“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of fight in the dog.” — Mark Twain
Where better to start our ‘Away Days’ journey than at a team residing in the Northern Spanish city of Pamplona, a place famed for its festival of San Fermin and exquisite gastronomy. Surrounded by the remarkable landscapes of Navarra this picture perfect destination sits right on the border of Basque Country, its cultural influence abundantly clear to see. So much so in fact, that even the city has an alternative name – Iruña.
Hiding away from the limelight in this innocuous part of the world, is a true gem of a traditional football club… Loud and proud, it goes by the name of Club Atlético Osasuna.
Affectionately known as ‘Los Rojillos’ (The Reds) by the natives, Osasuna were formed back in 1920. In size and stature very moderate indeed, and involved in a Spanish set-up dominated by giants their history in terms of notable trophies is pretty much none existent. Never the less, spirited underdogs always tend to have moments to remember whether in the record-books or not, and Osasuna are no different.
Up until recently the club had been a mainstay in La Liga’s First Division, and for their size alone over-achieving the odds in many peoples eyes. However, it was between the years of 2004 and 2007 that Osasuna enjoyed a period of success many around these parts will never forget.
So near but yet so far was the story in 2005, as under the stewardship of Mexican Javier Aguirre they made it all the way to their first Spanish Cup final, only to be beaten 2-1 by the green and white of Real Betis.
Not content with this Osasuna put the disappointment behind them and proceeded to lead an all-out assault on the league the following season, pipping Seville on the final day to finish fourth. Not only was it their highest ever finish, it also gained them entrance into the most prestigious of competitions – The Champions League. Aguirre departed for the red half of Madrid a hero.
For Osasuna Champions League success was never on the cards. Never the less, they didn’t let it stop them. Dropping down into the Europa League they went on to show-up some of Europe’s elite whilst making their way to the Semi-Finals, only to come face-to-face with familiar foe Sevilla – The reigning champions, and a team still hurting from being outdone by their smaller counterparts the year before.
Osasuna fans once again dared to believe, could this be the season they finally made their mark?
It just wasn’t to be… Osasuna for all their hard work and endeavour fell at the penultimate hurdle to the eventual Andalusian winners. Although bitter in disappointment this “little” club from Pamplona had done itself proud, and even though there was no silverware to show for it, they had in fact left a very big mark on the European stage.
Unfortunately, Osasuna were unable to replicate or build on the successes of the previous seasons, and by 2014 found themselves dropping out of the top flight. Disaster ensued, with a crisis off the pitch and on it nearly resulting in consecutive relegations. Clinging onto Second Division status at the last, and with no money in the pot, Osasuna needed to rebuild from the bottom up, and they did so by taking advantage of homegrown talent.
Based in the heart of the city and with its endless list of youth graduates appearing in its ranks over the years, you’re unlikely to find a homelier club than Osasuna.
Pamplona is a lovely mix of both Spanish and Basque lifestyles, and although has been caught up in the tumultuous affairs of yesteryear, times are changing for the better. Away from the controversial issues which have tarred the region, Basque culture identifies itself as being extremely tough, passionate, and loyal. These traits transfer themselves into Osasuna, a club which holds strong ties to the region not just in its name but in its whole ideology. On matchday the green, white, and red flag of independence outnumbers any Spanish flags on a grand scale. In reality you’re unlikely to see any Spanish flags at all inside El Sadar, apart from those congregated in the away section.
Is this because the fan base mainly associates themselves as Basque?
Potentially… But certainly the Indar Gorri, the hardcore set of fans certainly believe themselves to be. All the traits of Basque culture – the singing, the passion, and the loyalty spills out when Osasuna step out onto their hallowed turf in a spectacular show of support, not to be missed by any who endeavour to discover football from the continent.
For those more familiar with British football, the Spanish atmosphere will be a shock to the system. In the UK atmosphere tends to be built around two sets of fans bouncing off one another… It can be jovial, it can be heated, it can be competitive. Travelling the length and breadth of the land to follow your team is both time-consuming and expensive even in a smaller country, but in a larger country like Spain it takes real dedication, and with this comes smaller away followings, especially for those plying their trade in lower divisions. Spanish crowds as a collective often use the disproportionate numbers to provide a home advantage. Instead of an atmosphere based on a back and forth between opposing fans there is cauldron of home support, and although small Osasuna creates one of the best cauldron like atmospheres around.
Every team has a section of hardcore fans which can often be the difference between success or failure. The Indar Gorri live and breathe Osasuna, and quite rightly have a reputation amongst the football community. Living up to their Basque qualities, they are both vocal and ferocious in their support of the team they call their own. From the first minute until the last constant renditions of numerous songs are carried out, creating shockwaves around the ground. Not only is it a show on its own, it’s unbelievably intimidating… No surprise then that Osasuna tend to perform much better on home soil than on their travels.
