“When you see him score that goal at Anoeta, you feel like leaping onto the pitch and hugging him,” Xabi Alonso says, and he wasn’t the only one. Nor, more importantly, was the kid he’s talking about as he takes shelter from the rain at Zubieta, just south of the city of San Sebastian.
It was late on a Saturday night in mid-October when Julen Lobete‘s last-minute shot almost took the roof off the stadium and carried Real Sociedad to the top of the table where they have been since, and few understood better what it meant than the former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder. For all of them.
It’s been almost 20 years since Alonso was at the heart of the last Real Sociedad side to wonder if maybe they could win the league, eventually finishing second in 2002-03. But it’s not just that, or that he was a youth team product born in nearby Tolosa and raised in San Sebastián who became the club captain. The son of a man who actually did win the league there — his dad, Periko, claimed the title in the two seasons either side of Xabi’s birth — Alonso is also the coach of Sanse, Real Sociedad B, the only development team in Spain‘s professional second division and the team where Lobete started the season. Lobete, 21, literally left the Sanse bench halfway through a game to dash out of the stadium to join a session with the first team, called to make his debut, and the step-up hadn’t always been easy.
“He’s a very open lad, with a pure heart. He has no hidden layers: he is what you see,” Alonso says. “Two weeks before he had missed a good chance, then he [came back down and] played with us and missed another one. I said to him ‘don’t worry, you’re going to get the chance,’ and so to see him score that goal makes you proud of him … and the project, too.”
When the goal went in and la Real went top, they had 10 players on the pitch, most of whom had travelled a path much like Lobete from being local boys playing at their club. Seven of the 10 had been through the academy. Six of them were from Guipuzcoa, the province in which the la Real are based, while two more were from neighbouring Navarra. As for the 11th player, that was Aihen Munoz: the man who had been sent off 40 minutes earlier was born in Etxuari, Navarra province, has parents from San Sebastian and joined the club at 13.
Ander Guevara, born in Álava, the Basque province just to the south, and Robert Navarro had started the game, but been substituted: both had played for Sanse before the first team. The team’s captain and its best player, Mikel Oyarzabal, was injured and missed the game. Born in Eibar, Guipuzcoa province, he joined Real Sociedad at the U15 level.
At just 760 square miles and with a population of 720,000, Guipúzcoa is the smallest province in Spain, but here it is providing the core of the best football team in Spain. Copa del Rey winners and league leaders. It is not by chance, either. It is, says Roberto Olabe, the sporting director, about the politico-cultural environment and its social structures, a kind of ecosystem that he calls “socio-affective, collaborative, collective” and that he links to the significance of the matriarchy.
He explains it through the concept of cuadrillas (groups of friends) and sociedades gastronomicas, where people cook together. It is also a conscious, carefully constructed policy, built around Zubieta, the club’s training ground and academy built into the hillside at the end of a narrow, leafy lane.
The target, says academy director Luki Iriarte as he strolls around Zubieta, is to build youth teams where 80% of the players here are from Guipuzcoa and 20% from outside — usually from the other Basque provinces, Navarra or France, whose border handily lies within 50km. According to this approach, it provides the basis for a balance of 60-40 at the professional level, the Real Sociedad first team fed by Zubieta.
“We will always look inside first,” Olabe says; he also says that those targets are being met, “give or take 5%.”
Getting them there requires what Olabe describes as a “transversal project” of “stimulus and adaptation” led by staff with “an artisanal vocation” and rooted in seeking players’ “possibilities, not their limits: people tend to say ‘this player lacks this,’ or ‘he needs to develop that.’ We have to change that focus to adapt our work to what they do have, the focus on the player — every single one of them. They all have their own programme of individual improvement to turn those qualities into a capacity to compete. To think: ‘Why not?'”
It is a question Olabe poses a lot: Why not? Why not do it their own way? Why not be different? Why not compete like this? Why not win? Above all: Why not be ourselves?
Sixteen members of the Real Sociedad squad have come through the system and no team in Spain has a younger average age. Sometimes the simplest demonstration of all is the most effective. So here it is. Sitting in an office above the gym in Zubieta’s Gorabide building — the word meaning “to push upwards” in Basque — listening to Iriarte list when the current players came to the club is startling, not least just because of how long it takes.
