To the casual visitor, it’s San Sebastian. A city of pintxos and playas, its oldtown one of Europe’s best culinary destinations set around a magnificent crescent-shaped bay. With such a stunning setting, it’s immediately obvious why the city has developed into a swanky, upscale seaside resort that attracts more tourists than any other city on Spain’s rugged northern coastline.
To locals, it’s Donostia. While they take pride in the city’s cuisine and enjoy its natural beauty, it’s also not just their home but a symbol of Basque and Gipuzkoan pride. Perhaps even more so than in nearby Bilbao, the people of Donostia tend to identify first and foremost as Basque and many distance themselves completely from any sense of ‘Spanishness’.
There are of course plenty of caveats to consider before you go too far down that road. The city’s football team is a good example. One of the select group to use the term ‘royal’ in its name, Real Sociedad hardly screams Basque nationalism. The club crest has continuously contained the Spanish crown since 1940 despite the policy of not buying players from other parts of Spain or abroad until 1989 when the signing of Irish international John Aldridge transformed the club forever.
Thirty years on though, this is by no means a club that has lost its sense of identity by allowing non-Basque players to join. It still prides itself in bringing through players from its cantera and in recent derbies with Athletic, it has frequently been La Real who have fielded more ‘homegrown’ players despite the continued Basque-only policy in Bilbao.
San Sebastian is not just another Spanish coastal town where you’re as likely to see shirts of Barcelona and Real Madrid as you are those of the local team. The blue and white striped shirts of Real Sociedad are everywhere, giving the distinct impression that this is quite literally a one-club city.
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Make the short hop to the district of Amara, a couple of miles inland from the main beach and the nearby old centre, and the club’s colours are reflected in everything from the walls of buildings to the bars, bus stops and train stations. On match days, the streets and squares around Anoeta, the club’s home since 1993, start to fill up a couple of hours before kick-off as fans gather together for a pre-match beer and perhaps some pintxos.
Throw in a warm September evening and the excitement surrounding a promising young Real Sociedad team that had started the season brightly, and those numbers had swelled further for the visit of Basque rivals Alavés. While not a true city centre stadium, the ample selection of nearby bars and space for people to gather with their own refreshments, makes Anoeta one of the better located grounds in La Liga. With a train station literally a stone’s throw from the stadium, it’s relatively easy to reach, even for the few hundred Alavés fans who had travelled from Vitoria, almost exactly 100 km away by road.
As is generally the case in the Basque country, derby matches are viewed as a chance to catch up with old friends as much as they are an opportunity to have a dig at your neighbours. There is a sense of camaraderie that is seldom found amongst local rivals elsewhere and nestled amongst the pre-match crowds were plenty of Alavés supporters, although they were a little difficult to spot with the two clubs sharing a near identical home shirt of blue and white stripes.
From the outside, Anoeta is still not the most aesthetically pleasing of stadiums, even after the extensive recent renovations that took place during the summers of 2018 and 2019. The uninspiring, original concrete facade remains but is covered in parts by a more modern blue bubble-like structure.
It’s a curious mix that may with time be smartened up but more importantly, the interior of the stadium is now very much fit for purpose. Gone is the depressing athletics track which served no role other than to separate fans from the action and drain the atmosphere out of the ground. All four sides of Anoeta are now immediately adjacent to the pitch with a much increased capacity of 39,500. While the lower tiers do give the slight impression they’ve been stretched out a bit to fill the gaps, overall it has been a remarkable transformation of what was long considered one of Spanish football’s most soulless stadiums into something far more eye-catching and atmospheric.
This would be just the second game to take place following the final stage of renovations. The first had brought a record attendance of over 33,000 and fittingly an impressive 2-0 victory over Atletico Madrid, the clearest indication yet that Real Sociedad’s exciting summer recruitment of the young talents of Martin Ødegaard and Alexander Isak was already starting to bear fruit.
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There wasn’t quite as many present for a Thursday night encounter with Alavés but what is now officially known as the Reale Arena for sponsorship purposes, was still filling up nicely as the match kicked off. The lower tier of the Aitor Zabaleta Tribuna is where La Real’s ‘singing section’ is located and it was the main source of noise during the opening stages of the game. The 500 or so Alavés supporters were located at the other end, a large turnout by the standards of La Liga away followings, even for local derbies.
The early stages of the game suggested those who had travelled from Vitoria, which is known as Gasteiz in Basque, weren’t going to have a great deal to shout about. Real Sociedad immediately penned their opponents back as they dominated both possession and territory during the opening fifteen minutes, spraying the ball around with the confidence of a side which had won their last two matches.
