How Real Sociedad thrashed a third-division team 8-0 but won their hearts

Sid Lowe
Photograph: Juan Herrero/EPA

At the end of training on Friday night, the players from Club Deportivo Becerril packed everything away and headed straight home. It was quarter past 10 and they had to be up early the next morning. Not long after 7.30am they were back, boarding the bus heading north, a four-hour journey ahead. One of the buses, that is. They had a game, but this time it wasn’t theirs. Instead, they were going to San Sebastián, singing songs all the way there, and the whole town was going with them. For once that’s not much of an exaggeration, either: there are 754 people in Becerril de Campos, a tiny, previously unremarkable town in the province of Palencia; on Saturday, 502 of them set off and didn’t come back until after dark, happy as they had ever been.

It had been the perfect day. No sangria in the park but plenty of patxarán. Cider too, and txakoli. They walked the prettiest city there is, down old, narrow streets where every doorway is a bar and every bar is crowded with pintxos, a thousand things nailed to a thousand pieces of bread. They ate.

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Well. And they swam in the sea. Some did, anyway. They were invited into peñas, supporters’ clubs, and given gifts. They took a hundred photos and made dozens of friends, learned a little Euskera. Then they went – all of them, two-thirds of an entire town – to watch a football match in the place that might just be the best place to do so in the whole of Spain right now. For free.

Becerril play in the third division, which makes it sound much better than it is. There’s a First Division, a Second Division and a Second Division B – 80 teams split across four divisions, roughly by region.

Then there’s tercera, 361 teams in 18 provincial groups of 20 or more. Becerril, who came up from regional preferente in the summer, are not far off relegation in Group 8. This year for the first time ever, they also played in the Copa del Rey – new, improved and at last open to almost everyone – becoming the team from the smallest town ever to appear in the competition. They were beaten 8-0 by Real Sociedad and afterwards, la Real’s president Jokin Aperribay invited them to Anoeta – the Reale Arena it’s called now now – to watch a game.

All of them.

It took a little while to get sorted, but the promise was for real. Which is why on Saturday morning there were eight buses and a load of cars leaving the town virtually empty. “There are going to be so few people left that we’ve asked the Guardia Civil to send patrols to watch over the houses,” said the club’s president, Juan Antonio Redondo, “there’s pretty much only some old folk left behind.” They’d been going on about this excitedly for weeks – “no one’s talking about anything else; there’s a WhatsApp group, which is basically the whole town,” said the mayor, Fran Pérez – while walls there were getting regaled with Real Sociedad stuff, a new team for the town to support. The president’s daughter asked for a Real Sociedad tracksuit for Christmas, and she wasn’t alone. When they departed, some already wore blue and white; by the time they returned, more did.

Pérez had gone ahead the night before, received by the mayor of San Sebastián. Becerril’s staff and directors were invited to the formal pre-match lunch attended by directors of la Real and opponents Valencia, meeting past and present. Fans were welcomed in by Real Sociedad supporters, which they were becoming too. The hosts paid for everything: the buses, the tickets, many of the meals – 58 went to that directors’ lunch, 30 of them free. “Real set no limits but we didn’t want to abuse their generosity,” Redondo explained. The food they ate was “like being at a wedding,” said David González, the club captain. Kids from Becerril accompanied the team on to the pitch. In the stands, they sang. Becerril’s name rang round, their songs adapted for la Real while they learned the rest, ready.

And then, when they thought it couldn’t get better, it got better. Turns out, they haven’t just encountered a great club, they’ve encountered a great team too: Copa del Rey semi-finalists, a goal up from the first leg against Second Division Mirandés, and now looking beyond that. The next trip may be even further afield.

Real Sociedad’s Alexander Isak celebrates victory with Adnan Januzaj and mascot Txurdin. Photograph: Javier Etxezarreta/EPA

“We’re competing for the same thing,” the Real Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil had said before Saturday’s game, but it didn’t look that way for long – and not just because over the last few weeks Valencia, left without a decent defender, are barely able to compete at all. “We have to be men [but] in the first half we played like kids,” Dani Parejo said afterwards.

Valencia started the day a point above Real Sociedad, two teams chasing the final Champions League place, but within 11 minutes Mikel Merino put la Real ahead. Just before half-time it was two, Nacho Monreal scoring; and just after half-time, it was three, Adnan Januzaj completing a hat-trick from former Premier League players with a belting shot. It was done, 40 minutes still to go, time to enjoy it.

