We love an underdog here at First Touch, so when we heard that the USA based supporters of SD Eibar were gathering at Smithfield Hall in New York City for a rare meet up, well we just had to be there.
USA based fans of the Basque team SD Eibar spread the love both on and off the field.
By David Witchard
Nestled high in the mountains of the beautiful Basque region of Spain, and with a capacity of just 7000 in their charming Ipurua stadium, Eibar’s is a rags to riches story that will tug at the heartstrings of any soccer romantic.
Immediately after gaining promotion to La Liga in 2014 for the first time in their history, the club faced almost certain extinction due to financial difficulties. As is often the case in these situations, it was the fans who came to the rescue through a campaign called Defiende al Eibar (Defend Eibar) which managed to raise the required 4 million Euros to keep the club afloat.
Further horrors presented themselves when Eibar finished their first La Liga season in a relegation position, but they were miraculously spared due to the expulsion from the league of Elche who had financial problems of their own. Things got decidedly better for Eibar from then on and the club now find themselves sitting pretty in the top ten in La Liga.
Eibar Fans In The USA
Eibar’s North American fan base presently consists of a few dozen hardy souls spread far and wide. Consequently, meet-ups are a geographical and logistical challenge. But as we’ve already learned, Eibar are a club that welcomes a challenge.
“We first got together two years ago in New Jersey when Eibar came on tour here,” explains John Sager, President of Eibar’s USA Penya who is himself based in California.
“Then last year about 15 of us went to the Real Madrid game in Eibar. We chose New York this time because it’s an easy place to get to as a lot of the fans are on the East Coast,. The Barcelona game was chosen because it’s on a weekend.
“We got in touch with the Barcelona Penya in New York. They invited us to watch it at their home here at Smithfield Hall.”
It’s unusual to see two sets of opposing fans come together to watch a game shoulder to shoulder in the same bar,. We doubt that the Barcelona clan would extend a similar invitation to their rivals Real Madrid or Atletico.
As Barcelona Penya President Jordi Getman explains, “There is a history of friendship between the two clubs. When Eibar were starting out they were so poor that Barcelona donated a set of shirts to them! That is why they play in the same Claret and Blue colors today. Now that we are in the same league together, the friendship has become a little more competitive.”
Meet The Eibar Fans
Indeed, the hospitality did not extend to the field of play on this occasion, with Barcelona running out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba. For most New York based fans of any team, a trip to their local supporters bar is just a short subway ride away,. However, the two dozen Eibar fans at Smithfield on this sub-zero February morning have travelled from as far afield as California, Texas, Virginia, Philadelphia, and Chicago. One fan even made it here all the way from Eibar itself, via Bolivia!
“I am from Bolivia but I’ve been living in Eibar for two years,” explains Lourdes in her native tongue. She is obviously excited to be here amongst her peers, so much so that our translator has trouble keeping up with her. “I’m also a part of Eibar’s Penya in Bolivia that has 25 members.”
Others in the Penya didn’t have to travel quite so far, including Jane Chu who arrived on the PATH train from Jersey City.
“I was never a fan of any particular team,” explains Jane. “I never played soccer because I don’t like sweating, but my uncle was always watching games on TV.
“One time I was watching a game, Barcelona against Eibar, and the announcer explained a little bit about Eibar’s history, that story about how they elevated from the third tier, to second tier, and then to first. It was just a really charming story and made me want to look into it. So once I learned more about the club, it made me want to support them.
“During one Google search I found ‘Eibar USA’, so to know there was already a fan club here, very small, very low key, I felt like it was something I could join. It didn’t seem intimidating like joining a big team like Barcelona.”
Every good fairy tale ends with the couple who fall in love and live happily ever after. Which brings us neatly to Jon and Emily.
“I’m from Philadelphia, so I’ve always been an underdog kind of guy,” explains Jon. “Eibar’s story is just amazing, what they were able to do with limited resources, I was just drawn to it.
“When I took Emily on a trip to the Basque region, I was planning to propose. I reached out to the team and asked them if I could propose on the pitch before the match. I didn’t expect a response but they were very accommodating and suggested I do it at half time during the Barcelona match! My heart started racing and I said, ‘alright, let’s do it!”
Eibar even had their videographer record the events surrounding the proposal.
“Since then I’ve been to three matches, two with Emily, and they are like second family when we go over there, it’s amazing,” Jon added.
“It’s an annual trip for us now to go over there and see at least one game,” says Emily. “Usually it’s them against the largest teams in La Liga.”
Discovering such a disparate mix of enthusiastic fans coming together for a Spanish match that doesn’t involve both El Clasico teams is surely an encouraging sign for La Liga, and a step in the right direction for a league that is eager to promote itself here in the USA.
Rebeca Diaz Gonzales is a spokesperson for La Liga in New York and she speaks about the league she represents with a genuine passion that is both refreshing and engaging
“What a great experience, right? Having fans abroad from different Penya’s coming together to watch such an important game as Eibar against Barcelona and seeing them interact together and enjoy the game together miles away from home at 10am,” she enthuses.
“This is a fantastic atmosphere and it’s what we need to grow La Liga abroad,” Rebeca continues. “For us, one of the key international strategies is to involve our fans in everything we do, so we have contacts with all the Penya’s in the US, with every La Liga club.
“We are planning more events including a big watch party for El Clasico. The thing is that everybody thinks only Real Madrid and Barcelona have a fan base abroad, but we have at least ten La Liga clubs with fan bases in the US including Eibar, Villarreal, Valencia, Levante, and this is great. There are so many great stories behind those teams from a cultural perspective, from the fans perspective, and how the clubs are managed, and we need to get those stories out.”
Although this story ended in defeat for the Eibar fans, everybody left Smithfield with a smile on their face, having made a few new friends on their travels. So until we meet again..