Today’s football can be an avaricious industry, filled with a consumerist mentality. A world in which a club’s single-minded thirst for revenue dictates its future, where owners need to make money, regardless of success on the pitch. This isn’t a criticism, but an observation of reality, one that’s hardly surprising.
At the end of the day, whether we like to romanticize it or not, these clubs are also enterprises and have external responsibilities that go beyond 90 minutes of action. A club has to sustain itself as a club, but also as a business, and ever since the arrival of the pandemic, this mission completely changed the economic curve of every professional club.
Some remained humble in the mission, others broke rules with little or no repercussion. But what if you could be ethically profitable and successful? The ability to keep up with the likes of Manchester City, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich without spending beyond your limits?
Aside from this gargantuan obstacle, while searching and fighting for financial success, can a club maintain a strong relationship with the community it represents and essentially serve its needs as well as your own? Because ultimately, that’s where I believe a club makes its biggest, most enduring impact. The proverbial bridge between club and community should be the heart of football, but is it possible to keep the heart beating without sacrificing the ethical principles of a club’s mission?
Welcome to Real Sociedad, the Basque club from San Sebastián — inside the autonomous Basque country — who has not finished lower than sixth in LaLiga since COVID-19 entered our lives, and this season they currently sit in third place in Spain‘s top flight. This run has also included a Copa del Rey victory over Athletic Club in 2021 — the club’s first trophy for the first time in 34 years. Now this season, La Real is fighting for a Champions League spot for the first time since 2013/14, nine points away from the Godzillas of Spanish football, Real Madrid, and further away from the leaders Barcelona.
But the simple truth is that a current third place spot is a remarkable achievement for a club whose salary spending (€134.2 million per Statista) is nowhere near as close as Madrid (€683.5m) or Barça (€656.4m). In fact, it’s also less than Sevilla and Villarreal, two teams lower in the table.
Their football is sexy, too. Aesthetically pleasing, enamored with smart possession and collective effort, fluid and optimistic going forward. The club’s manager Imanol Alguacil — born and raised in province of Gipuzkoa, and who trained and played for the club — has been connected with the Txuri-Urdin (“blue and white” in the Euskera language) since he was a child and has now taken them on a remarkable ride since taking over from Asier Garitano in 2018.
This story, however, is not just about their successes on the pitch. Rather, this is an ode to a football club that understands the importance of community, and when it comes to the autonomous Basque country, specifically Gipuzkoa, this relationship is not just a feel-good story or an antithesis of corporate contrasts: it’s a unique way of life for a proud society. It just also happens to be a football club.
Welcome to Basque country. Welcome to La Real.
‘A way of being and doing things’
In order to truly understand Real Sociedad, you have to know Gipuzkoa. You have to know what it feels like to witness this land, blessed with so much richness in texture, appearance and taste.
God was in a good mood the day she created it.
Oh, did I say taste? The food in San Sebastián (the city is also referred as Donostia), as Anthony Bourdain once reminded us, is exquisite. Probably the best in Europe. Their pintxos are colorful, mesmerizing but not overwhelming. From Bar Goiz Argi’s local grilled shrimp with its secret sauce to Casa Urola (Bourdain’s spot) and its baked pigeon with chestnut puree, you can swim in a sea of flavor and never want to return to shore.
The people are proud, protective of their way of life and their language, whose roots are so old and intricate, we don’t fully know how or when it originated. All of these factors are vital in order to understand Real Sociedad and their Zubieta academy, because the club is San Sebastián and vice versa. This is a city that doesn’t even reach a population of 200,000, so in a way, they are all they have.
This wonderful land has to be experienced. So that’s exactly what I did last year, making a decision with my wife to explore this territory and everything it has to offer. Part of it was our thirst for constant travel, but the other was self-discovery. I am Peruvian, and most of my heritage originates from the Andes and its indigenous roots, but my name — Echegaray — is from Basque country. With both my parents now gone, it was up to me to go on a journey and find out more, and what I discovered was a community unlike no other.
Driving across this land is the equivalent to witnessing a Ramiro Arrue painting. From Logroño in La Rioja to Bilbao, there is a poetic attraction that pulls you in. Reaching San Sebastián, however, is a cathartic experience. The highway tunnels act as your preamble, like an orchestra preparing you for the main event. Then, the green colors surround the mountains and pull you in as you meet a town that encapsulates you.
The Reale Arena, designed by the local architectural studio Izaskun Larzabal, stands as an avant-garde museum, illustrating the creativity of the city itself and it’s one of the first things you see. It doesn’t matter how you experience San Sebastián. Whether it’s with cuisine, music or architecture. They all speak to you in a non-conformist way and the club is no different.
“Real Sociedad represents a sporting project, but it also represents a social one,” said Andoni Iraola, the club’s director and chair of the board. “Why? Because it’s a way of being and doing things. It’s not about winning the league or the Europa League … but rather it’s about reflecting our people through our behavior, so that we form part of their society, which is our society, and that’s what makes us a very social club.”
There is no majority shareholder in Real Sociedad — there are more than 14,000 shares in the club, and no individual can control more than 2%. The decision-making, therefore, is totally collective.
“We want Real Sociedad to belong to everybody,” Iraola said. “It’s a deeply rooted club with a sporting model, where our academy players are people that were born in our provinces, so that brings us very close to our people. We are showing ourselves as Basque people, as Gipuzkoan people.”
