Real Sociedad’s secret? It’s all about staying local


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SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — It’s raining in San Sebastian. It’s nearly always raining here, or has just stopped raining, or is about to rain. Set around a curl of beach on Spain’s northern coast, the compact city of elegant promenades is one of Europe’s loveliest settings and has some of the world’s finest restaurants. But nobody goes there for the weather.

The official statistics report that San Sebastian gets around 150 days of sunshine annually, less than half the national average. When I arrive at Real Sociedad’s training grounds, which climb a hillside in the nearby town of Lasarte, a drizzle drips from a sky the color of chimney smoke. It’s early-December, and it’s the region’s 18th straight day of precipitation.

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The following day, when Real Sociedad will host PSV Eindhoven in a game that will eliminate one of them from the UEFA Europa League, will surely be the 19th. My quick and unscientific survey of the changing room reveals that precisely nobody minds. “The fact is, it’s an advantage for us,” says Mikel Oyarzabal, who was born a short distance away in Eibar. “We’re accustomed to it and the other teams aren’t.”

Oyarzabal has spent his entire professional career at Real Sociedad. He shrugs when asked how he and his teammates cope with the perpetually somber skies. “I prefer it when the weather is bad,” he says. “I don’t know why. It just makes me feel comfortable.”

By the time the players start walking up a hillside path in twos and threes, heading for a field of green so iridescent that it looks unreal, the rain is falling harder. Darker clouds are massing. Somewhere else, the training session might be moved indoors. Instead, nobody glances up. “It’s just normal for us,” says Ander Barrenetxea, a promising young winger who was born and raised in San Sebastian.

Much of the team is from here, the small hillside villages and stately cities of the Basque Country. Their surnames, with a proliferation of Z’s and X’s and K’s, reflect their singular heritage: Zaldua and Zubimendi and Zubeldia; Oyarzabal and Barrenetxea and Dozagarat and Karrikaburu. As they kick a ball around a circle, I can hear them talking in Euskera, the Basque language.

Euskera is unrelated to Spanish or to the French spoken across the border just a few miles to the east. In fact, it bears no known relation to any language anywhere in the world. It’s uncommonly difficult to learn; if you don’t start speaking Euskera in your childhood, you almost certainly never will.

That can be intimidating for anyone who relocates to the region, as Real Sociedad Nordic forwards Alexander Isak and Alex Sorloth have done in recent years, or even for another Spaniard like David Silva, who previously starred at Manchester City. Fortunately, their teammates understand. “They read the room,” says Mat Ryan, the Australian goalkeeper. “If a bunch of guys are sitting around, they’re probably talking in Euskera. But if one of us walks in, they’ll nearly always switch to Spanish.”

On the field, the secret language allows Real Sociedad’s players to openly discuss strategy against any opponent, except one of the other Basque clubs. “Even in La Liga games,” Ryan says, “nobody has any idea what they’re talking about.”

For centuries, the Basques cultivated their crops, tended to their flocks, overcame the elements and kept to themselves. “Short on words, but long on deeds” is how they are described in a 17th century play by the Spaniard Tirso de Molina. Today, that seems an apt description of their football teams: Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and the second-division Eibar, but especially Real Sociedad.

San Sebastian’s province, Guipuzcoa, is Spain’s most compact. The city itself, called Donostia in Euskera, has just 185,000 residents. Forty Spanish cities are larger. Yet Real Sociedad has spent much of this season near the top of the LaLiga table. Earlier this year, it won the Copa del Rey. (This Wednesday, it will play Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 of this year’s Copa.) Six times during this century, Real Sociedad advanced to UEFA competitions. In 2003-04 and 2013-14, it played in the Champions League.

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Ryan, who was signed in the summer from Brighton and Hove Albion, is the latest outsider to join this small but curiously ambitious club. The first was John Toshack, who managed it three times beginning in 1985, followed by John Aldridge, a striker who came from Liverpool four years later. There are never many of them at once, which is a way to ensure its Basque culture remains intact. Yet Real Sociedad strives to compete with the top clubs in Spain and, occasionally, all of Europe.

Sometimes, it succeeds. As of late October, the club sat at the top of La Liga. That’s when manager Imanol Alguacil cautioned that its chances of actually finishing ahead of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona were quite small. Players grow uneasy even at talk of returning to the Champions League, though at the moment they sit in fifth place, outside the top four only by goal differential. “We want to be there, but we can’t say we will be there,” says Mikel Merino, a Basque midfielder who grew up down the highway in Pamplona.