Centre-back Diego Llorente headed an early chance wide having got on the end of a free-kick from Ødegaard. The Norwegian then stepped up with almost certainly the assist of the season so far. He first nutmegged Tomás Pina before producing an outrageous pass to slice open the Alavés defence and even bamboozle keeper Fernando Pacheco, leaving Mikel Oyarzabal with the simplest of finishes for the game’s opening goal.
It was a sign of things to come too as a classy Real Sociedad side seized control of the game. Oyarzabal turned provider with a fine assist of his own to cross in for Willian Jose who stooped low to power a header home on 32 minutes. As was the case with the first goal, it was greeted by a couple of minutes of bouncing at the southern end of Anoeta as La Real fans jumped with their backs to the goal before a quick 180-degree spin, bounce and scarf wave, a Basque twist on the Poznan.
Imanol’s side were clearly in the mood for a killer third goal before the break and with a couple of minutes remaining in the First Half, they got their chance. Portu’s cross from the right struck the outstretched arm of Alavés defender Adrián Marín and after a VAR review and a monitor check, referee David Medié Jiménez pointed to the spot. Oyarzabal made not mistake from twelve yards as he coolly waited for the keeper to dive before firing straight down the middle to ensure at Half-Time it was Real Sociedad 3-0 Alavés.
It was already game over in truth and it would have been a very easy teamtalk to give for the home boss who had just witnessed his side create chances almost at their own will against an Alavés side that had previously only conceded 4 times in 5 matches. It was not a happy return to Anoeta for visiting coach Asier Garitano who was dismissed by La Real in December 2018.
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Any hint that Alavés might get back into the game failed to materialise after the interval. Despite the occasional break and a reasonable headed opportunity for 18 year old winger Borja Sainz, the visitors did not seriously look like scoring as the game continued in a similar pattern with Real Sociedad bossing possession and continuing to look threatening with the outstanding Ødegaard pulling the strings in midfield.
The ease with which the hosts were winning the match, at least offered greater opportunity to try to soak up the full experience of a football game in the Basque Country and try to observe any subtle differences to the match-day experience elsewhere in La Liga. The stadium for one thing, certainly now has more of a British feel to it which does play nicely into the notion that football in the north of Spain and particularly the Basque cities is more closely tied to the game’s origins in the UK.
The use of the Basque language also helps to form that regional identity while there are other casual expressions particularly popular in these parts with the word ‘aúpa’ one that visitors to Anoeta will be quick to pick up on. Much like in other grounds in Spain, the more animated supporters are located together at one end of the stadium. They remained upstanding for the duration of the game with the exception of a brief spell towards the end where everyone crouched down, almost hiding beneath their seats before jumping up and continuing to bounce around.
There was a celebratory feel to things by that point with many of the passions that football and particularly derby games can bring out in people, quelled by the ease with which Real Sociedad were winning it. The official attendance was announced as 28,720 which although some way short of capacity, was still higher than any match at Anoeta during the previous season and a record for a midweek game.
The home fans thought they were going to have a fourth goal to cheer too before the end. Alavés substitute Manu Garcia received his second booking for giving away a penalty for what was in truth a fairly innocuous tap on Mikel Merino in the box. Oyarzabal was off the pitch by this point denying him the chance to complete a hat-trick. Portu instead stepped up, hoping to net his first goal since moving to La Real from Girona in the summer, but it was a poor penalty driven hard but straight at the legs of Pacheco who comfortably clutched it at the second attempt.
It did little to dampen the spirits of the Real Sociedad fans who raised their scarves in the air in unison moments later to belt out the club’s upbeat hymn as the game reached its climax. It all helped give the impression of a palpable sense of unity between the club and its supporters with the direction things were moving, both on and off the pitch. The players were clearly on board too and many of them tossed their shirts into the singing section of Anoeta at Full Time having put in yet another impressive performance which moved them up into 2nd place in the early La Liga standings.
Many home supporters headed back off towards the centre to celebrate the victory and reflect on their chances of gatecrashing the top four with an exciting young team that was already delivering the goods. How long they can continue to mix it with the elite of the Spanish game may ultimately depend on how long they manage to hold onto the immense young talents of Oyarzabal and Ødegaard for.
Back over at the Bay of La Concha, many young residents of Donostia of a similar age to the dynamic duo who had combined to outclass Alavés, were gearing up for a Thursday night out. The beach by this point was deserted but for a man scouring the beach with a metal detector, a few late night walkers and a girl running along the shore.
The tide was out by this point, making the picture-perfect bay look even more majestic. As far as European football goes, you’ll struggle to find a better setting than this. If La Real’s current performances are anything to go by, San Sebastian may soon have a team to match its elegance.