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Basque in glory

As Real Sociedad return to the Champions League this season, we recall their greatest adventure to date – when a team of local Basque talents came within a whisker of the European Cup final 40 years ago

WORDS Simon Hart

History
“Listen, you’re asking me this question and I’m getting goosebumps. I am looking back and remembering. I’m still a member today and I go with my wife Marta and there are always people who stop you and give you a hug and ask for a photo. I can see we made our mark. We achieved things which were very important for Guipuzcoa.”

The words belong to Alberto ‘Bixio’ Górriz, Real Sociedad’s record appearance-maker and a central defender in the San Sebastian club’s greatest team. “Made our mark” is an understatement. His was the side that won back-to-back Spanish league titles in 1981 and 1982 and the following season reached the European Cup semi-finals, losing narrowly to eventual winners Hamburg. The Guipuzcoa he invokes – or Gipuzkoa to use the local spelling – is a province of some 700,000 souls in the Spanish Basque country, and it had never known anything like it.

When La Real finished fourth in La Liga last season to secure Champions League football for the third time this century, their top two scorers hailed from Norway and Japan: Alex Sørloth and Takefusa Kubo, respectively. The club’s academy or cantera – the Spanish word for quarry – still produces a rich seam of talent, but times have changed. Forty years ago, La Real had only Basque players. The 1989 arrival of the club’s first foreign import for several decades, John Aldridge, was still some years off. Local boys filled an entire title-winning team. 

Tito Irazusta, a journalist who covered the club for 44 years, tells me: “La Real had a team based around players from their own cantera. A group of very good players had come together – Luis Arconada, Górriz, Inaxio Kortabarria, Jesús Satrústegui, Roberto López Ufarte – very, very good players who came together and crucially stayed together for several years.” 

Goalkeeper Arconada was nicknamed El Pulpo (the Octopus) for the agility which enabled his spectacular saves. Striker Satrústegui remains the club’s 162-goal record scorer. López Ufarte was known as El Pequeño Diablo (the Little Devil) for the trickery which would leave defenders on their backsides. They were among six players from La Real who featured in Spain’s squad at their ‘home’ World Cup in 1982.

And they had a bond which carried them not just to those two league titles but through tight ties against Celtic and Sporting CP in that European Cup adventure which ended with heartbreak in Hamburg (of which more later). 

“We’d trained together and played in the junior sides and there was a strong feeling for the club, for Real Sociedad, for what it means,” says Górriz, who made 599 appearances between 1979 and 1993. “There was a place we’d go down to at the racecourse next to our Zubieta training ground. The whole team tended to meet up after training.”

This was the period of Spain’s post-1975 transition from dictatorship to democracy following the death of General Franco. The Basque language was now being taught in schools again in the region – and it was employed to vivid effect by La Real’s players. “We all spoke Basque on the pitch because it was a sign of identity for us,” explains Górriz. “Other teams didn’t understand us and could see we were different, so it was a mark of identity. 

“In the dressing room, the team talk was in Spanish but all the shouts from the players, the battle cries, would be in Basque.” Hence chants of “Gora Real!” not “Vamos Real!” as the players headed for the pitch. Their coach, Alberto Ormaetxea, was one of them too, having previously played for the club. 

“He was a person who captures well the character of people here,” says Górriz. “He was hard-working, humble but ambitious too: he wanted to achieve things. He knew the club well and he knew us players and got a very high level out of us. He was very guipúzcoano: very hard-working on the pitch, very serious, but with a sense of humour. He’d played for Real and was a defender – one of those defenders who, from just looking at them, could scare you, but he had a great sense of humour.”

In an era when reporters and players mixed socially, Irazusta – then working for local radio and TV networks as well as the Basque newspaper Egin – would dine regularly with La Real’s coach. He recalls of Ormaetxea: “He never wanted to give credit to himself; he always gave it to the players. When you look at photos of that era, you barely see a photo of him lifting a trophy or centre stage. He’s always behind the others, although he was the coach who won the most trophies with Real Sociedad.”

To tell the tale of La Real’s greatest European campaign, it is important to wind back three years – to a day of heartbreak. La Real went through the 1979/80 season unbeaten until their penultimate game, which they lost 2-1 to a nine-man Sevilla side at the Sánchez-Pizjuán. They lost the title to Real Madrid by a single point. 

“We realised with that team that we could do something important for the people. We brought a lot of joy to the whole of Guipuzcoa”
Real Sociedad line up for a group photo before the UEFA Cup 2nd round 1st Leg tie between Real Sociedad and Liverpool at the Estadio de Atotxa on October 22, 1975

Irazusta, who saw first-hand the tears in the team hotel in Seville that night, says: “We all thought, ‘If they’ve not been able to win it this year, then it’ll be almost impossible,’ but the next two years they were champions.” In Górriz’s mind, it was during that near-perfect season when he and his colleagues “realised we were a strong team”.

The circumstances of Spanish football at the time helped them remain a strong team too. The right-of-retention system then in place meant a player could not leave his club without their blessing – and the club could renew a player’s contract unilaterally. Irazusta explains: “If players did want to leave, it wasn’t easy as the right to retention meant the club could say, ‘We’re paying you another ten per cent and you’re staying.’” The rule permitting only two foreign players per team also made for a more level playing field. “The regulations back then helped clubs that developed players who were happy to stay at home.”