La Real are the youngest side in primera, prone to occasionally drift from games, occasionally vulnerable against the tougher teams, but there may be no one as much fun to watch. And, running track gone, noise raised, there may be no more fun place to go, either. Put the two together and it’s the perfect day. La Real dominated Valencia, firing off 19 shots, “hurricane real” as one headline put it, Alguacil insisting: “We did a lot well.” And yet they blow their opponents away without even being at their very best. This is the team that battered Madrid at the Bernabéu: skilful and swift, every pass forward, playing like they’re determined not to waste a moment, like they’re enjoying this as much as the rest of us. A lot has been said about Martin Ødegaard, and rightly, but Merino has been outstanding too and Alexander Isak has left mouths open lately.

They all have.

It was la Real’s sixth consecutive win at home in all competitions– their best run in 24 years. They have won 10 of their last 13 matches. “I don’t know if we’re really conscious of the moment we’re living through at the moment,” wrote Miguel González. His paper, El Diario Vasco, which had joyfully followed their visitors around town, called the Reale Arena a “footballing paradise” and it was hard for them to disagree. Alguacil was happy, too. “This is a moment to be enjoyed,” he said. “The euphoria is normal. The passion for this team belongs to everyone.” Everyone in one particular small town in Palencia, especially. The population of Becerril boarded their buses home around nine, promising that next time Real Sociedad could come to their place, although how they’ll accommodate 34,199 members in the Mariano Haro is another matter.

“I just hope we can be friends for ever,” one fan said. “This is football, the way it should be,” insisted the vice-president José Esteban. “There are no words to describe the way they treated us, from Aperribay to the very last citizen. They hung on our every need, from arrival and throughout our stay. On the streets people said hello, they cheered us on. It’s been unforgettable,” said the mayor, but now it was time to go. Club Deportivo Becerril had a game the next day.

They won 1-0.

Talking points

• “I’m not going to wash the shirt after Messi hugged me,” Martin Braithwaite grinned after he made his debut following his emergency signing for Barcelona. Braithwaite might have been an unexpected choice but, strong, fast and intelligent, offering something different to the rest, there were signs that he could be useful on Saturday: in 20 minutes, the Dane was directly involved in two Barcelona goals as they defeated Eibar 5-0. As for Messi, he ended his worst goalless run in six years by scoring four. He’s the top scorer and he top assist provider in Spain – by five in each case – despite having missed almost a quarter of the season. And Barcelona are back on top. “When the No 10 is inspired it’s difficult to get a point here; all that work is undone,” Pape Diop said. “Messi scores four; without him, maybe it’s 1-0,” Jose Ángel said. Without him, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu might have been more exposed too: the hankies were out pre-game, along with chants of “Bartomeu, resign!” but the victory just about kept that under control. Sort of. Ish. For now.

Real Betis 3-3 Real Mallorca, Levante 1-0 Real Madrid, Real Sociedad 3-0 Valencia, Barcelona 5-0 Eibar, Celta Vigo 1-0 Leganés, Atlético Madrid 3-1 Villarreal, Getafe 0-3 Sevilla, Real Valladolid 2-1 Espanyol, Alavés 2-1 Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna 0-3 Granada

• The second best thing about José Luis Morales’s belting shot that tore through the air and into the net from a daft angle and a long way out to defeat Real Madrid is the sense that he only did it because there was nothing else he could do. Second only to him confirming exactly that.

Watching it bounce up on the left side, all alone, it was like Morales thought: “Sod it, I’ll just absolutely mash this into the net.” He was withdrawn immediately afterwards, exhausted, his work here done. “I knew I was running out of petrol and I just wanted to finish to move,” he admitted after.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 25 33 55
2 Real Madrid 25 29 53
3 Atletico Madrid 25 10 43
4 Sevilla 25 9 43
5 Getafe 25 11 42
6 Real Sociedad 24 11 40
7 Villarreal 25 8 38
8 Valencia 25 -2 38
9 Granada 25 1 36
10 Levante 25 -5 32
11 Athletic Bilbao 25 2 31
12 Osasuna 25 -4 31
13 Real Betis 25 -5 30
14 Alaves 25 -8 30
15 Valladolid 25 -6 29
16 Eibar 24 -15 24
17 Celta Vigo 25 -12 24
18 Mallorca 25 -16 22
19 Leganes 25 -19 19
20 Espanyol 25 -22 19