x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Going foreign pays off for Real Sociedad

This season has been tough, but on Saturday, Real Sociedad became only the second team this season to defeat Barcelona in the league and the first to do it for seven months.

In 1989, The Royal Society Football Club of San Sebastian, to give Real Sociedad their full title, had a problem. Their policy of using locally born players nurtured through the youth system was faltering badly.

Competition for Basque-born players with their local rivals Athletic Bilbao greatly exacerbated the predicament.

To this day, Athletic still employ only Basque-born players and, in the same way as they did in the 1980s, they use their higher status and financial muscle to snare the best Basque talent, poaching players from nearby Sociedad, Alaves and Osasuna.

Until 1989, Sociedad, the Basque country's second biggest club with average crowds of 26,000, were similarly reliant on local talent.

Indeed, their policy was even more exclusive since they only took players from the immediate province of Guipuzcoa while Athletic were prepared to twist their own rules by recruiting from the partly Basque neighbouring regions of Navarra, or La Rioja.

The policy had stood for decades and often prospered, with Sociedad winning the league twice in succession and reaching the semi-final of the European Cup in the early 1980s.

Cafes in San Sebastian's old town - where flags bear legends like "Tourists beware, the Basque country is not Spain" - still proudly display posters of that side, immortalising goalkeeper Luis Arconada and Perico Alonso, father of current top midfielder Xabi Alonso.

When Athletic matched Sociedad's achievement, winning the league the next two years, Spanish football was again dominated by the Basque country.

To Basques who agreed with the policies of Athletic and Sociedad, this was justification of their historic sporting prowess.

What is arguably Europe's oldest race had survived the repression of their ancient laws and complex language under Franco, and now their sporting teams were triumphing over foes with far greater resources.

But by the end of the decade, the once triumphant Sociedad found themselves suddenly, and unexpectedly, floundering.

In 1988, under John Toshack, their Welsh manager, they had finished second to Real Madrid, scored 61 league goals and reached the Spanish cup final.

A year later, they had slipped to 11th position and scored just 38 league goals. Toshack left for Real and with Athletic poaching their striker Loren, the usual solution, that of recruitment from the youth system, offered no strikers of the required class.

"We called a meeting," said a club spokesman, "And we decided that the most important factor for us was a goalscorer. It was then that we made the decision to sign an outsider, the first non-Basque Sociedad player of the modern era."

Basque nationalism dictated that the outsider could not be a Spaniard. So they chose Liverpool's John Aldridge.

Aldridge was jeered and spat at when he arrived, but within weeks he had won over the faithful with two goals against Barcelona in Camp Nou. There were equally loud protests when he left two years later. The gates to foreign players had reluctantly been opened and that has been the Sociedad story ever since.

A side containing a Serb (Darko Kovacevic), a Turk (Nihat Kahveci), a Russian (Valeri Karpin) and a Dutch keeper (Sander Westerveld) held the lead in the 2002/03 title race until the penultimate game before they finished second to Real.

Relegation in 2008 for the first time in over 40 years hurt, but they bounced back as second division champions last season.

This season has been tough, but on Saturday, they became only the second team this season to defeat Barcelona in the league and the first to do it for seven months.

The points lifted Sociedad to 12th. The goals came from local boy Xabi Prieto and outsider Diego Ifran from Uruguay, part of a policy which started out of desperation but endures through necessity.

 

sports@thenational.ae