Górriz certainly was. And although midfielder Periko Alonso – father of Xabi – left for Barcelona after the second league title, the rest remained. “We all wanted to play for Real. There was a special feeling. It wasn’t just about sport. Guipuzcoa is a very small province and Basques, as you know, are very proud people. We realised with that team that we could do something important for the people. And that’s what happened – we brought a lot of joy to the whole of Guipuzcoa.”

The first eruption of joy came on 26 April 1981, the final day of the 1980/81 Spanish season. With Real Madrid victorious at Real Valladolid, La Real nicked the point they needed through a last-minute strike from Jesús María Zamora which secured a 2-2 draw at Sporting Gijón. 

“Other teams didn’t understand us and could see we were different, so it was a mark of identity” 

Górriz remembers it well for it was his scruffy shot from the edge of the box that ran to Zamora, who buried the ball into the roof of the net. “It was the worst shot of my career but it became my best pass as it went to Zamora and he scored. It was destiny. We were owed one from the year before.” Level on points with Madrid, a superior head-to-head record secured them their first crown. The next year’s triumph was less dramatic, the Txuri-Urdinak (White and Blues) finishing two points ahead of Barcelona.

So to Europe. In their inaugural European Cup campaign of 1981/82, they fell at the first hurdle, beaten 1-0 on aggregate by CSKA Sofia. “We paid the price for our inexperience,” says Górriz, though the newcomers made amends the next season. They began in mid-September in Iceland. A 1-0 win over Víkingur, secured by a Satrústegui goal, was not the abiding memory for Irazusta, who was part of the travelling party. Rather, it was the 24-hour light of the late Icelandic summer. “You got to the hotel and there were no blinds and no night,” he remembers. “They gave us facemasks to help us sleep,” adds Górriz, smiling at the memory.

If sleep was a problem in Reykjavik, La Real received a warning about dozing off in the return, a 3-2 win that was closer than expected. “They were a physically tough if perhaps technically limited team and they made it difficult for us,” Górriz explains. “Perhaps we’d thought they wouldn’t cause us too many problems at Atocha, but in the European Cup the referees allowed more tackling; it was a tougher game back then. That made us see you had to go into every game at 100 per cent to win.”

For their next assignment against Celtic, a scouting report from Marco Antonio Boronat, Ormaetxea’s assistant, made sure La Real were ready. Boronat was known for his fact-finding journeys abroad – including lessons learned from Liverpool’s youth system – and he warned the players about the intensity they would face against the Scottish champions. 

Górriz recalls: “I knew we had to play differently from in our league – more aggressive perhaps, more robust, going in hard for the ball. Hard but fair, which is the way they played. We were ready for it.” In a tightly contested first leg, La Real prevailed 2-0 at home through late deflected shots from Satrústegui and Pedro Uralde. Watching on the Celtic bench was an unused substitute named David Moyes, later to manage La Real for 12 months from November 2014.

When Uralde scored at Celtic Park after 25 minutes of the return, the Spanish side had a three-goal cushion – enough to withstand a Celtic rally that brought two Murdo MacLeod strikes. A quarter-final against Sporting beckoned and belief was growing. Though Sporting snatched an 88th-minute winner in the first leg in Lisbon, there was a conviction La Real could turn the tie around back at Atocha, their rickety but raucous home ground. 

Irazusta explains: “Atocha was very, very similar to a lot of English stadiums – very tight, right on top of the pitch and right on top of the players. It had a proper football feel. The style of play was along the same lines. Real were a team who never stopped.”

For Górriz, this was a night where the home crowd, standing sardine-tight on the terraces, made a telling difference. “The strongest memory of that night is the connection with the public – how the crowd got behind us from the first minute.” Juan Antonio Larrañaga gave them a half-time lead with an indirect free-kick strike from inside the area. Then, in the 68th minute, teed up by some trickery from Zamora, José Mari Bakero – later a European Cup winner with Barcelona – added the decisive second goal. 

Górriz reflects that Atocha, the club’s home for 80 years until the move to Anoeta in 1993, was key not just on that night but throughout this golden era. “Michael Robinson once told me it was the stadium he liked most in Spain as it reminded him of those old stadiums in England. It was an old ground with wooden stands and the people right on top of you. It helped us a lot. We could really press the opposition and the crowd would too. I had Spain team-mates who said coming to Atocha was daunting but also inspiring as it was a great ground to play at.”

Thanks to their victory against Sporting, La Real had become the fourth Spanish club to reach the European Cup semi-finals. Yet barring their path to the Athens final were Hamburg, a side in the process of retaining their Bundesliga title back in Germany.

“The report we got was a bit scary. They had a lot of internationals, a very strong team,” recalls Górriz, who was assigned the job of man-marking Horst Hrubesch, aka Kopfballungeheuer - the Heading Monster. “When I saw him on the pitch, I thought, ‘My God, look what I’ve got to mark,’ as he was so big,” he laughs. “It wasn’t that he was that much taller, but he was much stronger and he used his body so well and was great in the air.” 