The Basque way is to direct attention to the task at hand, whether that means patiently driving a herd of sheep into a pen or preparing for the next match. “Or not even the next match, but the next training session,” Merino says. “We don’t pay attention to the future.”

The Basques have remained in the same corner of Europe since the Paleolithic era, making them the oldest surviving ethnic group on the continent. Their resistance to outside influence is a point of intense pride: the Basque Country was even the last area of Western Europe to convert to Christianity. It was also the last place where the families from the countryside came together to form what we would consider towns. The Basques even have their own typographic font — the capital A resembles a card table, or maybe an antique telephone; the capital L could be a comfortable chair — adapted from the writing on their medieval tombstones.

This insularity helps Real Sociedad compete. In a sense, it’s a neighborhood club, though the neighborhood extends across three Spanish provinces. “It feels like a brotherhood,” says Merino. “We protect each other.” Merino had stints in Newcastle and Dortmund before Real Sociedad brought him home in 2018. “I’m fortunate,” he says now. “This is a very special place to live and play.”

Toshack remembers arriving in San Sebastian in 1985. He had played there a decade before while at Liverpool and been impressed by the city. Now he had been hired to manage Real Sociedad following a second-place finish at Sporting Lisbon. Before that, he recorded the remarkable achievement of getting Swansea City from England’s fourth division to its first by earning promotions in three consecutive seasons. He was a hot commodity.

Still, his appointment was greeted with incredulousness and even anger from a significant portion of Real Sociedad supporters. Throughout the club’s history, which dates to 1909, each of its managers had been Basque. “Hiring me was a huge step,” Toshack says now. “One of the major newspapers in town was for the idea. The other one, if you weren’t Basque, they were against you. That was also how the supporters divided. A lot of people in the city were against foreign coaches. I had some very, very difficult moments early on.”

There was another formidable challenge for Toshack: his players were also Basque. All of them. For decades, only those who came from the Basque Country or had Basque heritage were allowed to play for the team. As the quality of Spanish football started to rise in the 1980s, this presented a distinct disadvantage. While most other clubs were drawing from a worldwide talent pool, Real Sociedad’s was limited to the handful of elite players in a region with a population of less than 2 million. It also had to compete for those players with Athletic Bilbao, among other clubs.

Athletic played in the region’s largest and most important city. It had a roster composed entirely of Basques, a policy that it continues to today. As a result, Real Sociedad rarely signed anyone at all; nearly its entire squad was nurtured by its youth system. Some of those players — notably Txiki Begiristain and Jose Maria Bakero, both of whom later won the 1992 European Cup at Barcelona — emerged as world-class. But plenty of others fell below the expected standard.

“You had to pick players who probably wouldn’t have been good enough at other clubs,” Toshack says. “It seemed ridiculous that this club could keep playing in the first division under this setup.”

In his second season at Real Sociedad, Toshack guided it to the Copa del Rey, which it hadn’t won since 1909. That was a turning point not just for Toshack, but for the club. He had been pushing to add a few players from outside and that trophy gave him the cachet to do so.

Aldridge was a Liverpool striker in Toshack’s image. His signing was a success: Aldridge scored 40 goals for Real Sociedad over two seasons, leading the team. But it was also a failure. Aldridge never felt accepted by the club’s loyalists. Even Begiristain, who had grown up in the Basque mountain town of Olaberria, described Aldridge’s arrival as “sad.” By then, Toshack had gone to Real Madrid and returned to Real Sociedad. He would manage the club for a third time later in the decade; eight seasons in all, spread over 17 years.

“You don’t have to be too intelligent to understand that I really liked it there,” he says. “It is one of my favorite places. Perhaps my favorite place.”

After Toshack, Real Sociedad had seasons when it did well, and seasons when it didn’t. During the worst of times, 2007 to 2010, it played in the second division. Nearly all of its managers since then have been Basque, with the memorable exception of David Moyes.

Now at West Ham, Moyes arrived in 2014, after sustained achievement at Everton and then frustration trying to follow Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. At Real Sociedad, he finished in 12th place, started poorly the following season and was replaced. He never seemed to understand the city or its people. In San Sebastian, his tenure is not remembered fondly.

