BARCELONA (Reuters) - The story of Eibar, the team from a town of 27,000 inhabitants who continue to defy expectations, has warmed the hearts of football fans globally and the tiny Basque club are gearing up for one of the most important week’s in their 77-year history.
The Basque side, who have the smallest stadium in Spain’s top flight and the second lowest budget, sit ninth in La Liga and have reached the King’s Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
On Thursday they visit 10-times cup winners Atletico Madrid in the first leg before entertaining champions Barcelona on Sunday in the league, aiming to surpass their best ever points total in the first half of a season.
Next Thursday they will be back at their tiny, 6,000 capacity Ipurua stadium, surrounded by apartment blocks and located in a picturesque valley, aiming to see off Atletico and seal a cup semi-final berth.
The team’s nickname is the armourers as the town used to house a weapons factory, and the club have strong ties with their local, largely working-class community.
Eibar were a beacon of hope for the people during the town’s industrial decline in the 1980s, which coincided with the team’s promotion to Spain’s second division.
Those ties grew stronger when Eibar made it into La Liga for the first time in 2014 after two consecutive promotions on a slender budget of 3.2 million euros (2.77 million pounds) and the club had to call on the help of supporters locally and globally to survive.
They were obliged to increase their social capital by 1.7 million euros in the space of six months to meet the league’s regulations or face administrative relegation back to the third tier.
The “Defend Eibar” campaign was born, which used social media to encourage people to buy shares in the club. The response was emphatic and about 10,000 fans representing 50 countries purchased shares.
The club were rewarded for their financial dexterity as they struggled in the final months of their debut campaign, however, and despite finishing in the relegation zone they were spared the drop as Elche, who had finished five places above them, were relegated for breaking league rules on meeting tax obligations.
Eibar still parted company with Gaizka Garitano, the coach who had taken them from the third division to the top flight, but his successor Jose Luis Mendilibar has done even better.
They comfortably survived last season and have built on that momentum, taking 26 points from 18 games in this campaign, including a historic 1-1 draw at 32-times champions Real Madrid.
The club are also growing off the pitch, now boasting revenues of 43 million euros thanks to the league’s latest broadcasting rights deal, which has allowed them to invest 3.2 million euros in modernising and expanding their stadium to hold 7,200 spectators by 2019.
The increased budget has also led to a change in the make-up of the squad. While local stalwarts from the third division days like Ander Capa and Dani Garcia remain, they have brought in expensive recruits such as Real Madrid midfielder Pedro Leon, Portuguese winger Bebe, formerly of Manchester United, and Japan international Takashi Inui.
A spate of injuries have left Mendilibar without six players for their massive games against Atletico and Barcelona, but confidence for the Atletico game remains high.
“Right now the important thing is tomorrow’s game and we’re still going to assemble a good team. I‘m sure we’re going to make life difficult for them,” Mendilibar told reporters.
“We have to try and win at the Calderon and then come back to Ipurua and get the job done. That’s the only idea we have.”
Editing by Ed Osmond