This time, the Atocha factor only counted for so much. Irazusta remembers: “Hamburg played defensively and it was hard for Real to get through. They had a counter and managed to get in front.” Wolfgang Rolff’s looping header over Arconada came in the 58th minute. However, from a corner with 17 minutes remaining, defender Agustín Gajate bundled in a close-range equaliser. Late chances for both sides followed, notably a Hrubesch header against the post in the last minute, yet the draw – and away goal – undoubtedly favoured Hamburg.

In its preview of the second leg, El País wrote: “Real Sociedad have come to Hamburg in search of a miracle, but this is no Lourdes.” And so it proved for a team missing several key players in Gajate, Kortabarria, Satrústegui and Zamora.

If Ormaetxea would later rue a first-half opportunity spurned by Larrañaga, the defender turning and shooting over, Hamburg had their own near miss with a Felix Magath effort that struck the inside of the post. Eventually, in the 75th minute, Ernst Happel’s side took the lead through a fierce Ditmar Jakobs header from a corner.

Yet the visitors’ heads did not drop. Five minutes later, José Diego Álvarez broke into the box after receiving a pass from substitute Bakero and lashed the ball high inside the near post. Now La Real could scent an opportunity. Górriz remembers: “We were always a bit on the back foot in that tie but when we equalised in Germany, I felt we could get the better of them. You could see they’d started to doubt.” Which made what happened next all the harder to swallow.

Seven minutes from the end, a half-cleared corner was driven back in by Magath. The ball deflected off the hip of Jakobs and bounced to Thomas von Heesen alone on the edge of the five-metre area, and he thrashed it high past Arconada. Forty years on, Górriz remains adamant that Von Heesen was in an offside position. “The whole team protested,” he adds, recounting that the referee’s assistant on that side was a Bundesliga referee, Udo Horeis, who had stepped out of the stands to take the flag for the second half following an injury to the original Swiss linesman, Peter Aschwanden. “It was right near the end of the game and we were having our best spell. If it had gone to extra time… you never know, but I think we’d have been the stronger side. We were so frustrated.”

“I have seen the players from La Real cry – and I mean cry – on two occasions,” adds Irazusta. “The first was the match in Seville where they lost the league. Back in the hotel in front of the Sánchez-Pizjuán, I saw the players in floods of tears. And it was the same in Hamburg.” An adventure was over. But what an adventure. As Górriz told us at the start, the boys from the Basque Country really had made their mark. 

Travel
Local pride

Real Sociedad are standard-bearers for a city rich in culture and cuisine

San Sebastian is a city whose major football team, Real Sociedad, can point proudly to an honours board featuring two league titles and two Spanish Cups – the last of these following a final victory against their Basque arch-rivals Athletic Club in 2019/20.

An elegant resort on Spain’s northern coastline, sited on a beautiful bay called La Concha for its shell-like shape, San Sebastián has plenty more to offer than that, however. Its gastronomic credentials are known across Spain – indeed, it is said to have the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita anywhere in the world – and it provides the setting each September for an international film festival in which the winning film earns the Golden Shell award.

An international dimension was added to La Real in 1985 when Welshman John Toshack became their first foreign coach since the 1930s. Four years later, John Aldridge became their first non-Basque player in several decades. To highlight the consistency of their performances under current coach Imanol Alguacil, this season will be their fourth in a row in UEFA club competition – the first time they have managed that since the early 1980s. 

“It is very hard competing in La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but I can see that players now want to play for La Real,” says club legend Alberto ‘Bixio’ Górriz. “We are a team playing in Europe, an important club, and players from outside want to come here while the local ones don’t want to leave. We have to take advantage of that.”

The words belong to Alberto ‘Bixio’ Górriz, Real Sociedad’s record appearance-maker and a central defender in the San Sebastian club’s greatest team. “Made our mark” is an understatement. His was the side that won back-to-back Spanish league titles in 1981 and 1982 and the following season reached the European Cup semi-finals, losing narrowly to eventual winners Hamburg. The Guipuzcoa he invokes – or Gipuzkoa to use the local spelling – is a province of some 700,000 souls in the Spanish Basque country, and it had never known anything like it.

When La Real finished fourth in La Liga last season to secure Champions League football for the third time this century, their top two scorers hailed from Norway and Japan: Alex Sørloth and Takefusa Kubo, respectively. The club’s academy or cantera – the Spanish word for quarry – still produces a rich seam of talent, but times have changed. Forty years ago, La Real had only Basque players. The 1989 arrival of the club’s first foreign import for several decades, John Aldridge, was still some years off. Local boys filled an entire title-winning team. 

Tito Irazusta, a journalist who covered the club for 44 years, tells me: “La Real had a team based around players from their own cantera. A group of very good players had come together – Luis Arconada, Górriz, Inaxio Kortabarria, Jesús Satrústegui, Roberto López Ufarte – very, very good players who came together and crucially stayed together for several years.” 