The current manager, Alguacil, is far more popular. Raised in Orio, a nearby fishing village, he started in Real Sociedad’s youth system in 1988. He played for the senior team, managed the youth team, and then Real Sociedad’s B team. In December 2018, he was promoted. He had never managed outside the Basque Country.

These days, Real Sociedad relies on its youth system for approximately two-thirds of its first-team players. Others, typically, are Basques who started with other clubs. The rest are sourced from around the region, the country and the world.

Isak was acquired after a disappointing tenure at Borussia Dortmund. Sorloth, who’d spent time at Crystal Palace, was secured on loan from RB Leipzig. In the most striking addition to the team since Alguacil has been in charge, Man City’s Silva was rumored to be on a plane to sign a three-year deal at Lazio in August 2020 when Real Sociedad somehow convinced him to reroute.

Mostly, Alguacil has found his players on the seven fields at the Zubieta Training Ground, and they come to the first team remarkably well equipped. “This is something the club has always done well, and we are known for it,” says Barrenetxea. “By the time a player gets promoted to the top team from the B team, he is ready to compete at this level. That gives us a huge advantage.”

Real Sociedad B is currently the only developmental team playing in Spain’s second tier; all the other B squads, including Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s, are at least a level below that. The coach is Xabi Alonso, who started at Real Sociedad and then starred for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain.

Until this season, the B team’s games were held at Zubieta. The sizable grandstand along one touchline was nearly always full. But in the Segunda Division, the rules demand a larger capacity, so now Real Sociedad B plays at Anoeta, the same stadium used by the first team. (Anoeta is now Reale Arena because of a sponsorship deal, but nobody calls it that who doesn’t get paid for doing so.)

On a recent Sunday evening there, the blanquinegros of Burgos CF were in town. Other than the corner of visiting supporters who had made the trip from Burgos, the crowd was scattered around the stadium. The game had a small-town feel, like minor league baseball. At halftime, teenage girls gathered in the front of the grandstand. When some players emerged from the tunnel for the second half, the girls called to them. The players answered.

Real Sociedad B lost that game 1-0, its third loss in a row. The fans didn’t care. They applauded as the team came off the field. Then put on coats and hats, and headed out in the rain.

For many of them, the best part of the evening was still to come.

The hills that surround downtown San Sebastian are dotted with restaurants that have earned Michelin stars. Eleven of the restaurants have been recognized — more than anywhere else with a similar population. If locals aren’t dining at one of them on a given night, they might be at one of the city’s 120-odd txokos, “social clubs” at which men (and now, finally, a few women) cook elaborate meals for each other, then critique them late into the night. Or sitting at a high-top table beside a gleaming bar while sampling pintxos, painstakingly constructed small plates that can accumulate to make an extraordinary meal.

“We are proud to have great, great gastronomy here,” Merino says. “It’s just amazing, and we take advantage of it. Our nutritionist isn’t as happy as we are, but it’s not like we’re eating fast food. This is special food. And people here care about it. It is an important part of our culture.”

Residents of the Basque Country spend more than twice as much of their discretionary income on restaurant meals as Americans do. In San Sebastian, the percentage is said to be the highest in the world. “The food culture here is extremely serious,” says the chef and restaurant owner Hilario Arbelaitz. “Going out to eat is a big part of who we are.”

Arbelaitz was born in a 500-year-old stone farmhouse on the side of a hill in Oiartzun, a town of 10,000 southeast of San Sebastian. In 1981, when he was 30, he converted the farmhouse into a restaurant. Called Zuberoa, it remains one of the best in Spain.

Zuberoa’s connection with football is strong. Most of Real Sociedad’s official lunches and dinners are held there, and not only because Arbelaitz’s son is married to the daughter of the club’s president. Even after he moved to Liverpool, Alonso would sometimes fly back for meals there because he missed the food and the atmosphere. Jorge Valdano, the former sporting director and manager at Real Madrid, remains a frequent guest. When Real Sociedad was negotiating the transfer of Antoine Griezmann to Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2014, representatives of both parties met over meals at Zuberoa for three consecutive days. Only after a third dinner was the deal consummated.

