Real Sociedad lead the way in Spain and get to enjoy moment of liberation
Was a last-gasp winner to beat Mallorca the mark of champions? Either way, la Real are unbeaten since opening day
Julen Lobete was on his knees crying again when his teammates sprinted towards him, hauled him to his feet and held him tight. One after another they hugged him hard enough to collapse a lung. The fireworks had gone up over the Bay of Biscay and all around people stood, wearing smiles they had found again. It was late on Saturday night but, together at last, no one was going anywhere. A party was about to start and if it didn’t go on longer it was only because they were as exhausted as they were elated. “This is amazing, I’m stunned,” the Real Sociedad forward said. “I’ll think about it tonight but now I can’t describe it; it means … bloody everything.”
Which might sound a bit much for a slightly lucky, deflected goal in a not-particularly-impressive 1-0 win against recently-promoted Mallorca in week nine, but it wasn’t that. Nor was it just that they had played with 10 men for half the night, that it came in the 90th minute, or even that it took his team to the top of the table, although it was all of that too. It was everything and everyone, not only what it was but when it was and who it was, the reaction somehow just right. It was Lobete and Lobete is everyone, a representative of what makes Real Sociedad everything you wish your club could be. Not just cup winners and league leaders, but the rest of it too.
La Real had to wait their whole life to reach a Copa del Rey final with Athletic Club and an extra year to actually play it, the clubs determined to postpone the game for as long as they could to try and get the fans in. They had to wait 33 years to lift a trophy again and another 196 days to share it with their fans. On Saturday after 596 days Anoeta was finally allowed to welcome back everyone, authorised to open at 100%, and so at last they did.
For the last six months, the cup has been in a cabinet in a passageway under the stand. On Saturday night before kick-off Mikel Oyarzabal and Asier Illarramendi carried it across a blue carpet and showed it to 30,831 supporters. Players and staff – 50 of them or more, including some who had since left, such as David Zurutuza, Roberto López and Miguel-Ángel Moya – posed for a photograph with the cup. A group of children accompanied them on, all born on 3 April, the day of the final. A blue-and-white mosaic was raised, handily providing material for the hanky wave that followed when Aihen Muñoz was sent off. The screens showed the winning goal from the final. And the club’s anthem was sung a cappella by the entire congregation.
And then, after a brief extra warm-up, they played.
Not especially well, as it turned out – not for la Real, anyway. The coach Imanol Alguacil had requested that pre-match celebrations be as simple and short as possible to avoid distracting attention. The lap of honour with the trophy would be left until after. But as that moment approached, it was hard to imagine many being really in the mood for it. Real Sociedad weren’t leading and didn’t much look like leading either. Worse, they were down to 10 just before half-time, anger replacing the optimism. And if there was relief at a superb Mallorca goal being ruled out for handball, mostly there was frustration, a feeling of lost opportunity, false dawn.
They had seen Cristián Portu get his shorts pulled down, but not take a shot. Alexander Isak’s best attempt had been a free-kick into the wall. Adnan Januzaj had hit over. And that was that. On the weekend when Madrid and Atlético weren’t playing, first place had been left within their grasp but was slipping from their fingers. Despite being a man down, Martin Zubimendi, Alexander Sorloth and Lobete were sent on, but it still wasn’t happening. “It was a 0-0 game,” Mallorca manager Luis García said.
It was, yeah.
But then the ball came to Lobete, his deflected shot hit Manolo Reina’s hand and went in, sending the stadium wild. On his knees, head in the turf, Lobete was soon at the bottom of the pile. Real Sociedad were at the top, league leaders. If it hadn’t been that good, and certainly not the kind of dynamic, joyous, fun evening Real Sociedad had produced often over the last couple of years, then so much the better, said legendary former player Roberto López Ufarte: this was, the two-times league winner insisted, the mark of champions.
That might be pushing it – or is it? – but la Real have not been beaten since the opening day and this is no one-off. Last season they had also deservedly led the league. There is a reason they won the 2020 cup, a reason too why no one believes they will have to wait 33 more years for their next. Fortune had favoured them as it had with a 1-0 win over Elche gifted them by a slip, sure, but they have not conceded in five homes games. Madrid and Atlético may have a game in hand but they are three points clear.
Besides, while this may not be the mark of champions, Lobete getting the winner was still a liberation, a chance for justice to be done and a moment properly savoured. It was also the mark of this team, one where players and coaches may be more closely identified with the club than almost anywhere else. “Julen won’t sleep tonight,” Joseba Zaldua said afterwards, saying it all. “Not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined this and we’re all so happy for him.”
There were five minutes to go until half time against Eibar earlier this season when Lobete suddenly dashed off the bench, down the tunnel and out the ground. He had been there to play for Real Sociedad’s B team under Xabi Alonso, the only B team in Spain’s Second Division. Instead, the forward born in Lezo 12km away, was on his way to join the first team. Another one. Aged 21, Lobete is one of four homegrown players to have made their first-team debut this season alongside Cristo Romero, 21, and 19-year-olds Jon Karrikaburu and Beñat Turrientes, the player they would be most excited about except that over-excitement is not really their thing. That’s more debutants than at any other club in primera and they have the division’s lowest average age.
Lobete has doubled up, playing seven times in the first team, scoring twice now, and four times under Alonso. Teammates have been called up and back without playing. There have been injuries and every week, it seems, Alonso loses someone, a seemingly endless supply that is no one-off but rather the consequence of a clear policy. Of a culture too. Donostia might well be the most beautiful city in Spain; it is also, as Oyarzabal puts it, the “perfect environment”. A city the sporting director Roberto Olabe describes as: “Somewhere with no roundabouts, a place for the development of young people, for their consolidation.” It doesn’t seem entirely chance that six la Real players have university studies. That the average stay in the club’s youth system is almost eight years speaks of stability, productivity and continuity.
All the way to the top. “You can do all the work but someone still needs to open the door on Sunday at 5pm,” Olabe says. “Someone positive, optimistic, brave, enthusiastic.” Real Sociedad have Alonso, a former player and son of a former player running the B team and Imanol Alguacil coaching the first team. Born and raised in Orio, a village 15km from Donostia famous for its rowing and sea bream where he still lives and where a small crowd gathered beneath his balcony to applaud him after la Real won the cup, Alguacil is a former B team player, B team coach, and first-team player. It’s hard to imagine a manager who understands or feels his club like him and he knew better than anyone what Lobete’s moment meant – for everyone.
But then they all did, deeply. Most have been through it, this is their life too. Of the 16 footballers who played on Sunday, 10 came through Zubieta. The regular captain, Oyarzabal, a 24-year-old “veteran” who scored the winner in the cup final, was not in the squad and nor was club captain Illarramendi, another who came through Zubieta, but they were there though to lift the trophy and lead the party. “I’ll never forget the look on their faces,” Oyarzabal said. “The way I feel, pffff … It’s not something I can explain with words,” Alguacil admitted when he finally came down from the bumps the players gave him. “It means a lot for all the coaches he’s had over the years. I’m very happy for him; he’s a lad we all love,” Alonso said. “I told him to be calm, the goal would come.”
As for the man who got the party back on track, the latest symbol of all their success, he was on his knees, overcome, teammates heading towards him. “I cried with joy,” Julen Lobete said, standing there at the side of the pitch when at last they let him go. Behind him, the stands were full and the party about to start.