Goalkeeper Arconada was nicknamed El Pulpo (the Octopus) for the agility which enabled his spectacular saves. Striker Satrústegui remains the club’s 162-goal record scorer. López Ufarte was known as El Pequeño Diablo (the Little Devil) for the trickery which would leave defenders on their backsides. They were among six players from La Real who featured in Spain’s squad at their ‘home’ World Cup in 1982.

And they had a bond which carried them not just to those two league titles but through tight ties against Celtic and Sporting CP in that European Cup adventure which ended with heartbreak in Hamburg (of which more later). 

“We’d trained together and played in the junior sides and there was a strong feeling for the club, for Real Sociedad, for what it means,” says Górriz, who made 599 appearances between 1979 and 1993. “There was a place we’d go down to at the racecourse next to our Zubieta training ground. The whole team tended to meet up after training.”

This was the period of Spain’s post-1975 transition from dictatorship to democracy following the death of General Franco. The Basque language was now being taught in schools again in the region – and it was employed to vivid effect by La Real’s players. “We all spoke Basque on the pitch because it was a sign of identity for us,” explains Górriz. “Other teams didn’t understand us and could see we were different, so it was a mark of identity. 

“In the dressing room, the team talk was in Spanish but all the shouts from the players, the battle cries, would be in Basque.” Hence chants of “Gora Real!” not “Vamos Real!” as the players headed for the pitch. Their coach, Alberto Ormaetxea, was one of them too, having previously played for the club. 

“He was a person who captures well the character of people here,” says Górriz. “He was hard-working, humble but ambitious too: he wanted to achieve things. He knew the club well and he knew us players and got a very high level out of us. He was very guipúzcoano: very hard-working on the pitch, very serious, but with a sense of humour. He’d played for Real and was a defender – one of those defenders who, from just looking at them, could scare you, but he had a great sense of humour.”

In an era when reporters and players mixed socially, Irazusta – then working for local radio and TV networks as well as the Basque newspaper Egin – would dine regularly with La Real’s coach. He recalls of Ormaetxea: “He never wanted to give credit to himself; he always gave it to the players. When you look at photos of that era, you barely see a photo of him lifting a trophy or centre stage. He’s always behind the others, although he was the coach who won the most trophies with Real Sociedad.”

To tell the tale of La Real’s greatest European campaign, it is important to wind back three years – to a day of heartbreak. La Real went through the 1979/80 season unbeaten until their penultimate game, which they lost 2-1 to a nine-man Sevilla side at the Sánchez-Pizjuán. They lost the title to Real Madrid by a single point. 

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“We realised with that team that we could do something important for the people. We brought a lot of joy to the whole of Guipuzcoa”
Real Sociedad line up for a group photo before the UEFA Cup 2nd round 1st Leg tie between Real Sociedad and Liverpool at the Estadio de Atotxa on October 22, 1975

Irazusta, who saw first-hand the tears in the team hotel in Seville that night, says: “We all thought, ‘If they’ve not been able to win it this year, then it’ll be almost impossible,’ but the next two years they were champions.” In Górriz’s mind, it was during that near-perfect season when he and his colleagues “realised we were a strong team”.

The circumstances of Spanish football at the time helped them remain a strong team too. The right-of-retention system then in place meant a player could not leave his club without their blessing – and the club could renew a player’s contract unilaterally. Irazusta explains: “If players did want to leave, it wasn’t easy as the right to retention meant the club could say, ‘We’re paying you another ten per cent and you’re staying.’” The rule permitting only two foreign players per team also made for a more level playing field. “The regulations back then helped clubs that developed players who were happy to stay at home.”

Górriz certainly was. And although midfielder Periko Alonso – father of Xabi – left for Barcelona after the second league title, the rest remained. “We all wanted to play for Real. There was a special feeling. It wasn’t just about sport. Guipuzcoa is a very small province and Basques, as you know, are very proud people. We realised with that team that we could do something important for the people. And that’s what happened – we brought a lot of joy to the whole of Guipuzcoa.”

The first eruption of joy came on 26 April 1981, the final day of the 1980/81 Spanish season. With Real Madrid victorious at Real Valladolid, La Real nicked the point they needed through a last-minute strike from Jesús María Zamora which secured a 2-2 draw at Sporting Gijón. 

“Other teams didn’t understand us and could see we were different, so it was a mark of identity” 

Górriz remembers it well for it was his scruffy shot from the edge of the box that ran to Zamora, who buried the ball into the roof of the net. “It was the worst shot of my career but it became my best pass as it went to Zamora and he scored. It was destiny. We were owed one from the year before.” Level on points with Madrid, a superior head-to-head record secured them their first crown. The next year’s triumph was less dramatic, the Txuri-Urdinak (White and Blues) finishing two points ahead of Barcelona.

So to Europe. In their inaugural European Cup campaign of 1981/82, they fell at the first hurdle, beaten 1-0 on aggregate by CSKA Sofia. “We paid the price for our inexperience,” says Górriz, though the newcomers made amends the next season. They began in mid-September in Iceland. A 1-0 win over Víkingur, secured by a Satrústegui goal, was not the abiding memory for Irazusta, who was part of the travelling party. Rather, it was the 24-hour light of the late Icelandic summer. “You got to the hotel and there were no blinds and no night,” he remembers. “They gave us facemasks to help us sleep,” adds Górriz, smiling at the memory.

