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Tiny Eibar take on Spanish soccer's big guns Real Madrid and Barcelona

By Chris Murphy and James Masters, CNN
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Tiny Eibar is about to play in Spain's top league for the first time in its history. It will be the smallest team ever to compete in La Liga, with a town of just 27,000 people and a stadium that holds just under 6,000. It begins with a home derby against Basque neighbors Real Sociedad on Sunday, Tiny Eibar is about to play in Spain's top league for the first time in its history. It will be the smallest team ever to compete in La Liga, with a town of just 27,000 people and a stadium that holds just under 6,000. It begins with a home derby against Basque neighbors Real Sociedad on Sunday,
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Raising the Eibar
Fair shares
Illustrious alumni
A global game
A spirit of togetherness
The gift of Garitano
Ipurua
'Confidence boost'
All for one and one for all
Maintaining identity
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tiny SD Eibar set to play first ever match in Spain's top tier on Sunday
  • Minnows take on local Basque rivals Real Sociedad at Ipurua stadium
  • Eibar had to raise $2.3m after promotion to comply with financial rules in Spain
  • Club are smallest ever to compete in La Liga with a budget dwarfed by rivals

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(CNN) -- "We are like one grain of sand against a whole beach." Eibar fan Unai Eraso.

SD Eibar has already climbed one mountain this summer in being admitted to Spain's top football tier, but its next task is even more daunting -- trying to compete in the same division as European champion Real Madrid.

Not only can Real lavish a sum four times Eibar's annual budget on just one player, its Bernabeu stadium could hold the entire population of the tiny Basque town and still have 58,454 seats empty.

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Eibar will be the smallest team ever to compete in La Liga and had to raise $2.3 million in capital just to take its place at the top table of Spanish football.

Its president Alex Aranzaba believes the greatest achievement in Eibar's history would be to survive on such an uneven playing field.

"There are several reasons why Real Madrid and Barcelona are so far ahead in terms of finance," Aranzabal told CNN.

"Both clubs have many connections around the world and don't earn money by just selling tickets -- they have big merchandising campaign.

"There's also the huge television deals which they both have. It's impossible to compete with them, not just for Eibar which is the smallest team, but even for bigger clubs like Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao.

That Eibar will go head-to-head with the likes of Real Madird and Barca l is something of a sporting miracle.

After gaining promotion to Spain's second tier, the club promptly won the title for the first in its history.

But a debut season rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and champions Atletico was immediately under threat, due to a 1999 law passed down by the Spanish authorities.

It insists each team must have a capital equal to 25% of the average expenses of all sides in the second division, excluding the two clubs with the biggest outgoings and the two with the smallest.

The law is designed to ensure all clubs can attend to its debts, despite La Liga's leading lights -- Real Madrid and Barca -- being in the red to an estimated combined total close to €1 billion ($1.36 billion).

Eibar, on the other hand, are self-sustaining and completely debt free; even La Liga's president has referred to them as a "model club."

And yet, failure to raise the required €1.7 million ($2.3 million) would result in demotion back to the obscurity of Spain's third tier.

But football loves an underdog and when Eibar threw themselves at the mercy of fans by launching a share issue scheme, thousands stepped forward to help.

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The cash was raised a full three weeks before Eibar's deadline, leaving Aranzabal and others at the club dumbfounded at the pledges of support.

"For a small city and a small club to receive such support from across the world is something that makes me very proud -- it feels like we're part of a family," said Aranzabal.

"At the beginning there were some doubts we'd raise the money, but later we realized we had a story to tell and that we could reach our target with hard work.

"Around 36% of our shareholders are from Eibar but because of the online marketing campaign we have shareholders from 50 different countries across the world.

"We had people buying shares from the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Germany, France, Mexico, Colombia. We had people coming to us from all over Asia and across the world.

"It really has been incredible."

With the financial hurdles overcome, Eibar's fans can now dream of the footballing treats that lie ahead.

Barcelona and Real Madrid will visit Eibar's titchy Ipurua stadium (capacity 5,900) in due course, but first up are neighbors Real Sociedad for a Basque derby on Sunday.

"This club was founded in 1940 after the troubles of the Civil War," added Aranzabal, referring to the conflict that tore Spain apart.

"This is the first time in 74 years and this is a dream. Now we have to maintain the dream in La Liga. We're sure that we're going to be competitive and fight until the last minute of the season to avoid relegation.

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"This club is used to facing challenges."

Unai Eraso has been a supporters of Eibar all his life and is in no doubt the last year qualifies as a bona fide sporting miracle.

"You can't even compare Eibar with Barcelona or Real Madrid," said Eraso. "The population of Eibar is 27,000 people, against Real Madrid in a city of more than 3.5 million people.

"Everyone is bigger in terms of budget, population, stadium, players but our story is going to be a good one for football as a whole.

"It will be tough on the pitch but I'm really confident because we have no pressure on us. This year is a like a present to all the supporters of Eibar.

"Nobody's going to whistle or shout against the team or the players. We are Eibar -- we know who we are."

Like Aranzabal, Eraso believes Spanish football needs to redistribute its wealth better.

Though Eibar raised the cash it needed to lift its head above the financial bar imposed by the league, it's still dwarfed by almost all its fellow La Liga clubs.

Eibar's budget for the season is around the same as Barcelona star Lionel Messi will earn in wages over the same period.

That's partly because Spanish clubs are allowed to sell its television rights independently, meaning the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona could command four times the amount that Eibar can muster.

"It is not fair at all," Eraso said. "Not only in how the TV money is shared among the teams but also the huge amount of money some clubs owe. Eibar has no debt at all.

"These guys are free to buy a lot of players with the money they get from TV and it makes for a paralyzed league where the top two or three teams have 80% of the resources and the rest have peanuts.

"In Spain it is a nonsense to say someone outside of Real Madrid, Atletico or Barcelona will win the league. There is no fourth candidate."

Eibar isn't concerned with the title race though -- its battle is to finish fourth from bottom and avoid relegation.

Eraso is convinced they can do it, if they harness the intimidating surrounds of Ipurua, and call on the famed togetherness in the town.

"The spirit is the most important thing that will help us overcome all the challenges we will have this year," he said.

"We have overcome a lot of crises in the town and reinvented ourselves. We now have to adapt to what is coming this year.

"We're going to have the lowest budget with no big names in our team but we will make it with the players and all of us pushing in the same direction -- this is in our spirit."

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