A model to serve all clubs great and small
This is a common thread with Real Sociedad, where the Zubieta academy and training facility nurture the entire organization. Since its foundation in 1909, at least one homegrown player has represented the first team, and there is a huge commitment to prioritizing youth development. From La Real‘s revenue, the club states that it uses around 55-60% for the first team, which is much lower than the league average (around 75%) meaning that the rest is on the academy and education as well as local support.
When you walk around San Sebastián, you sense a feeling of support for Real Sociedad, even if you’re not a supporter of the club. That’s because La Real also helps local, smaller clubs in other ways. Either by providing training support or even infrastructure. The bridge between the top club in the region and smaller clubs is vital for the community.
Young players in Real Sociedad are also supported from an academic perspective and every one attends school. There are also tutors available for extra help and nearly 50 of them are also attending university for either a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
On the pitch, they are nationally recognized as the most successful as 16 of the 26-man squad have played in the Sanse (reserves) squad and an average reserves player spends 8.2 years before being promoted to the first team. Only Athletic Club has more academy players. The famous La Masia academy that ends up having their young players in Barcelona’s first team? Real Sociedad has five more.
“Time is an investment itself,” said Sporting Director Roberto Olabe, one of the most interesting and smartest men I have ever interviewed. Olabe’s work is formidable, identifying key characteristics in a player that hardly anyone sees. It was thanks to the work of him and his team that brought Martin Odegaard back from the shadows of Real Madrid before moving to Arsenal.
Olabe’s ideology focuses on working through what the team has and doesn’t have. If the academy is blessed with plenty of possession-based players but not enough pace or physicality, there is a careful approach on where to find them. But almost everything is first about the academy and the local talent.
“Of course it is linked to money, too; you have to give them the resources, but you have to invest time in the players. And we have the responsibility to give them chances. The demands of the elite are significant, but everyone has the responsibility to open doors for the youngsters,” Olabe said.
“I am of the opinion that teams are built and grow not just by signing players every year but also by building year on year. They get better by having patience, giving time to youngsters to develop, giving them time to develop together, but also alongside Imanol,” added Olabe, speaking highly of the team’s manager.
One of the best examples of this patient approach is the first-team captain and star Mikel Oyarzabal, the perfect definition of what it means to play for this club. At only 25 years old, Oyarzabal has played nearly 250 times for the first team and was naturally the captain in their Copa del Rey victory. It was his penalty that earned the 1-0 win. Had it not been for a serious knee injury, Oyarzabal would have made the Spain squad in last year’s World Cup. He recently signed a new contract last month, extending his commitment to the club until 2028. His love for the club and the academy is limitless.
“Obviously, here we work very well. There’s a lot of people here that do everything they can to make sure you get better as a person and a player, and reach the first team,” Oyarzabal said. “Obviously that’s the case in many other clubs but here, on the first day you arrive, you feel protected, cared for. They help you in every way they can, not just the sporting side, and I think that’s very important. Even after football, they give you the tools necessary for everyday life and with football. So they give you the tools for life and in football.”
This is an important, dual value. If — just like Ted Lasso’s Dani Rojas joyfully reminds us — “football is life,” then Real Sociedad exemplifies it better than most.
The women’s team, Real Sociedad Femenino, founded in 2004, plays in the top division after two consecutive promotions and the club continues to make improvements. They won Copa de la Reina in 2019, finished second last season in the league and qualified for this season’s Champions League before losing to Bayern Munich for a spot in the group stages. Managed by the charismatic Natalia Arroyo, 36, who is also a former journalist and pundit and one of the youngest managers in the country, they’re currently eighth in the league but hoping to climb up that table sooner rather than later. Soon, an exclusive building will be built in Zubieta, where it will have a pitch with a capacity of 4,000 and facilities akin to the men’s side.
“We have the largest number of female players in the league,” Iraola said. “This is part of our principles and our DNA. … It couldn’t be any other way because this is one of the demands from our community.”
San Sebastián ‘will always be with you’
The rain is a friend of San Sebastián in the spring, but that doesn’t stop us from marveling at the city. Where there’s light, there’s food and where there’s food, there’s happiness. The city doesn’t need much from you to enjoy its culinary treasures but there are some treasures that can’t be ignored. They’re just too bright. That’s why we visited the wonderful, three-Michelin starred Arzak, the beautiful, elegant, warm restaurant, which was established in 1897. You might recognize it from Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” episode, where the charismatic Juan Mari Arzak discusses his love for his food, his people and the only place he has ever known.
We met his daughter, Elena, the equally wonderful joint head chef who was named best female chef in 2012. As we finished the meal, which included mackerel and anchovies with candied seed and chocolate and maracuyá balls with honey marmalade, we thanked her for an unforgettable experience and like family members, she reminded us that leaving San Sebastián is not really saying goodbye to a city. It’s saying, “I’ll see you soon,” to a friend.
Herman Melville once said, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men,” and in the Gipuzkoa region, in San Sebastián, Real Sociedad’s blue-and-white threads are those fibers, connecting the people to the club. From the region’s 89 municipalities, there’s an official club member in all but three of them.
As the club continues to fight for a Champions League spot, maintains third place in LaLiga and looks ahead to an encounter with Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma next week in the Europa League’s round of 16, remember that no matter the score, Real Sociedad’s actual success is dependent on the bond they have with their people and how that sentiment translates into their chant, “beti egongo gara zurekin.” We will always be with you.