“Zaldua, U15; Gorosabel, U15; Zubeldia, U13,” he starts, “Aritz, U15; Le Normand, U19; Aihen, U13 although he didn’t play in the team until U15; Zubimendi, U14; Mikel Oyarzabal, U15, but he played in Eibar that first year; Barrenetxea, U13; Guridi, U13; Luca, U13; Illara, U13; Guevara, U16; Lobete, U16; Turrientes, U13; Urko, U16; Pacheco, U13 …”
The list goes on. It’s a serious success rate. “If not, they would have kicked me out by now,” Iriarte laughs.
Already this season, four players originally registered with Sanse have made their first-team debuts (although one, Cristo Romero, was signed from Málaga). This doesn’t make it easy for a manager trying to stay in the second division, but Alonso’s role serves a dual function that he’s embraced enthusiastically: to compete every weekend as if they were Oviedo, Zaragoza or Malaga, Leganes, Las Palmas or Sporting, and prepare players for the first team.
“Sanse is our precious stone: that final point where you can still mold players, still prepare them,” Olabe says. “The second division is not an end for us; it is a means. But of course we want to stay there, compete there — that is a differential element for us, one that gives us an advantage.”
“It’s the penultimate step after all the work done here at Zubieta,” Alonso says. “It’s like a production line, and we’re almost at that point where you’re putting it into the box and packing it all up ready for the first team.”
That process starts at 13, which is late compared with many clubs. Iriarte is a qualified teacher, something he shares with around 60% of the staff in the academy — schooling is part of the process, and their approach is integrated with the educational policy of the Guipuzcoa government. That means there’s no push for specialisation or professionalisation early; kids are instead expected to participate in many sports. Real Sociedad don’t sign players earlier, and they don’t shed them early either: there is no annual “cull,” and they commit to keeping every player for at least the first two years. To playing them, too: the focus is more on development than recruitment, keeping turnover low.
“Our view is patience and perseverance,” Iriarte says. “Very few get cut, and we have that commitment to them. We signed them so if there is a mistake, it’s ours. We did the signing; they can’t pay for that error. For example, at the moment our U13s have only 16 players — if we catch a cold, we have a problem — but we prefer that to having lots of players, knowing too that others will join the group as years pass. We have six-week cycles of kids training here in parallel, but the team itself is a small group. We would rather have fewer players, but have the time and the space for them, the patience to work with them and the opportunity for them to compete. That obliges us to look after them.”
“You could have the temptation to start looking for players all over the place — and there will be very good players out there — but we thought we needed to trust in our players more.”
“To cook you need ingredients and water, but you also need time,” Olabe says. “There are some risks, of course, but we take players late, not early, and then we want stability, consistency, continuity. On average, the players in the first team have been at the club for 12 years. In the Sanse team, it’s eight years. Overall, it’s 7.8 years. That speaks to the stability, and it’s a key part of this process. We want them to reach that final step consolidated, ready.”
This explains why Real Sociedad established a C team — what they call “the third structure” — to bridge the leap from juvenil (U19) to Sanse.
“They used to jump straight to Sanse, but what we saw was that there were players who weren’t ready for senior football,” Iriarte says. “So we lengthened the formative process. Some leapfrog it, but others benefit from that extra stage. Guevara, for example, has played at every stage in the process. [Gorosabel and Zubimendi also played in the C team.] We needed to add that level to not lose them along the way.”
And then comes the hardest step of all, the last one. As Olabe puts it: “Someone has to open the door at 5 o’clock on a Sunday.” If not, none of it makes sense. Imanol Alguacil is the one who does so, and that final step is facilitated by how close it all is, the togetherness. “It all feels very close,” Alonso says. “The players see the first team as something that’s there. And the players in the first team were with Sanse ‘two days’ ago, so that connection remains.”
