The seeds of knowledge sown at Real Sociedad are spreading to such an extent that a quarter of Premier League managers can now claim to have experienced the charm of the Gipuzkoa province.
Mikel Arteta, who was born in San Sebastian and dreamed of playing for La Real as a child, had a brief stint with the club, and his Arsenal side are now perhaps one of the best examples of the patience and perseverance promoted at the Basque club.
The other Premier League managers to have played for the club are new Leeds manager Javi Gracia, Wolves’ Jule Lopetegui, and Unai Emery at Aston Villa, and, while the only one to manage the La Liga side was West Ham’s Scottish boss David Moyes, the footballing wisdom exuded at their Anoeta home is contagious.
“They become fully imbued with this culture,” explains Andoni Iraola, a Real Sociedad director rather than the Rayo Vallecano boss (though he, too, was born in Gipuzkoa).
“What we try to do is understand sport as something that must be developed as well as played.
“People are interested not only in the end result, but also in what the game is about, what the whole thing is about.”
Real Sociedad will look to take that philosophy and leave a more direct mark on the continent when they visit Jose Mourinho’s Roma in the Europa League last-16 first leg on Thursday, having previously won at Manchester United.
La Real’s growing influence on European football since their return to La Liga 13 years ago has given them a name that extends far beyond San Sebastian, a city of only 187,000 people, and they are on track to compete in the Champions League next season.
Real Sociedad “belongs to everybody,” according to Iraola, who leads a team of over 14,000 socios who helped keep the club afloat after they were relegated.
To compete with Europe’s biggest clubs, the Basque side must develop local talent, and 80% of youngsters in La Real’s famed Zubieta academy were born in Gipuzkoa – 16 of the current first-team squad are also homegrown.
“The work done here at Zubieta is something that we feel very well supported by everybody from the very first day,” says Spain international Mikel Oyarzabal, 25, who is currently the most prized asset to emerge from La Real’s youth system.
“You receive all kinds of help from different sectors, not only sport – they can give you the tools required to play football, but also the tools you need for your daily life. It’s a beautiful setting and environment.”
Oyarzabal scored the game-winning goal in the Copa del Rey final as La Real won their first trophy in 34 years in 2021, led by head coach Imanol Alguacil, who came through the academy, played for the first team, and began his coaching career with the club’s youth teams.
“It was only a few years ago that the club was going through some very difficult times,” Oyarzabal adds. “It is a procedure. Beautiful things are being seen now, but it all stems from work done years ago.”