Athletic’s Match Against Eibar Has A History 20 Years In The Making

Gaizka Garitano Eibar

Gaizka Garitano was a successful player for Eibar before becoming a coach (SDE)

“We are proud that a club like Athletic looks at our players.” These words, spoken by Eibar President Amaia Gorostiza when asked about her thoughts on Dani García and Ander Capa leaving for Athletic last summer, accurately summarize the relationship between the two Basque clubs. The rivals may have only played each other 11 total times, but there is a lot of history between them.

While the likes of Real Sociedad, Alavés, and Osasuna have strained relationships with Athletic, Eibar are on the other end of the spectrum. The two have no ill will towards one another. Just earlier this week they partnered together with the Basque Team Foundation which offers scholarships to Basque athletes who aspire to compete in events such as the Olympics and Paralympics.

On Saturday Athletic and Eibar will play a Basque Derby at the San Mamés and, although it will be aggressive and intense, there won’t be hatred between the two, just respect. However, this Derby will be even more special than others. There’s unique history involved in this game that’s been 20 years in the making.

The story leading up to Saturday’s match starts all the way back in 1998 when a young Gaizka Garitano was sent on loan from Athletic to Eibar. Garitano had grown up at Lezama, but only managed to feature in one game for the first team before moving to the Ipurua for the season. The midfielder did so well that he was signed by Ourense the following summer where he would spend two years.

Gaizka Garitano Eibar

Garitano is celebrated after leading Eibar to promotion (CNN)

Garitano made his return to Eibar in 2001 where he would become a club star. He featured in over 140 matches for Los Armeros before leaving for Real Sociedad in 2005 followed by a move to Alavés three years later. After retiring from football in 2009 Garitano immediately pursued a coaching career, which wasn’t a surprise at all to those who knew him.

Eibar were newly relegated to the Segunda B when Garitano returned for a third time in 2009, this time as a coaching assistant. The following year he would take over as the manager for the reserve team, a position he held for two seasons with impressive results. Finally, in 2012, Garitano was named the new manager of Eibar, bringing his assistant coach Patxi Ferreira with him, and that is where the next chapter of the story begins.

Garitano’s first season as the Eibar manager went better than anyone could have imagined, and the team was strengthened by three important signings – Dani García, Yuri Berchiche, and Ander Capa.

Dani García had grow up at the Real Sociedad academy, but never made it at the first team. After stints with Alicante and Getafe he was signed by La Real again and sent on loan to Eibar. Likewise, Yuri Berchiche had spent time at both Lezama and Zubieta and had been doing very well with Real Unión before being signed another by La Real and also sent on loan to Eibar. Capa had already played under Garitano the previous year with Eibar’s reserve team and was promoted to the first team.

Gaizka Garitano

Athletic’s season immediately changed when Garitano became the manager (Marca)

The trio played a massive role in Garitano’s team as Eibar finished 2nd in the league table and earned their place back in the Segunda after the promotional playoffs. After the club’s four year absence Los Armeros were back, but the magic wasn’t over yet. The following year saw García and Berchiche stay at Eibar on loan and once again, under the leadership of Garitano, the team shattered expectations. Eibar topped the table and earned their first ever promotion to the Primera.

Berchiche returned to Real Sociedad the following summer, but Dani García was signed by Eibar where he and Capa took on the roles of leaders within the team. The first year in La Liga was difficult. Eibar finished the season 18th in the table which should have seen them relegated. However, 13th place Elche were sent down due to tax issues.

Eibar may have been saved, but it wasn’t enough to see Garitano continues as the manager. He would be replaced by José Luis Mendilibar in the summer of 2015. After unsuccessful stints with Real Valladolid and Deportivo, Garitano found himself back where it all started, coaching Bilbao Athletic. He accepted the offer to become the manager in 2017 following the promotion of Kuko Ziganda and was an instant success.

Over the summer of 2018 the reunion would begin. Athletic had already signed Eibar’s Ander Capa one year earlier but allowed him to stay on loan. He was followed by captain Dani García who chose not to sign a contract renewal and made the switch to the San Mamés. Berchiche would come last having been signed from PSG in what was the second most expensive transfer in Athletic history.

The reunion was complete on 4 December, when Eduardo Berizzo was dismissed as the Athletic manager and Garitano was promoted to take his place. As always, Patxi Ferreira continued as his assistant coach. Five years earlier the five were leading Eibar in the club’s first ever season in La Liga and now they were tasked with helping Athletic avoid relegation.

Capa Garcia Berchiche Garitano

Capa, Iru, Dani García, Ferreira, Berchiche, and Garitano together at Lezama (El Correo)

Garitano immediately changed the culture at Athletic. He restored the team’s confidence and reintroduced the style of football that had always brought success at the San Mamés. Dani García and Berchiche were unquestioned starters and played their best football since joining Athletic. Capa, who had barely featured under Berizzo, was thrust into the starting lineup and had a huge impact in the team.

Nearly three months later and Athletic have soared out of the relegation zone. The Lions are currently 11th in the La Liga table, just 4 points off of Europe, and trail Eibar by a single point. On Saturday Athletic will welcome Eibar to the San Mamés and it will be a very special game for Garitano, Ferreira, Dani García, Berchiche, and Capa. The history doesn’t even stop there. Athletic’s goalkeeping coach Aitor Iru also played for Eibar alongside Garitano and captain Markel Susaeta is actually from the city of Eibar.

Once two young promising coaches and three young promising players at Eibar, the five have all established themselves as integral parts of Athletic’s success this season. Garitano and company are proud to represent Athletic and call the San Mamés home, but there will always be a very special place in their hearts for Eibar. Saturday’s match is going to be special, historic, emotional, and extremely important. A win would see Athletic move into the top half of the table for the first time since September. In the grand scheme of things this match will be just another statistic, but for these five it will be the biggest Basque Derby in history.

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