Three Titles and Two Promotions; A Season Full of Success for Basque Football

by Borja Santamaria

Three titles and two promotions. The 2015/2016 football season finished for Basque teams the same way it started; celebrating, smiling, winning. In August, Athletic de Bilbao’s Spanish Supercup lighted the fuse. Ten months later, the return to the First Division of a resurrected Osasuna closed the book of a brilliant course for our football.

28 Years Later…

The 1987 King’s Cup, raised by the mythical Real Sociedad of Arconada, Zamora or López Ufarte, was the last title for Basque men´s football. Athletic did away with this dry spell last August, disarming powerful Barcelona that was looking for a perfect six-title season. A harsh 4-0 in the New San Mamés (Athletic’s Stadium) and a 1-1 in Camp Nou (Barcelona’s Stadium) gave a deserved Supercup to the Lions.

The women of Athletic celebrating their League win in Bilbao. El Diario Vasco

It was the first step of a remarkable run for Ernesto Valverde’s team. Led by Aritz Aduriz’s goals, they ensured their sixth appearance in European competitions in the last eight years and they were close to reaching the Europa League semi-finals after an epic round against Sevilla, where they fell in the penalty shootout. San Mamés ended the season with a standing ovation to its captain, Carlos Gurpegui. The 35-year-old defender hung up his cleats after a career full of big obstacles, injuries, and a great example of professionalism and consistancy, recognized by his teammates, coaches and opponents.

The big excitement of the last month of the season for Athletic came from the female team. After nine years, the red and white team has conquered its fifth Spanish League title, overcoming Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid in the classification. More than 20,000 proud fans cheered for their players in the streets of Bilbao. “This is a dream. We are probably not the most talented individually, but we have been the best team collectively,” head coach Joseba Agirre affirmed.

Alavés and Osasuna, Back Where They Belong

Twenty five percent of the teams playing in the men’s Spanish First Division next season are Basque. Alavés and Osasuna return to the best league in Europe to join Athletic, Real Sociedad and Eibar in a historic season for our football: an achievement that will grow in importance as time goes by.

Alavés, the team from Vitoria-Gasteiz, won the Second Spanish Division league after a magnificent season in which they climbed from less to more. After spending ten years between the Second and Second B Spanish Divisions and a huge institutional crisis, ‘El Glorioso’ rises to the First Spanish Division full of strength and with great expectations of its fans.  With an unstable beginning, the team directed by Pepe Bordalás reached the top four positions in the standings by the 16th week. Its defensive robustness, only allowing 15 goals in the second half of competition, has been the key to staying in the top part of the rankings and celebrating the promotion.

Kenan Kodro’s goal in Girona, in the play-offs’ last game, lit up euphoria in Pamplona. Osasuna, a team which not so long ago seemed to be doomed by a tremendous institutional and economical crisis, regained its place in the elite, a huge sporting achievement, unexpected after saving the relegation in the last second of the previous season that joins another even more important one: Osasuna is, again, what it used to be. It overcame its crisis focussing on itself, with young and home-grown players, connecting with its loyal fans once again, and driven by Enirque Martín Monreal, the man for difficult moments. This was much more than just a promotion.

Euphoria in Vitoria-Gasteiz after winning the Championship and getting the promotion. El Diario Vasco

Euphoria in Vitoria-Gasteiz after winning the Championship and getting the promotion. El Diario Vasco

 

A Remarkable Eibar and Good News for Real Sociedad

The 6th of July 2015 Eibar started its preseason with half of its roster to be built. Ten months later, the team driven by José Luis Mendilibar signed its place for one more year in the Spanish First Division. In the end, a great season. A solid team, with no fissures, with the striker Borja Bastón as the leader on the pitch that managed to stay closer to European classification than from the relegation zone.  A huge achievement for the ‘armeros’, as the locals of this town of Gipuzkoa are called, a club that is constantly growing.

This past season has had its ups and downs for the Real Sociedad of San Sebastián. The ‘txuriurdin’ club fired its coach, David Moyes, in November due to negative results. With Eusebio Sacristán brought to the bench the situation was stabilized, but the team has always been inconsistent, with great performances against big rivals but with worse results against weaker teams, and moreover without being able to hold strong at home. Despite this, the season has brought some good news for the team from San Sebastian, such as the reaffirmation of the young defender Aritz Elustondo and the irruption of the 19-year-old left wing midfielder Mikel Oyarzabal, one of the biggest sensations of the league in the last months. Two home-grown players which, including the striker Jon Bautista, have a bright future.

Real Sociedad and Oiartzun, Bigger and Bigger

Besides Athletic’s league title, the performance of Basque teams in the female Superleague has been commendable. Real Sociedad has achieved the best classification of its history. A brilliant fifth position for a very young and fighter team which, managed by Igor San Miguel, has enjoyed some great momentum throughout the season.

In its return to the elite, Oiartzun, from the Gipuzkoan town with the same name, has finished its season with the success of avoiding relegation. The players led by Jon Alkorta confirmed their objective with four games left to finish the league. A deserved and hard sought-after goal that will give them the chance to put their town’s name among the best teams.

Osasuna, celebrating its ascent with fans in Pamplona. Diario de Noticias

Osasuna, celebrating its ascent with fans in Pamplona. (Diario de Noticias)

Far from the Spotlight in Iparralde

While being the main sport in the rest of the Basque Country, in Iparralde (the Northern Basque Country) football is still far behind rugby. The oval ball is the king in this territory and young football players who show some big talent try to develop by joining other Basque regions’ teams with bigger structures.

Football Never Stops

Although the Eurocup has just turned off last season’s lights, our teams’ engines are running again. The preseasons have already started, with some new players arriving, including the Alavés coach Mauricio Pellegrino, and others hoping to play more minutes on other teams. The market is moving and the friendly matches and preparation stages are about to start. All the efforts are now focused on one goal: 2016-17.

This is the summary of a season in which Basque football has shown, once again, its identity traits. Hard work, home-grown players and resilience have been the key for a successful season.

Note from the Editor:

Up until now, when we wrote about this sport we have used the term soccer. We were drawn to this due to the fact that many of our readers are from the United States of America. But in response to a number of concerns and recommendations we have decided to use the word football from now on, which is much more widespread throughout the rest of the world. In addition, we believe that our readers of the USA know perfectly well how to distinguish both sports, despite the terminology used. Thank you for your understanding and we hope that this change of criteria does not pose an inconvenience to anyone. 

About the Author

Borja Santamaría
Borja Santamaria is a sports journalist. @borjasanta

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