LaLiga: Surrounded by 'monsters' and mountains, tiny Eibar look towards Indian fans for support
In a league of underdogs, Eibar are arguably the ultimate fairytale story. Now, the Basque club has set its sights on becoming the Indian fan's second favourite football club.
Eibar: "We're surrounded by mountains. But also by monsters."
Eduardo Valdes, the International Development Coordinator of SD Eibar, says this with a wide smile on his face. But he's only half joking.
The Basque region in Spain has four representatives in LaLiga — Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Deportivo Alaves and Eibar — but the latter, based in a quaint city with a population of 27,000 inhabitants, is clearly dwarfed by the other three clubs, or monsters, as Valdes jokingly calls them. For context, with 53,289 seats, Athletic Bilbao's San Mames stadium could fit all of Eibar's inhabitants twice.
In a league of underdogs, Eibar are arguably the ultimate little fellows. Their Ipurua stadium's capacity is just over 7,000 — they are planning to expand the capacity, but due to space constraints, will only be able to take the capacity to 8,500 — while the club does not own training facilities, instead renting them from the municipal corporation and sharing them with other teams from Eibar.
The city has just two hotels, one built earlier this year, to host A-list teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona. Moreover, built in the middle of the city surrounded by sloping roads, the club's fans always have to struggle for parking should they bring their car to watch a match.
Yet, last season, the club finished above all the other Basque clubs, some with much deeper pockets. Bilbao, for example, boast of chefs with 11 Michelin stars between them. Real Sociedad have seven training pitches surrounded by picturesque settings.
"There was a massive party at the centre of the village last season. It was a big deal for us to finish ninth, above other Basque clubs. We're epic fellows. Even though we are from a small city," says Valdes, who finds plenty of parallels between the Gerard Butler-starrer 300, which showed the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans took on the might of the Persian Army led by Xerxes.
'Another football is possible'
Aware of their limitations, the club has always tried to find unique solutions which help them match up to their more storied rivals, who also have bigger budgets available at their disposal. Their slogan, emblazoned on hoardings on their tiny stadium, is 'Another Football is Possible', a nod to their thinking that there's more than one way to go about things as a football club.
That's why in 2014 — a year after earning promotion into the LaLiga — the club began an international crowd-funding campaign, to help them with funds.
The club consequently has some 11,000 shareholders from 60 countries worldwide. With a share costing around 50 euros, the club also has four or five shareholders from India.
"We have to be different. We are constricted in terms of what we can do in this city and in the Basque region because the other teams are bigger. But we can look abroad," says the club's CEO Patricia Rodriguez.
Their newest strategy though is to woo the Indian market.
"We have tried to improve and grow our social media strategy to newer languages. We prefer to focus on one country and penetrate the market rather than try to reach too many countries at once," says Valdes. "We know it is difficult for us to become any Indian's favourite team. But we can be an Indian fan's second favourite club."
With this in mind, three months ago the club hired Chennai native Yogaraj Kumar as their New Business Development Officer.
Yogaraj, who studied engineering, quit his job at a manufacturing company in India as he wanted to work in the football industry. He moved to Brussels last year and took a post-graduate course in football business.
After he graduated, he claims he pestered Eibar officials until they took him in.
"My job is to make Eibar's story and its values reach newer countries like Indonesia, India and Japan," says Yogaraj.
"The stature of the sport is growing in India. It's not like football has never been in India. The sport has always been there. But it's a good time for any club to have a presence in India. There are a lot of Premier League fans in India already. Besides, the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona are always there. The challenge is now to make Eibar gain a foothold in India as well. We know we are quite the fairytale story in LaLiga. So we're trying to introduce our story in India because we know fans of other clubs could also fall in love with us because of our story. And you know the size of India, right? We can obviously grow."
Eibar's strategy of targeting India is in line what some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League have done for a few years now. The likes of Arsenal use stars like Mesut Ozil to shoot videos wishing their Indian fans on religious festivals like Holi and Diwali. With Yogaraj, Eibar posted a message on Facebook recently during the devastating Kerala floods. Other posts try to highlight the bond between India and the club — the fact that the club's Ipurua stadium was built in 1947, the year India got Independence, has also been used by the club.
"We choose not to focus our marketing strategy on just one player. Cause that's a short-term plan. You cannot sustain it in the long run, particularly if the player leaves," says Valdes.
"The Eibar way is to go to a country to have a long-term relationship. We don't go to a country to just play a friendly and then forget about it," he adds.
The club is hopeful this outreach will get them fans in newer regions, which in turn will help them keep up with the 'monsters' surrounding them.
"We dream, but with our feet on the ground," says Valdes.
The writer is in Spain at the invitation of LaLiga