The greatest story in European soccer this summer has nothing to do with Nike (NKE), toothy Uruguayans, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Saudi billionaires. It involves a bunch of gunsmiths from a tiny town in northern Spain: the SD Eibar “Gunsmiths” (Armeros), to be specific—a soccer team.
For a long time, they were tradesmen as well as soccer players. Today they stick to the soccer, and to the delight of Eibar’s 27,000 or so residents, they’re actually quite good. Good enough, in fact, to scrape their way into Spain’s top league—La Liga—for the first time in the club’s 74-year history.
On Oct. 18, Eibar will line up against Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona. On Nov. 22, Ronaldo and the rest of Real Madrid’s superheroes will hustle for a win in the town’s tiny stadium (capacity 5,200).
It’s hard to overstate what a big and improbable deal this is. Soccer leagues in Europe are organized by a few levels of apparent skill—as opposed to a farm-league system like that of U.S. baseball. Every year, the few bottom-ranking teams are relegated to the lower caste, and a few of the top-ranking teams are brought up.
Eibar was solidly second-tier from 1986 until last season. Then it started winning. In May it beat second-division rival Alavés to book its ticket to the big show. In terms of America’s pastime, this would be like the Toledo Mud Hens bumping the Detroit Tigers down to Triple-A ball and spending the season playing in Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
Sports leagues thrive on competition, and there really hasn’t been that much of it in Spain’s top soccer ranks for some time. For a decade, the championship was passed between Barcelona and Real Madrid (until Atlético de Madrid broke through last year). Fancy footwork and cool hair aside, the league has become, well, kind of boring and predictable, which is bad for business. From that perspective, a bold run by a scrappy underdog like Eibar is, at the moment, arguably more valuable to La Liga than Real Madrid.
There was, however, a catch. La Liga, like any playboy’s club, requires participants to have a certain net worth. Specifically, each top-flight team needs capital equal to 25 percent of the average expense of a club in the second division. Eibar had the talent to compete, but not the money—a dynamic that’s typically reversed in the top ranks of European football.
Although Eibar didn’t have much capital, it also didn’t have any debt, though that didn’t matter in La Liga’s equation. “We like our peculiar way of running the team,” club President Alex Aranzaba told the BBC. “We do our best with our own resources.”
All told, the team needed to raise €1.7 million ($2.2 million), a laughable sum in Big Soccer. Last season, Barcelona spent $194 million on its players alone; Real Madrid was just behind with $190 million, according to an ESPN (DIS) survey. Ronaldo could have covered Eibar’s fundraising tab with just two weeks of his wages.
The club refused to borrow funds, so it took a page out of the Green Bay Packers playbook and sold shares. To keep an NFL billionaire or a Middle Eastern prince from simply snapping up the whole squad, SD Eibar capped investments at $100,000.
Money poured in from all over the world, thanks to the feel-good story and a publicity push from famous former Eibar players such as Manchester City’s David Silva and Xabi Alonso, who will play against Eibar later this year.
The club hit its mark in July, weeks before the deadline. Eibar’s website read “Zorionak!!”—Basque for “Congratulations.” In other words: “We get to stay.”
Last week, perhaps emboldened by their new riches, the Armeros went out in their first game of the season and snatched victory from Real Sociedad, 1 to 0 (try to watch the video of the goal without getting a little tingly). They’re tied for sixth in the league and face mighty Atlético de Madrid on Friday, one of their remaining 37 matches.
So who’s benefiting from all this underdog bonhomie? Hummel, a Danish apparel company savvy enough to buy a slug of Eibar shares in late July and get a uniform deal in the process. Unlike Nike and Adidas (ADS:GR), Hummel doesn’t shy away from odd promotions. This summer it made a jersey for a second-tier Spanish club that looks like a tuxedo. Here’s a snippet of the company’s fairly incredible mission statement: “We target teams and people with character working as a team with good energy and spirit.”
Meanwhile, the club’s title sponsor is Hierros Servando, an Eibar-based outfit that, fittingly, sells scrap metal to giant steel mills.