If sleep was a problem in Reykjavik, La Real received a warning about dozing off in the return, a 3-2 win that was closer than expected. “They were a physically tough if perhaps technically limited team and they made it difficult for us,” Górriz explains. “Perhaps we’d thought they wouldn’t cause us too many problems at Atocha, but in the European Cup the referees allowed more tackling; it was a tougher game back then. That made us see you had to go into every game at 100 per cent to win.”

For their next assignment against Celtic, a scouting report from Marco Antonio Boronat, Ormaetxea’s assistant, made sure La Real were ready. Boronat was known for his fact-finding journeys abroad – including lessons learned from Liverpool’s youth system – and he warned the players about the intensity they would face against the Scottish champions. 

Górriz recalls: “I knew we had to play differently from in our league – more aggressive perhaps, more robust, going in hard for the ball. Hard but fair, which is the way they played. We were ready for it.” In a tightly contested first leg, La Real prevailed 2-0 at home through late deflected shots from Satrústegui and Pedro Uralde. Watching on the Celtic bench was an unused substitute named David Moyes, later to manage La Real for 12 months from November 2014.

When Uralde scored at Celtic Park after 25 minutes of the return, the Spanish side had a three-goal cushion – enough to withstand a Celtic rally that brought two Murdo MacLeod strikes. A quarter-final against Sporting beckoned and belief was growing. Though Sporting snatched an 88th-minute winner in the first leg in Lisbon, there was a conviction La Real could turn the tie around back at Atocha, their rickety but raucous home ground. 

Irazusta explains: “Atocha was very, very similar to a lot of English stadiums – very tight, right on top of the pitch and right on top of the players. It had a proper football feel. The style of play was along the same lines. Real were a team who never stopped.”

For Górriz, this was a night where the home crowd, standing sardine-tight on the terraces, made a telling difference. “The strongest memory of that night is the connection with the public – how the crowd got behind us from the first minute.” Juan Antonio Larrañaga gave them a half-time lead with an indirect free-kick strike from inside the area. Then, in the 68th minute, teed up by some trickery from Zamora, José Mari Bakero – later a European Cup winner with Barcelona – added the decisive second goal. 

Górriz reflects that Atocha, the club’s home for 80 years until the move to Anoeta in 1993, was key not just on that night but throughout this golden era. “Michael Robinson once told me it was the stadium he liked most in Spain as it reminded him of those old stadiums in England. It was an old ground with wooden stands and the people right on top of you. It helped us a lot. We could really press the opposition and the crowd would too. I had Spain team-mates who said coming to Atocha was daunting but also inspiring as it was a great ground to play at.”

Thanks to their victory against Sporting, La Real had become the fourth Spanish club to reach the European Cup semi-finals. Yet barring their path to the Athens final were Hamburg, a side in the process of retaining their Bundesliga title back in Germany.

“The report we got was a bit scary. They had a lot of internationals, a very strong team,” recalls Górriz, who was assigned the job of man-marking Horst Hrubesch, aka Kopfballungeheuer - the Heading Monster. “When I saw him on the pitch, I thought, ‘My God, look what I’ve got to mark,’ as he was so big,” he laughs. “It wasn’t that he was that much taller, but he was much stronger and he used his body so well and was great in the air.” 

This time, the Atocha factor only counted for so much. Irazusta remembers: “Hamburg played defensively and it was hard for Real to get through. They had a counter and managed to get in front.” Wolfgang Rolff’s looping header over Arconada came in the 58th minute. However, from a corner with 17 minutes remaining, defender Agustín Gajate bundled in a close-range equaliser. Late chances for both sides followed, notably a Hrubesch header against the post in the last minute, yet the draw – and away goal – undoubtedly favoured Hamburg.

In its preview of the second leg, El País wrote: “Real Sociedad have come to Hamburg in search of a miracle, but this is no Lourdes.” And so it proved for a team missing several key players in Gajate, Kortabarria, Satrústegui and Zamora.

If Ormaetxea would later rue a first-half opportunity spurned by Larrañaga, the defender turning and shooting over, Hamburg had their own near miss with a Felix Magath effort that struck the inside of the post. Eventually, in the 75th minute, Ernst Happel’s side took the lead through a fierce Ditmar Jakobs header from a corner.

Yet the visitors’ heads did not drop. Five minutes later, José Diego Álvarez broke into the box after receiving a pass from substitute Bakero and lashed the ball high inside the near post. Now La Real could scent an opportunity. Górriz remembers: “We were always a bit on the back foot in that tie but when we equalised in Germany, I felt we could get the better of them. You could see they’d started to doubt.” Which made what happened next all the harder to swallow.

Seven minutes from the end, a half-cleared corner was driven back in by Magath. The ball deflected off the hip of Jakobs and bounced to Thomas von Heesen alone on the edge of the five-metre area, and he thrashed it high past Arconada. Forty years on, Górriz remains adamant that Von Heesen was in an offside position. “The whole team protested,” he adds, recounting that the referee’s assistant on that side was a Bundesliga referee, Udo Horeis, who had stepped out of the stands to take the flag for the second half following an injury to the original Swiss linesman, Peter Aschwanden. “It was right near the end of the game and we were having our best spell. If it had gone to extra time… you never know, but I think we’d have been the stronger side. We were so frustrated.”