Especially during the off-season or a break, Real Sociedad’s players are often seen dining at Zuberoa, or at Arzak, Martin Berasategui, or Akelarre, three of fewer than a dozen restaurants in Spain that currently hold Michelin’s highest, three-star rating. They’re also easily spotted on the streets, strolling with their families or friends, or with a plate of pintxos — idazabal cheese with quince and walnuts, perhaps, or a baguette slice topped with shrimp, red pepper and minced fish paste in the shape of a tiny eel — at one of the intimate bars that line the narrow streets of the Old Town. Wherever they go, they’re seldom bothered.

“You’ve seen the places where the fans are on top of you all the time, asking you this and that, telling you how they think you played,” Merino says. “It isn’t like that here. We get treated gently.”

The city considers the players not quite as siblings or their children, but something close to that: cousins or nephews, maybe. They’ll wave, maybe give a quick greeting, wish them luck, and then move on. “Almost all of us are from here,” says Oyarzabal. “We’re part of the community. So in the street, people behave differently than in other places. We also feel that when we come to the stadium.”

“Our supporters are calm when it comes to the results,” Merino adds. “Maybe you lose a game, but they don’t get frustrated. You never hear, ‘These guys don’t do enough’ or ‘They don’t run hard enough.'”

Real Sociedad’s games are more like art films than action flicks. Its teams rarely have the talent of their strongest opponents; a careful approach gives them their best chance for success. Until a disastrous 3-1 loss to Villarreal in its last game of 2021, Real Sociedad had scored a total of five goals at home all season in LaLiga. It had allowed just three. That meant more than a few uninspiring halves of scoreless football, but shortening the game to a few essential minutes allowed the team to compete. “Our fans are smart people,” Merino says. “They understand.”

The relations between this place, its fans and the team they support can make Anoeta a particularly perilous place to play. “Real Sociedad is a special club,” Roger Schmidt, the PSV Eindhoven manager, told me. From 2014 to 2017, Schmidt managed at Bayer 04 Leverkusen, in a situation that was almost the diametric opposite. Bayer is derided as one of Germany‘s “plastic clubs.” Set in a city that essentially serves as a corporate campus, it had almost no natural constituency. Its relationship with its players felt transactional. Schmidt appreciates the symbiosis that can occur when players and supporters see themselves in each other.

“If you have that approach, with a lot of players from the area, it means their identification with the club will be very high,” he says. That, in turn, often helps to motivate the players. “They will fight,” he says. “They will work hard for their club. They will have great spirit.” Even though PSV needed only a draw the next evening in order to advance, Schmidt acknowledged that the game the following evening would be difficult.

And that was before the weather took a turn for the worse.

When I woke up Thursday morning, a severe weather watch had been issued for Spain’s northern provinces. It predicted lashing rain and wind gusts as strong as 45 miles an hour. It sounded like a bad day even by San Sebastian standards, but a good day for Real Sociedad.

In the game that followed, PSV Eindhoven was better by most metrics: 68% possession, more shots, more than double the completed passes. One of the shots hit the crossbar. Another was saved at the near post by a defender. And by the second half, the weather appeared to have had a numbing effect. I couldn’t help thinking that all PSV’s players wanted to do was get out of the rain and back on the team bus.

Real Sociedad’s 3-0 win wasn’t pretty. It consisted of a converted penalty after a handball, a loose ball at the attacking end opportunistically won by Oyarzabal, and a spurious goal during stoppage time. But it felt like the whole city of San Sebastian was there cheering as the game ended, a heartfelt acknowledgement of a task accomplished.

Schmidt believed his team could have won, maybe should have won. When he was questioned by a particularly blunt Dutch journalist at the news conference after the game, he bristled. “Did you think they outplayed us?” Schmidt asked. The journalist replied that he did, and Schmidt stared back open-mouthed. To me, both of them were correct. PSV Eindhoven executed its game plan and looked like the classier side. Real Sociedad merely scored all the goals.

The following Monday, Real Sociedad would get RB Leipzig in the Europa League draw, a talented opponent with a season of their own to salvage. By then, that 3-1 defeat to Villarreal, the club’s fourth consecutive loss in LaLiga, would drop it down to sixth place, lower than it had been in months.

For now, the hardy spectators who had nearly filled the stadium headed out into the swirling rain in high spirits. Their club had won to advance to the knockout phase, and the bars were filled with pintxos waiting to be eaten.

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