Looking out across the seven pitches here, it goes deeper than that, a natural consequence of the whole process. Of the shared experiences of those overseeing that process, too. At every level throughout the structure, there are former players, people who have grown with la Real, with a feel for what the club is, for is ecosystem. None more so than Alguacil: a former academy product, first team player, U17 coach and B-team coach before he took over the first team.
“It’s very important that Imanol has loved that process himself,” Olabe says. “To understand that identification, the strategy, the idiosyncrasies of the club and its context — the 80-20, 60-40 — is very valuable.
“You have to have people who make that decision a natural one over time. Imanol, [assistant coaches] Mikel Labaka and Jon Ansotegui were all players here. Xabi was. Sergio Francisco, who’s in charge of the C team. Natalia [Arroyo] with the women’s team. Our coordinator Gorka Larrea was a player, for example.”
It’s also important that they live it together and that while they are different — and are encouraged to be — they share broad principles. Above all, they share the same aim. “We often eat together here,” Alonso says of Alguacil. “He’s been at Sanse and he is no stranger what happens to us; he understands and we try to help them in everything we can. We know the first team is absolute.”
There is no better help that providing players like Lobete. Not that it is just them, Olabe is quick to note. He’s not pretending this is solely about youth team products, or even that he wants it to be. Alexander Isak, David Silva, Cristián Portu, Nacho Monreal, Alex Sorloth, Adnan Januzaj: they’re also vital players, not just because of their talent, but also precisely because they are — or, more accurately, were — outsiders, precisely because they broke the mold and helped la Real break it too.
Alonso himself is an example — a local boy and club man, sure, but formed at Liverpool, Madrid and Bayern too. “His experiences are brilliant for us,” the sporting director insists. “To have people who understand our identity and can enrich us with that knowledge from outside is very important. People who are able to say to us: ‘Extraordinary things are happening out there.’ We have to feed on that, too: The competitive demands made on us come from outside, from the competition itself. You can’t close your door to what’s happening, you can’t think that ‘this is it,’ we know everything.”
“Our process has very good things, but that can limit you at a given time; it can become a kind of end game,” Olabe says. “From time to time we have to throw a ‘bomb’ in too, add people who are nothing to do with our context. We will always look inside — that’s a question of credibility too, as the players coming through feel like participants when they can see that they’re here to help — but that there will be times where we see a gap in the succession or we’ll see a need that we can’t cover, a weakness. Maybe there’s a generational change we need to confront, as there was three or four years ago.”
Or a stylistic shift, even. Something added to their identity.
“A few years ago, we decided we needed to be more explosive, to have more depth to our attack,” Olabe says. “We wanted to be passers, but also explorers of space. You have to go out there and find what you haven’t got.”
And so here they are at Zubieta the morning after Sanse have played in the Second Division — watched from the stands by half a dozen first teamers — and the morning before the derby against Athletic Club in LaLiga. On the pitch at the top, Alonso’s voice and the noise of the ball echo around in the rain. Down the steep slope, the U16s are finishing their morning session on an artificial turf pitch, the women’s team arriving as they depart. By the pitch alongside, the first team players are heading down the hill and back to the dressing room, a cuadrilla from Guipuzcoa and beyond.
A cuadrilla that is top of the league.
It is wet at Zubieta; quiet, too. This is not a place where the lights are blinding, nor is it a city or a fan base that “kills you… or kills you with kisses,” Olabe says. But the pressure is building, the question about the title starting to float even if Alonso claims he’s not being asked this yet. Could this team really compete for LaLiga like his did? Could it even go one better? Is it ready for those demands, or is that something to fear?
“I hope not,” the sporting director says as the players file past in the rain. “But what we have to do is feed the fans’ hopes, their excitement, their ilusion. I can’t go out there and cut that down or dismiss it. That’s not something to hide from, far from it: it’s pure gasoline, fuel for us. Those demands can’t be a weight, something to pull a face at. Smile. Ask: ‘why not?’
“The hope our fans have isn’t something that should constrain us, but should encourage us to keep being the best we can be in here on Monday to Friday and try to demonstrate that at the weekend, to keep growing and looking: where’s our limit? We have the foundations, the floor, but where’s the ceiling? Let’s see if we can find it, let’s see if we can meet those demands out there.”