“I have seen the players from La Real cry – and I mean cry – on two occasions,” adds Irazusta. “The first was the match in Seville where they lost the league. Back in the hotel in front of the Sánchez-Pizjuán, I saw the players in floods of tears. And it was the same in Hamburg.” An adventure was over. But what an adventure. As Górriz told us at the start, the boys from the Basque Country really had made their mark. 

Travel
Local pride

Real Sociedad are standard-bearers for a city rich in culture and cuisine

San Sebastian is a city whose major football team, Real Sociedad, can point proudly to an honours board featuring two league titles and two Spanish Cups – the last of these following a final victory against their Basque arch-rivals Athletic Club in 2019/20.

An elegant resort on Spain’s northern coastline, sited on a beautiful bay called La Concha for its shell-like shape, San Sebastián has plenty more to offer than that, however. Its gastronomic credentials are known across Spain – indeed, it is said to have the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita anywhere in the world – and it provides the setting each September for an international film festival in which the winning film earns the Golden Shell award.

An international dimension was added to La Real in 1985 when Welshman John Toshack became their first foreign coach since the 1930s. Four years later, John Aldridge became their first non-Basque player in several decades. To highlight the consistency of their performances under current coach Imanol Alguacil, this season will be their fourth in a row in UEFA club competition – the first time they have managed that since the early 1980s. 

“It is very hard competing in La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but I can see that players now want to play for La Real,” says club legend Alberto ‘Bixio’ Górriz. “We are a team playing in Europe, an important club, and players from outside want to come here while the local ones don’t want to leave. We have to take advantage of that.”

The words belong to Alberto ‘Bixio’ Górriz, Real Sociedad’s record appearance-maker and a central defender in the San Sebastian club’s greatest team. “Made our mark” is an understatement. His was the side that won back-to-back Spanish league titles in 1981 and 1982 and the following season reached the European Cup semi-finals, losing narrowly to eventual winners Hamburg. The Guipuzcoa he invokes – or Gipuzkoa to use the local spelling – is a province of some 700,000 souls in the Spanish Basque country, and it had never known anything like it.

When La Real finished fourth in La Liga last season to secure Champions League football for the third time this century, their top two scorers hailed from Norway and Japan: Alex Sørloth and Takefusa Kubo, respectively. The club’s academy or cantera – the Spanish word for quarry – still produces a rich seam of talent, but times have changed. Forty years ago, La Real had only Basque players. The 1989 arrival of the club’s first foreign import for several decades, John Aldridge, was still some years off. Local boys filled an entire title-winning team. 

Tito Irazusta, a journalist who covered the club for 44 years, tells me: “La Real had a team based around players from their own cantera. A group of very good players had come together – Luis Arconada, Górriz, Inaxio Kortabarria, Jesús Satrústegui, Roberto López Ufarte – very, very good players who came together and crucially stayed together for several years.” 

Goalkeeper Arconada was nicknamed El Pulpo (the Octopus) for the agility which enabled his spectacular saves. Striker Satrústegui remains the club’s 162-goal record scorer. López Ufarte was known as El Pequeño Diablo (the Little Devil) for the trickery which would leave defenders on their backsides. They were among six players from La Real who featured in Spain’s squad at their ‘home’ World Cup in 1982.

And they had a bond which carried them not just to those two league titles but through tight ties against Celtic and Sporting CP in that European Cup adventure which ended with heartbreak in Hamburg (of which more later). 

“We’d trained together and played in the junior sides and there was a strong feeling for the club, for Real Sociedad, for what it means,” says Górriz, who made 599 appearances between 1979 and 1993. “There was a place we’d go down to at the racecourse next to our Zubieta training ground. The whole team tended to meet up after training.”

This was the period of Spain’s post-1975 transition from dictatorship to democracy following the death of General Franco. The Basque language was now being taught in schools again in the region – and it was employed to vivid effect by La Real’s players. “We all spoke Basque on the pitch because it was a sign of identity for us,” explains Górriz. “Other teams didn’t understand us and could see we were different, so it was a mark of identity. 

“In the dressing room, the team talk was in Spanish but all the shouts from the players, the battle cries, would be in Basque.” Hence chants of “Gora Real!” not “Vamos Real!” as the players headed for the pitch. Their coach, Alberto Ormaetxea, was one of them too, having previously played for the club. 

“He was a person who captures well the character of people here,” says Górriz. “He was hard-working, humble but ambitious too: he wanted to achieve things. He knew the club well and he knew us players and got a very high level out of us. He was very guipúzcoano: very hard-working on the pitch, very serious, but with a sense of humour. He’d played for Real and was a defender – one of those defenders who, from just looking at them, could scare you, but he had a great sense of humour.”

