Almost Famous : An Anoeta Tale
The Horizon Where Reality Met Dream
Ever heard of a thing called “surprise contenders”? We have, haven’t we ? In every sphere of life there are these few people we call underdogs. While the traditional titans are busy soaking up the attention, often we have seen such “minnows” stealing the show from right under their noses. Guaranteeing for themselves a place in history and a cult status in the hearts of the faithful.
Football, much as in life, has them. More often than not, we see leagues being chased by complete strangers. cups being won by unheralded startups and upsets being caused by these minnows, who manage to pass the radar, and with it, the hassles of the hollywood aura. Freeing up their mind, so that they can focus more closely on their primary business at hand. Thwarting the bigwigs and sailing off to the sunset with their heads held highest.
To quote the recent past, we saw the uncanny run of Leicester City to the top of England and claim the Premier League title. A feat neve achieved before by a team who had been promoted to the top flight only a season ago. We saw the run of the newly formed RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga during the first half of this season, giving the mighty Bavarians a run for their money. Although they have faded out now, their impact still rings loud. One can bring to light several more instances of dream successes, including the Greek invasion of the Euro 2004, Wales’ run to the semis of the most latest Euro, while being apparent debutants to the premier UEFA competition.
And then there are some incidents of heartbreaks near the end. A fairytale run only to end in the mouth of a demon. In the pursuit of the first title in 25 years, the mighty Liverpool, were so near, yet so far away. At arm’s length, the title slipped. Although considered to be one of the greatest English teams of all time, their fall from the helm has been all too apalling, which made their run all the more inspiring. In the end, mother fate had another unfavourable destiny in store. Depending on one’s loyalties it was either cruel or poetic. But still, it hurts, doesn’t it ? The Royals will testify.
The 2002-03 La Liga season was a watershed in the history of football. In a league regarded as a two horse tussle, what happens when there were three genuine contenders fighting tooth and nail and five to six other sides who gave hell to top sides. We often connect to times in our lives to movies and how they match each other. Well, if there was one director eligible to direct a movie if made on this season, it’d be the inimitable Cristopher Nolan, and yet he’d fail. To surmise, an absolute thriller that gives your goose bumps and make your hair stand on end.
Louis Van Gaal returned for a second spell and was sacked mid-way through the season at the Camp Nou. Radomir Antic was made the interim manager. Unimpressive in the league but superb in the champions league, meant a chance for the other outsiders at a shot at glory excluding the perennial penchants Los Blancos.
Every story has its rich boy and poor boy characters. The richie rich flauting his exploits while the poor, working hard to make his mark. Devoid of the resources available to the upper strata, by sheer dint of determination and will to succeed, the poor boy moves ahead and forth, not stopping until he has achieved it. And when he fails, we have at hand, a tragedy. Shakespeare would be proud.
Real Sociedad had finished 13th for 3 seasons in a row before the start of the 2002-03 season. There were no great transfer activity too. The only notable transfer was the addition of the winger Valeri Karpin. It was Karpin’s second spell at the Anoeta. Also, hired was the French manager Raynald Denoueix, a former manager of the year and ligue 1 winner in France with Nantes. The only notable player was a young inexperienced Xabi Alonso.
This time round, they txuri-urdin meant business. Not accounted for in any chance of giving the heavyweights a run to the title, and drawing conclusion from their previous seasons, expectations were almost nil. The blue and whites loved to prove their doubters wrong. Off to a flyer.
They started the season in spectacular fashion winning 4 and drawing 1. This included an opening day thrashing of their arch-rivals Athletic 4-2, a thrilling 3-3 draw with Betis and another 3-2 win in a thriller away at Osasuna. This would prove no fluke as no team managed to beat them in the first half of the season.
The closest they came to losing was in the tough Mestalla when they were losing 2-0 with a quarter of the match to go but they would show their resilience to draw 2-2. Having won thirteen and drawn six, the Anoeta dudley boys made sure their names were being heard across the continent, loud and clear.
As if their marauding persona that season wasn’t enough, La Real looked to it that they were embued in style aplenty. Nihat and Kovacevic, dubbed “Little and Large” by Phil Ball, regularly tore apart league defences. Amassing 43 goals between them, they had made a name for themselves as one of the most feared strike partnerships across Europe.
Real Sociedad also had the best in-form midfield that season. Valeri Karpin, in his early 30s, ran defences ragged. The centre of the pitch was manned by the young Xabi Alonso. Another cantera product and El Capitan. He covered the defence and provided his trademark long balls. His outlets to Karpin and de Pedro more often than not ended up creating goal scoring opportunities. Running down opponents day in day out, the Royals had made their presence felt in the world of football. They were here to stay and the legend, that is Xabi Alonso had born.
The Basque badboys had multiple great performances throughout the season including the aforementioned opening day thrashing of their arch-rivals Athletic Bilbao. But without a doubt their coupe de grace was the 4-2 win over the eventual champions Real Madrid. Relentless. After a fascinating start to the season, the White and Blue brigade had lost some steam. Beating the capital side was the push they needed. Only three points of the league leaders, and touching distance of the title. Glory was in sight.
With 4 games to go, Real Sociedad led by just 1 point. Valencia and Celta Vigo would play spoilsport. Madrid travelled to the Mestalla and La Real went to Malaga. Valencia would lose to a Ronaldo brace in a game where they should have had at least a point. Sociedad neatly beat a stubborn Malaga by 2 goals in the last 12 minutes. The following week Valencia held Sociedad at Mestalla but La Real had a lucky break when Raul saved Madrid’s blushes after El Zar Alexandr Mostovoi, who had a habit of scoring against Real Madrid, opened the score at the Bernabeu. 2 games to go still Madrid trailed by 1 point. Celta should have won at the Bernabeu.
Celta Vigo were chasing a champions league spot and chase they would by beating Real Sociedad 3-2 at home. Atletico Madrid, in their return to the top flight and with nothing to play for, meekly surrendered at home to Real Madrid 0-4. Unfortunately for Real Sociedad their destiny was out of their hands. The last week saw Real Sociedad facing Madrid’s rivals Atletico and Madrid facing Real’s arch-rivals Athletic. Thanks to their thrashing at the Anoeta, La Real would win if Madrid didn’t win. Real Sociedad went on to comfortably win 3-0.
If only things happened as men wanted it in story books, life would be so perfect and everywhere around us, surrounded by fairytales. The pain of loss will not be felt and with it, tragedy will be vanquished. If only. The Brazilian duo of Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo scored a goal each as Madrid comfortably won 3-1 to take the title.
Fast forward five years. After a couple of relegations scares, the txuri-urdin were pegged down the Liga Segunda. A tear drops as man realises the harsh truth of life and the adversity of living on the edge. The reality, is always a heartbreaker, more often than not. Yet, the tale of how a mid table team gave the biggies a scare for their lives, remain a source of inspiration even today. The Royals even for one season, became the Kings they never were. And their legacy leads on.