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What makes Real Sociedad special? A conversation with Alexandra Jonson (Part 1)

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Home grown footballers, long tradition, and a unique club culture make it one of the best clubs in Spain

Training AZ Alkmaar in San Sebastian Photo by Ed van de Pol/Soccrates/Getty Images

Alexandra Jonson is a football journalist based in Spain. She lives in Vigo and if you follow her on Twitter (which you should totally should, here’s a link) you’ll see Galician sunsets, the occasional unapologetic item in support of Malmo (she’s Swedish), and lots of Spanish football. Real Sociedad is one of the clubs she knows best (she’s also writing a book on Real Oviedo), and we asked her some questions about what makes them a special part of La Liga.

VUSA: First of all, what makes Real Sociedad special as a club, in your opinion?

AJ: I think Real Sociedad is quite a unique club in today’s football world because of the identity the players there feel for the club. In football today one club men for instance is a very rare thing but at Real Sociedad it’s not, it’s actually quite normal (also historically no other club in Spain has had even close to as many one club men as La Real). Xabi Prieto always says “I never dreamt of becoming a football player, I dreamt of playing for Real Sociedad”… and he genuinely means that and he is not the only one. It’s kind of hard to explain if you haven’t been to Gipuzkoa, the province in the Basque Country, that Real Sociedad are from but for any kid growing up there everything is about Real Sociedad. I’ve been to San Sebastián at least ten times or more, and I can’t recall ever seeing a kid in a football shirt that wasn’t a Real Sociedad shirt, I can’t either recall ever walking the streets there and not seeing several kids running around in Real Sociedad full kits, they are everywhere. And then you look at the first team of Real Sociedad and it’s full of those kids. It’s not one or two it’s more than half the squad, that used to be those kids fighting on the streets or the beach over who got to be Xabi Prieto when they played (today it’s about who gets to be Oyarzabal). That’s one thing that make Real Sociedad special as a club, another is the focus they put on developing their players. The number one priority at Real Sociedad is not that the first team sign stars or anything like that, the number one priority for years has been the youth academy. In Spain there are several really good youth academies but I don’t think there is any club that priorities it the way La Real does. Everything is about development, even the players they sign their main goal is to help them develop. It’s like a teaching club you could almost say. They also put a lot of focus on studies, foreign players are helped to learn Spanish, both Ødegaard and Alexander Isak got really good really fast with lessons provided by the club. And the majority of the homegrown players also have university studies. Another thing with the youth academy is that while basically all other big clubs try to start as young as possible in ages, at La Real they don’t. Their youngest team are U13, because they believe kids should be kids, and even at that age they prefer if football is not their only sport or focus.

VUSA: Real Sociedad have played with a full XI from their province 295 times and their manager Alguacil is not only someone who has been at the club most of his life but he is from the province as well. How has a club as historically successful as Real Sociedad managed to be so grounded in their own extended community?

AJ: It’s about the identity around the club which I think comes from the importance of the Basque identity. The identity of being Basque is very very important in the Basque Country. One of the reason women’s football is more popular and has been for a long time in the Basque Country while the rest of Spain seem to only discover it now, is because in the Basque Country it’s never been seen as Women’s Football and Men’s Football… It’s Basque football, it’s Real Sociedad and it’s Athletic Club. That’s why already in 2003 Athletic had 30,000 in the stands for a match. That’s why the streets of San Sebastian were full celebrating when the Women’s team won the Copa del Rey two season’s ago… there is this very strong identity to being Basque and also to being a Real Sociedad or an Athletic fan. And that identity is within the club as well. And then their youth academy unlike many others today don’t go looking for talent all over the world, they focus on Gipuzkoa. All of this also makes a club like Real Sociedad probably feel more of a family than many clubs. And then as said before they put their main focus on the youth academy and therefore they get great players who also care about the club, because it’s their club.

VUSA: Speaking of youth players, Real Sociedad have a young player who is very underappreciated. What should La Liga fans know about Ander Barrenetxea?

AJ: I truly believe that Barrenetxea is something special, even though I know I am about to do it right now, I don’t want to hype him too much as that’s never good. But here we go… so Real Sociedad has an incredible academy and there are new exciting youth players coming up all the time still Barrenetxea is something else, I talked to journalist colleagues in San Sebastian about him several times and they say that since he came to the club when he was 12 he’s always stood out, it’s a special kid. He made his first team debut at 16 and just turned 17 he scored his first goal.. on Real Madrid.. afterwards he took his bike home from the stadium. Basically in a few months he went from playing in the youth teams to passing the C-team and B-team and become a first team player. In his B-team debut he scored an incredible golazo as well. He is 18 now and he is still a very raw talent, you can see that he is young and he makes youngster mistakes but that’s normal, what’s not normal is the other things he does. The way touches the ball… it’s a bit of an Iniesta touch, I think is the best way to describe it. He dribbles a lot and is very technical but he isn’t egoistical. He can create something from nothing in a way I think very few players have the ability too. And what’s great for Real Sociedad is that he is one of those kids I talked about before who used to ran around in the Real Sociedad full kit.. he is already talking about dreaming of retiring at the club after having played there for years and years, so it’s not a player that will run away at the first lucrative offer he gets.

Thanks for joining us for Part 1.

In part two, we’ll talk about the tactics and details for the match this weekend between Villarreal and Real Sociedad.