In an era when reporters and players mixed socially, Irazusta – then working for local radio and TV networks as well as the Basque newspaper Egin – would dine regularly with La Real’s coach. He recalls of Ormaetxea: “He never wanted to give credit to himself; he always gave it to the players. When you look at photos of that era, you barely see a photo of him lifting a trophy or centre stage. He’s always behind the others, although he was the coach who won the most trophies with Real Sociedad.”

To tell the tale of La Real’s greatest European campaign, it is important to wind back three years – to a day of heartbreak. La Real went through the 1979/80 season unbeaten until their penultimate game, which they lost 2-1 to a nine-man Sevilla side at the Sánchez-Pizjuán. They lost the title to Real Madrid by a single point. 

“We realised with that team that we could do something important for the people. We brought a lot of joy to the whole of Guipuzcoa”
Real Sociedad line up for a group photo before the UEFA Cup 2nd round 1st Leg tie between Real Sociedad and Liverpool at the Estadio de Atotxa on October 22, 1975

Irazusta, who saw first-hand the tears in the team hotel in Seville that night, says: “We all thought, ‘If they’ve not been able to win it this year, then it’ll be almost impossible,’ but the next two years they were champions.” In Górriz’s mind, it was during that near-perfect season when he and his colleagues “realised we were a strong team”.

The circumstances of Spanish football at the time helped them remain a strong team too. The right-of-retention system then in place meant a player could not leave his club without their blessing – and the club could renew a player’s contract unilaterally. Irazusta explains: “If players did want to leave, it wasn’t easy as the right to retention meant the club could say, ‘We’re paying you another ten per cent and you’re staying.’” The rule permitting only two foreign players per team also made for a more level playing field. “The regulations back then helped clubs that developed players who were happy to stay at home.”

Górriz certainly was. And although midfielder Periko Alonso – father of Xabi – left for Barcelona after the second league title, the rest remained. “We all wanted to play for Real. There was a special feeling. It wasn’t just about sport. Guipuzcoa is a very small province and Basques, as you know, are very proud people. We realised with that team that we could do something important for the people. And that’s what happened – we brought a lot of joy to the whole of Guipuzcoa.”

The first eruption of joy came on 26 April 1981, the final day of the 1980/81 Spanish season. With Real Madrid victorious at Real Valladolid, La Real nicked the point they needed through a last-minute strike from Jesús María Zamora which secured a 2-2 draw at Sporting Gijón. 

“Other teams didn’t understand us and could see we were different, so it was a mark of identity” 

Górriz remembers it well for it was his scruffy shot from the edge of the box that ran to Zamora, who buried the ball into the roof of the net. “It was the worst shot of my career but it became my best pass as it went to Zamora and he scored. It was destiny. We were owed one from the year before.” Level on points with Madrid, a superior head-to-head record secured them their first crown. The next year’s triumph was less dramatic, the Txuri-Urdinak (White and Blues) finishing two points ahead of Barcelona.

So to Europe. In their inaugural European Cup campaign of 1981/82, they fell at the first hurdle, beaten 1-0 on aggregate by CSKA Sofia. “We paid the price for our inexperience,” says Górriz, though the newcomers made amends the next season. They began in mid-September in Iceland. A 1-0 win over Víkingur, secured by a Satrústegui goal, was not the abiding memory for Irazusta, who was part of the travelling party. Rather, it was the 24-hour light of the late Icelandic summer. “You got to the hotel and there were no blinds and no night,” he remembers. “They gave us facemasks to help us sleep,” adds Górriz, smiling at the memory.

If sleep was a problem in Reykjavik, La Real received a warning about dozing off in the return, a 3-2 win that was closer than expected. “They were a physically tough if perhaps technically limited team and they made it difficult for us,” Górriz explains. “Perhaps we’d thought they wouldn’t cause us too many problems at Atocha, but in the European Cup the referees allowed more tackling; it was a tougher game back then. That made us see you had to go into every game at 100 per cent to win.”

For their next assignment against Celtic, a scouting report from Marco Antonio Boronat, Ormaetxea’s assistant, made sure La Real were ready. Boronat was known for his fact-finding journeys abroad – including lessons learned from Liverpool’s youth system – and he warned the players about the intensity they would face against the Scottish champions. 

Górriz recalls: “I knew we had to play differently from in our league – more aggressive perhaps, more robust, going in hard for the ball. Hard but fair, which is the way they played. We were ready for it.” In a tightly contested first leg, La Real prevailed 2-0 at home through late deflected shots from Satrústegui and Pedro Uralde. Watching on the Celtic bench was an unused substitute named David Moyes, later to manage La Real for 12 months from November 2014.

When Uralde scored at Celtic Park after 25 minutes of the return, the Spanish side had a three-goal cushion – enough to withstand a Celtic rally that brought two Murdo MacLeod strikes. A quarter-final against Sporting beckoned and belief was growing. Though Sporting snatched an 88th-minute winner in the first leg in Lisbon, there was a conviction La Real could turn the tie around back at Atocha, their rickety but raucous home ground. 

Irazusta explains: “Atocha was very, very similar to a lot of English stadiums – very tight, right on top of the pitch and right on top of the players. It had a proper football feel. The style of play was along the same lines. Real were a team who never stopped.”

