (and backed) by corporations and even entire countries, it is refreshing to see two tiny clubs achieving success with limited resources. But how did they actually manage to do it? Let’s take a closer look.
Situated only 11 kilometers from the Spanish capital, Leganés forms part of the greater Madrid area. The town was historically known for its agricultural production which explains the team’s nickname ‘Los Pepineros’. Founded in 1928, Club Deportivo Leganés did not actually get a taste of professional football until the 1992-93 season when the club won promotion to the Segunda División. Local businessman Felipe Moreno takes charge of the small club in 2008 and changes its fortunes forever. Together with his wife María Victoria Pavón, club president, he bonds the team with the community and establishes a clear vision for the future. The success on the pitch soon follows. As fate would have it, ex-Eibar player Aiser Garitano was to play a major part in the transformation of Lega. Under the leadership of the Basque manager, the team develops an identity of a solid defensive organization and exciting counter-attacking football. Results are rapid and surprise even the most optimistic fans at Estadio Butarque. Los Pepineros earn a historic promotion to the top Spanish flight after a 1-0 win against Mirandés in the last match of the 2015-16 season. Fans celebrate along with their heroes with an open-bus parade culminating in the packed town square. Leganés joins the company of its much bigger neighbors Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Rayo Vallecano, and Getafe as Madrid becomes the first Spanish region to feature 5 different clubs in its first football division. In its inaugural season, Lega not only manages to stay clear of relegation but makes an incredible run to the semifinals in the Copa del Rey, knocking out giants Real Madrid in the process. An unbelievable feat considering that only Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer value is almost double what Leganés is worth as an entire club. Currently, the team is 16th in the table and has turned Butarque into a fortress, losing just one game at home all season. Plenty of optimism for the blue-and-white faithful that their team is here for the long-run.
The town of Eibar, tucked away in the Basque region of Gipuzkoa, is even tinier than Leganés. Famous for its firearms production, this working-class town has a population of a little over 27,000. To put it into perspective, the entire population of Eibar could fit into the Santiago Bernabeu, not once, not twice, but three times! Fittingly, the local club’s stadium, Ipurua, has a capacity of 7,000 seats making it the smallest in Spanish professional football. The inauguration of Sociedad Deportiva Eibar dates back to 1940 when the legend goes that FC Barcelona provided them with their first kit. The blue and garnet colors stuck with the fans and Eibar still play with them today. Just like this weekend’s opponents Leganés, the Basques did not play professional football until the XI century. Gaizka Garitano, an ex-player takes charge in 2012 and earns an immediate promotion to the Second Division. His name is written in the history books only a season later when Eibar win their last game of the season to clinch an unlikely promotion to LaLiga, becoming the smallest club to play in the Spanish top flight. A huge party takes over the tiny town. In keeping with tradition, the confetti used is borrowed again from their ‘big cousin’ Barça. The Football Association almost cuts short the fairy tale as Eibar faces the threat of getting relegated back to the third division due to what they considered financial irregularities. The campaign “Defiende al Eibar”, however, inspires thousands of people around the world to donate and consequently keep the small Basque team in LaLiga. Today, SD Eibar is a fan-owned club, with more than 10,000 shareholders from 69 countries all over the world. The Gunsmiths have managed to improve their league position each year, finishing 9th in the 2017-2018 campaign. To put their achievement into better perspective they were the best placed of all the Basque teams finishing above Atheltic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. They have taken a few big scalps along the way as well, with the most recent being Real Madrid after a convincing 3-0 win at Ipurua in November last year.
Football has changed drastically and has become much more than a sport; it is now an expensive form of entertainment. It is important, however, to talk about stories like this as they keep the romanticism of the ‘beautiful game’ alive. Clubs like Leganés and Eibar can hopefully inspire others because even in this competitive market there is a place for everyone, no matter the size, or how strange the club nicknames are.