“There is not one fan going home with a single ‘but’ tonight,” Real Sociedad forward Takefusa Kubo said. There were plenty not going home at all, not yet. Late Saturday in San Sebastian and if it was finally quiet inside Anoeta, although you swore some of those seats still hadn’t stopped shaking, outside the band played on and the bars kept serving. “This smile will last at least til tomorrow,” Imanol Alguacil, the manager, beamed. 24 hours earlier, he had called the Basque derby the most important match of the year, every year, and now his team had just won it, defeating Athletic Club 3-1. “We’re here to live nights like this,” he insisted.
Born and raised in a nearby fishing village, player, youth team coach and above all fan before taking over the first team at la Real, Alguacil understood what it meant better than anyone, only he would never be so presumptuous as to say so. Asked how he felt during a post-match press conference he knew was packed with writers who are supporters too, he replied: “Pffff, probably the same as you.” It had been, he said and they agreed, “a special, complete night”. Rounded, he called it.
In the previous days, Kubo had said that if Real Sociedad didn’t win, everything they had done recently “wouldn’t be worth shit”. Instead, they had clinched their seventh victory in a row in all competitions – their fourth in the league – and their first derby since the one that really was the most important match of any year, the 2020 Copa del Rey final (held in 2021).
In doing so, they moved to just three points off second-placed Real Madrid and seven points clear of Atlético Madrid, Villarreal and Betis in fourth, fifth and sixth respectively, Champions League qualification likely a decade after they last did it. “This team has no limits,” Igor Zubeldia told ESPN “Today we can dream of something lovely. Why not the Champions League? I’m sure something nice will come.”
Yet that wasn’t what made it lovely. This wasn’t just about the victory or the winning run – one more would equal a club record – but all of it. The occasion, the joy, the fun. “Ecstasy in blue and white,” El Diario Vasco called it, insisting: “If the fans who went last night didn’t experience complete happiness, they can’t have been far off.” The Basque derby is always special, an expression of community and culture unlike any other, and this was even better than normal. So many good things happened here, are happening here, that it was hard to settle on the best. Or so it seemed until the moment arrived that rounded off that rounded night.
The derby packed the old town from the morning, blue and white and red and white everywhere, and the area around Anoeta well into the night. There were events and activities, basque pelota and traditional rural sports, from stone lifting to wood chopping, DJs and bands, Bulego finishing on the stage set outside the stadium, and as usual there were fireworks too, seven rockets sent into the sky: one for the goal Athletic scored, two each for la Real’s. This, Marca said, was the “grand blue-and-white party”. Kubo claimed: “No one can stop us if we carry on like this.”
Kubo knows there’s something about la Real, the club where, after four loan spells without entirely convincing, he now looks as good as anyone. A club with an enviable youth system playing probably the best football in the country, who ended the derby with seven homegrown players – six from Guipúzcoa, the smallest mainland province.
The club with a piano-playing centre-back, Robin Le Normand, who quietly gets on with being pretty much the best in primera. One that sold its star striker, Alexander Isak, immediately lost the men supposed to replace him to injury – Mohamed-Ali Cho and Umar Sadiq have started four league games – and witnessed its best player tear his cruciate, but still won. That re-signed Alexander Sørloth on loan again and saw him double his tally from last season already. That, with its wide men unavailable, reinvented itself with a narrow midfield diamond that is, well, diamond.
You might think Brais Méndez, Mikel Merino, Martín Zubimendi and David Silva are all technique and touch until you see that other them: the tackling and intensity, character and commitment. “They come out of difficult situations as if it was nothing, they amaze me,” Kubo said, “they almost never lose the ball and, if they do, they press like animals to give us another one.” Nor is it just them, and that’s key: la Real make more challenges and commit more fouls than anyone. If the derby’s opening goal came from their first prolonged spell of possession, it also came from Zubeldia flying in, head first, to reach a loose ball. If the second was sensationally made, the pass perfect, it also started with a David Silva slide tackle. “He’s 37, a World Cup winner: it’s madness,” Alguacil said.
The whole night had been. “The way the players enjoyed it with the fans, the stadium bursting, feeling like it was going to fall down: it’s a unique moment,” the coach continued. A record crowd at Anoeta sang and bounced, from Bad Moon Rising to the Poznan, made so much noise and saw so many things to like. Such as Álex Remiro, the goalkeeper who came from across the divide, striking a blow for humanity by hitting the Spider Cam. Sørloth shrugging off two defenders as if he had all the time in the world, scoring for a fourth week running and admitting: “I don’t stress too much.” Or Kubo atop the advertising board, shirt off, arms wide, having nutmegged Dani Vivian and bent in a glorious second.
Athletic equalised ninety seconds later through Oihan Sancet but Real’s third on 62 won it, even the derby’s bad parts turning out alright. When Sørloth was forced off there was concern, but he described going early as simply “being a bit smart”. Besides, he added: “We have Mikel Oyarzabal on the bench so it was a good time.” It turned out he was right. A deeply dubious penalty, and worse red card, saw Yeray Álvarez punished for touching Kubo, effectively ending the game early and giving the sub the chance to make it 3-1.
The club captain at 25, la Real’s best player, Oyarzabal tore his anterior cruciate ligament in training in March last year and missed 10 months, including the World Cup, despite Luis Enrique regularly calling to check, desperate for him to make it. Recently returned to training, he had played just 23 minutes before he came on to a huge ovation and had been on the pitch just 13 minutes when Kubo went down. It was minute 62, the same minute in which he had last faced Unai Simón from the spot. That day, April 2021, he rolled in the goal that gave Real Sociedad their first trophy in 34 years. This time he scored his first goal in 315 days, sprinting towards the stands, everyone letting it all out.
As he stood in front of the supporters, Oyarzabal put his hand over his face and turned away, teammates holding him. “I don’t know if I cried,” he said, “but it was close.” When at last they split, he stood alone, lifted his shirt and kissed the badge, held his arms apart as if trying to embrace them all and then went to the bench in search of some of the doctors, physios and staff who guided him back, hugging them: Jon, Jon, Unai, Virigina, Imanol, Javi, Edu and the rest. “There are so many of them who look after us, who are with you every day. It’s important that people see that,” he said.
And so a match with so many moments, the coach reeling them off as if he couldn’t quite believe the catalogue of Good Stuff that had happened, Ander Barrenetxea another player happily making a return, had its best. Even those who might have taken centre stage agreed, which said something. Asked what he enjoyed most, Sørloth insisted: “It was fantastic to see Mike score again.” Kubo added: “Mikel is and always will be a legend. Personally, I’m happy to have been able to help by [winning] the penalty. His goal means a lot to the team.”
“The goal was important but all the rest of it was more important,” Oyarzabal said. Alguacil was beaming, that smile still there long after the stadium had fallen silent, the streets still alive outside, the derby not quite done yet. “Seeing Mikel, there’s pride,” Real Sociedad’s coach said, his captain completing the circle.
“He’s an emblem. This is a special moment and he deserves it because of the player he is and the great person he is too, the way he feels this club. There was a lot going on and a lot that was good. I feel emotional seeing the team and the fans. When I was a little kid, I would go to bed angry when Real Sociedad lost. Tonight has been a joy.”