For a neutral it’s immense… Spine tingling in fact. The hairs on the back of the neck don’t just stand up, they curl over and try to find a way back into the body. Just to make things even more colosseum like, those in the crowd are spurred on by a leader at the front with a megaphone and drum. Like any General leading his army into war he sets the tone for everyone else, even when the battle is being lost.
Deriving from Basque language ‘Osasuna’ translates itself as health… The irony of this was obviously lost on someone, as one thing’s for sure supporting Osasuna is not good for anyone’s so called “health”!
Currently battling for a play-off place, they can at times be breathtakingly brilliant and utterly frustrating in the same sentence. Inconstancy has been their downfall thus far, and yet there is still hope that they might just bounce back to La Liga Santander at the first attempt.
Osasuna have built themselves on a strong defensive structure this season, conceding only 26 goals in 31 appearances, the second lowest in the division. Goals at the other end however have been at a premium, yet to say they are a defensive side wouldn’t be true at all. On the contrary, at times Osasuna which have a midfield bursting with technically gifted players, knock the ball about with consummate ease. When on form they play the game at break-neck speed, one and two-touch football, splitting defences easier than Moses divided the Red Sea, all in an arena fit for purpose.
El Sadar… What a wonderful little stadium. It may only hold just under 19,000, but that’s more than enough to create a perfect environment for supporters and players alike. Its concrete structure gives it a seasoned look without feeing decrepit, and although it does have an old-fashioned vibe about it, it has all the modernised amenities you would expect from a well-established club.
What separates this venue from many around Spain is how close you are to the action, in this respect El Sadar coincidentally replicates many British stadia. Whether or not they took the idea from there remains to be seen, but it is certainly used to the same effect. Bringing fans closer to the action is essential for a smaller club to create that atmosphere previously mentioned. In a stadium where the fans are so close that the players can feel the breath on the back of their necks, it really feels like those watching are right on top of the action… It’s intimate. This intimacy can feel like numbers are doubled from what they actually are. For away teams it can be overawing… For ‘Los Rojillos’ it can be inspiring.
Away day travellers who want to immerse themselves into true Spanish football culture need to arrive at El Sadar early. Grabbing a few “Cañas” (small beers) with the locals, and getting involved with the pre-match buzz is a right of passage for all who visit. It’s worth mentioning that once inside the stadium no alcohol can be served. This doesn’t mean they don’t serve drinks or snacks though, just that you’ll have to make do with an ethanol free beer.
Just like in the UK, situated in the concourse are serving areas, however unlike the UK you can’t purchase anything there. Little stalls (normally opposite) sell you tickets which are then taken to the serving area to pick-up said order. Admittedly it’s a very good idea, and drastically cuts down on the build-up of queues.
For those who normally spend the weekends watching the likes of Wolverhampton, it would be a Bovril and Pie as the most typical things to indulge in, an acquired taste no doubt. Over here they also have a bit of a football delicacy, and that’s “pipas”, or sunflower seeds to you and me. If you can get the knack of getting into them (it’s harder than it looks) these salty treats can be rather addictive, and a great way of blending into the crowd without looking too much like a tourist. Especially on those eagerly awaited matches between rivals.
For those who like to experience true rivalries and everything which comes with it, then Osasuna have a few options. Although not technically based in Basque lands, the club sees its locals as the Basque teams – Alaves, Eibar, Real Sociadad, and Athletic Club Bilbao, and out of these teams it is with Bilbao they hold the fieriest of rivalries. This isn’t on location alone, this is based on heated arguments which have spanned over a number of years. In the past Bilbao have taken many a young starlet from the Navarra area, angering those from Osasuna who believe talent rightfully theirs is being poached from underneath their noses.
Surprisingly though there are two clubs which hold even greater rivalries… Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid. This has nothing to do with location, this solely revolves around politics and Basque – Spanish differences, but consequently ensures heated clashes whenever the sides meet on the pitch. For those prepared to put themselves into the midst of battle for heart-pumping entertainment, then a game versus Real Madrid must be on any to-do list.
As a place, you are unlikely to find a destination like it. Pamplona has its mix of city-life and country-life combined in perfect harmony. It’s unique, friendly, full of culture, and up there as one of the most wonderous destinations to visit in Spain. In terms of football quite simply it isn’t about how the team are currently playing. They haven’t got superstars who will dazzle and delight like some of the other teams. What they do have however is a team bursting with homegrown talent, and a very apparent connection between both players and fans. In turn this leads to unbeatable atmospheres, with breath-taking shows of support almost always guaranteed when visiting El Sadar… One of the main reasons Osasuna’s fan base has such a feared reputation amongst many in Spain. To be honest for a city which routinely have bulls chasing locals through the streets all in the name of fun, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Osasuna with their dogged determination and attitude provide a spectacle well worth being a part of… This club although Spanish in location, is most definitely Basque by name, and Basque by nature!