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Meet European football’s most underrated team

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The 10-year-olds on the beach in San Sebastian don’t dream of playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. The boys wearing blue are from Antiguoko, a junior club named after a beachside barrio where Xabi Alonso and his brother Mickel started out. So did former Spanish international Javier de Pedro, current Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta and several more celebrated names.

The young footballers playing as the Atlantic waves crash 20 metres away on this winter’s morning fantasise about wearing the shirt of local heroes Real Sociedad. Given their current form, who can blame them?

Antiguoko is an independent football factory which produces future professionals. Aritz Aduriz, Andoni Iraola and Ander Murillo all started there as kids. Unlike Antiguoko’s best players who usually join Real Sociedad, they went to Athletic Bilbao, an hour down the coast. That doesn’t go down well in San Sebastian, but the players were free to move.

And they were kids, not professionals such as when Athletic bought Joseba Etxeberria, the young Spain international and Basque winger, for around £3 million in 1995.

Real Sociedad were outraged that their great young striking hope was joining their main rivals and felt that a gentlemen’s agreement not to poach each others’ junior players had been broken. The two clubs broke off formal relations for two years.

Arteta didn’t leave Antiguoko for La Real or Athletic as Barcelona whisked him away to their Masia, but he was fortunate that his career started on the beach of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

Antiguoko’s coaches claim that playing on sand helps their technique and balance. Playing year round also helps. Junior football has again been decimated by poor weather this winter in northern Europe. And grooming future top-level stars also keeps Antiguoko afloat as they attach relatively lucrative sell-on clauses.

Real Sociedad had to turn to youth after they were relegated in 2008, returning after three years. They finished 15th in 2011, 12th last season. They are currently fourth and set for their highest finish since they came second behind Real Madrid in Liga a decade ago.

That second place still excites conjecture and suspicion in the bars of the old town, where numerous flags bear the legends like ‘Tourists beware, the Basque country is not Spain’.

The bars there serve some of the best pintxos in Spain and you can eat like a king for €10. And kings actually used to eat in San Sebastian, once a resort where the royals took their holidays.

It raised suspicion because fans felt that La Real, the winter champions with three Antiguoko graduates behind Kahveci and Kovacevic up front, buckled at the end because, well, apply your own conspiracy theory here, from Madrid’s buying of referees to la Real not being able to afford the bonuses if they won the title.

Whatever, they haven’t finished in the top half of the table since. The boys on the beach had few local heroes to emulate in the last ten years, but they do have now.

They’ve seen what happened to former Antiguoko striker Agirretxe in January. La Real’s big number nine came off the bench after his team had been 2-0 down and scored the wining goal to make it 3-2. In the last minute. Against Barcelona. To end the Catalans unbeaten run. Many of the 23,000 Anoeta regulars are starting to dream of the return of past glories.

As their bigger Basque neighbours from Bilbao flounder in 14th, Real Sociedad have risen to fourth in La Liga and rate their chances of a first stab at European football in a decade. Any teams who draw them are in for a treat, it’s a wonderful place.

La Real are the form team, the only undefeated team in Spain in the last eight games. They’re improving month-by-month, scoring more goals -only the top three have scored more than their 49 – and playing fast, attacking football.

It wasn’t always so this season. They were 18th after ten games and pressure was mounting on Philippe Montanier, their French coach, from the fickle thousands in their fan base who wanted him dismissed.

They’d started getting on his back when he’d been in the job for three months and his side were bottom of the league after 12 games of the 2011-12 season, but he led them to a 12th place finish last season. Slow starters again this season, they’ve experienced a dramatic turnaround since and lead the race for fourth – and a go at the Champions League.

Montanier’s side ended Atletico Madrid’s 100% home record last week, not with a draw but a 1-0 win. The side of the 48-year-old Frenchman who took Boulouge from the fourth division to Ligue 1, have lost just once since the start of November – 3-4 at the Bernabeu when captain Xabi Prieto scored a hat-trick. They also won the last ever Basque derby at San Mames before Athletic move into their new stadium this summer.

La Real’s top scorer is the speedy Mexcan international Carlos Vela, 24, a £4 million signing from Arsenal (who inserted a buy-back clause), where he spent seven years. Montanier admits he’s the star of the team, yet he’s played just once for Mexico since 2010 after holding a party before a game. Other players were fined, Vela was banned for six months. Mexico need him up front with Javier Hernandez, but the Basques are happy to be the sole beneficiaries of Vela’s talents.

Vela has switched to the left of a front three that includes Uruguayan winger Gonzalo ‘Chorry’ Castro and 21-year-old French winger Antoine Griezmann. He rose through the ranks from the club’s B team, like 16 of the current 23-man squad.

Financial necessity means they have to promote from within. Their annual budget is €40 million, the same as Deportivo’s who are bottom of the league, a third Atletico Madrid above them and €20 million less than Athletic’s, the club who want the best Basque players.

There are other shining lights in this La Real side. Ruben Pardo, a 21-year old midfielder, has started just nine league games, enough for Real Madrid to offer a reported €6 million for him.

San Sebastian has a history of losing its best players, from Arteta at 14 to Alonso at 23. La Real may lose some of the current crop, but they’ll a better chance of keeping them if they’re playing Champions League football next season. The boys from the beach will surely go along to watch if they do.

Andy Mitten

Andy will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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