For Górriz, this was a night where the home crowd, standing sardine-tight on the terraces, made a telling difference. “The strongest memory of that night is the connection with the public – how the crowd got behind us from the first minute.” Juan Antonio Larrañaga gave them a half-time lead with an indirect free-kick strike from inside the area. Then, in the 68th minute, teed up by some trickery from Zamora, José Mari Bakero – later a European Cup winner with Barcelona – added the decisive second goal. 

Górriz reflects that Atocha, the club’s home for 80 years until the move to Anoeta in 1993, was key not just on that night but throughout this golden era. “Michael Robinson once told me it was the stadium he liked most in Spain as it reminded him of those old stadiums in England. It was an old ground with wooden stands and the people right on top of you. It helped us a lot. We could really press the opposition and the crowd would too. I had Spain team-mates who said coming to Atocha was daunting but also inspiring as it was a great ground to play at.”

Thanks to their victory against Sporting, La Real had become the fourth Spanish club to reach the European Cup semi-finals. Yet barring their path to the Athens final were Hamburg, a side in the process of retaining their Bundesliga title back in Germany.

“The report we got was a bit scary. They had a lot of internationals, a very strong team,” recalls Górriz, who was assigned the job of man-marking Horst Hrubesch, aka Kopfballungeheuer - the Heading Monster. “When I saw him on the pitch, I thought, ‘My God, look what I’ve got to mark,’ as he was so big,” he laughs. “It wasn’t that he was that much taller, but he was much stronger and he used his body so well and was great in the air.” 

This time, the Atocha factor only counted for so much. Irazusta remembers: “Hamburg played defensively and it was hard for Real to get through. They had a counter and managed to get in front.” Wolfgang Rolff’s looping header over Arconada came in the 58th minute. However, from a corner with 17 minutes remaining, defender Agustín Gajate bundled in a close-range equaliser. Late chances for both sides followed, notably a Hrubesch header against the post in the last minute, yet the draw – and away goal – undoubtedly favoured Hamburg.

In its preview of the second leg, El País wrote: “Real Sociedad have come to Hamburg in search of a miracle, but this is no Lourdes.” And so it proved for a team missing several key players in Gajate, Kortabarria, Satrústegui and Zamora.

If Ormaetxea would later rue a first-half opportunity spurned by Larrañaga, the defender turning and shooting over, Hamburg had their own near miss with a Felix Magath effort that struck the inside of the post. Eventually, in the 75th minute, Ernst Happel’s side took the lead through a fierce Ditmar Jakobs header from a corner.

Yet the visitors’ heads did not drop. Five minutes later, José Diego Álvarez broke into the box after receiving a pass from substitute Bakero and lashed the ball high inside the near post. Now La Real could scent an opportunity. Górriz remembers: “We were always a bit on the back foot in that tie but when we equalised in Germany, I felt we could get the better of them. You could see they’d started to doubt.” Which made what happened next all the harder to swallow.

Seven minutes from the end, a half-cleared corner was driven back in by Magath. The ball deflected off the hip of Jakobs and bounced to Thomas von Heesen alone on the edge of the five-metre area, and he thrashed it high past Arconada. Forty years on, Górriz remains adamant that Von Heesen was in an offside position. “The whole team protested,” he adds, recounting that the referee’s assistant on that side was a Bundesliga referee, Udo Horeis, who had stepped out of the stands to take the flag for the second half following an injury to the original Swiss linesman, Peter Aschwanden. “It was right near the end of the game and we were having our best spell. If it had gone to extra time… you never know, but I think we’d have been the stronger side. We were so frustrated.”

“I have seen the players from La Real cry – and I mean cry – on two occasions,” adds Irazusta. “The first was the match in Seville where they lost the league. Back in the hotel in front of the Sánchez-Pizjuán, I saw the players in floods of tears. And it was the same in Hamburg.” An adventure was over. But what an adventure. As Górriz told us at the start, the boys from the Basque Country really had made their mark. 

Travel
Local pride

Real Sociedad are standard-bearers for a city rich in culture and cuisine

San Sebastian is a city whose major football team, Real Sociedad, can point proudly to an honours board featuring two league titles and two Spanish Cups – the last of these following a final victory against their Basque arch-rivals Athletic Club in 2019/20.

An elegant resort on Spain’s northern coastline, sited on a beautiful bay called La Concha for its shell-like shape, San Sebastián has plenty more to offer than that, however. Its gastronomic credentials are known across Spain – indeed, it is said to have the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita anywhere in the world – and it provides the setting each September for an international film festival in which the winning film earns the Golden Shell award.

An international dimension was added to La Real in 1985 when Welshman John Toshack became their first foreign coach since the 1930s. Four years later, John Aldridge became their first non-Basque player in several decades. To highlight the consistency of their performances under current coach Imanol Alguacil, this season will be their fourth in a row in UEFA club competition – the first time they have managed that since the early 1980s. 

“It is very hard competing in La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but I can see that players now want to play for La Real,” says club legend Alberto ‘Bixio’ Górriz. “We are a team playing in Europe, an important club, and players from outside want to come here while the local ones don’t want to leave. We have to take advantage of that.”

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