Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Real Sociedad: A team I will never forget.

I've had some favourite teams in my lifetime:

- Manchester United 99 and 08
- Chelsea 04-06
- The current Barcelona team
- Real Sociedad 02/03
- AC Milan 05/06
- many many more

It's easy to name most of them but one of my ultimate favourites was the Real Sociedad team of 02/03. If you're unaware, this was the team that remained unbeaten at home all season and yes that includes the big two in Spain. Overwhelming Real Madrid 4-2 and narrowly beating Barcelona 2-1. They only just lost out on the league and this with a team bereft of Galacitcos and outrageous budgets.

I distinctly remember this team due to one player, Xabi Alonso. Now remember this was nearly 10 years ago and I turned to a good friend of mine and said 'this guy is one of the best passers of the ball I've ever seen'. How right I was as I still regard him as the best around when it comes to passing a football. This isn't to take away from any of the other players on show here: Kovačević,  Nihat, Karpin, De Pedro and Westerveld all had key parts to play in this pantomime season. This team had a style about it and their overall play was fantastic. This was all vindicated by the fact they were top of the league all season up until the last two games. 

The coach of this team, Raynald Denoueix, was best described as an enigma. After winning the French title with Nantes, he wholly disappointed the next season and was duly sacked. Real Sociedad then hired him and after pushing Madrid all the way, he was again sacked the next season after finishing 15th. Since then he has disappeared from the footballing world and rarely spoken about since. It was characteristics like this which made Sociedad who they were that season. Their bold attacking football regardless of the opposition was a thing of beauty and it was no surprise that Kovačević and Nihat finished 2nd and 3rd top scorers that season.

I must remind you also that the Madrid team that year had Ronaldo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Makelele to help them win the title. That bodes fantastically well for Sociedad who had no big name stars of that ilk. It looked like Denoueix studied at the Bielsa School of Football with the way in which he set his team up. Their relentlessness to win the ball back and short passing style was very much Barcelona-esque and no team in Spain was playing with this much verve. It makes me wonder what happened to Denoueix that year, was he just lucky? I'm not so sure.

Talking of Madrid, they were trailing Sociedad by a point coming into gameweek 37. All Sociedad really need to do was get 4 points from the next 6 to clinch the title and claim one of the best wins of a Spanish League in recent memory. Sociedad were due to play away to Celta Vigo and their away form was not as formidable as their home record. The game was a thriller and Celta Vigo edged it just at 3-2 leaving Sociedad hoping for a Madrid slip up. Unfortunately this is Madrid and their pedigree towards the latter stages of the season shone through and they won the Madrid Derby 4-0. So, the final day of the season comes and Real Madrid have finally claimed 1st position, something they hadn't seen for the majority for the season and it's highly likely they were going to relinquish that spot with ease. Atletico Madrid were then due to play Sociedad after being mauled by Real and the game finished 3-0 to Sociedad. All fans were listening to the Real Madrid game throughout and unfortunately they beat Bilbao to claim the league they didn't deserve.

I'd like to take a moment to digress a bit about Real Sociedad and focus on their key player: Xabi Alonso. In his teens, Alonso was like most Spanish midfielders in that he was slight with a laughable hairstyle (Mikel Arteta anyone?) As a child, Alonso practised passing more than he did shooting under the stewardship of his father and his position of defensive midfielder was decided. Coming up through the youth system at Sociedad he was sent on load to Eibar in the Segunda Division to gain some much needed experience which was corroborated by his Father, who was also a decent player in his day; winning the league twice and playing for Barcelona. Now coupled with Sociedad languishing in the relegation zone and a change of manager to one John Toshack, Alonso's fortunes swiftly changed. He was recalled to the first team and made captain at the tender age of 19. These changes marked a  resurgence in Sociedad and with their new captain pulling the strings, they finished mid-table with Alonso marking his first senior league goal. At the end of the 2002  season, Denoueix took the helm and this was the beginning of their marvellous season. Alonso finished the season with 12 goals and became known to scouts and coaches across Europe as well as the the national coach. He duly received his first international cap and his life changed forever. 

Champions League games awaited Sociedad after their 2nd place finish and it took it's toll on the Basque side. They could not keep up with 2 games a week and travelling around Europe despite qualifying for the knockout stages. They finished 15th in the end and Denoueix was removed from his post, disappearing into folklore and not heard from since. Alonso was now hot property and Real Madrid came sniffing around. This was a team he wanted to play for but he stayed loyal to Sociedad as Madrid would not meet the £13m asking price. He played at the Euro 2004 Championships in Portugal catching the eye of Liverpool scouts who agreed a £10.4m package with Sociedad and he could join the Spanish contingent already there under the watchful eye of Rafael Benitez.

Back to the point at hand. Since that fabled season, Sociedad have never hit those heights but I still cast my mind back to those days when a team of extremely talented young players could take on the galacticos and nearly win. On the contrary, they battered them 4-2 and I leave you with the icing on the cake.



  1. Am no gooner but the arsenal invincibles was a team of total football.

    Valencia as well from a few years ago when they had mendieta, ayala, baracha, vicente, jouquin, albelda, aimar and canizares

  2. There's loads of teams I could have included but that list would have got too long. Leverkusen with Lucio and Ballack, most Real Madrid teams. Though hope you liked the article regardless of that.

  3. I'm a spurs fan and even I concur with the Arsenal sentiment in the previous comment - the heights of Henry's Gooners were a sight to behold

  4. I believe you guys are missing the point slightly. You're comparing an already successful team with Real Sociedad who have not really done anything in my years of watching football other than that one season.

  5. bit like liverpool in 05 (one season fluke) then? or even leeds few years before that. On the continent, monaco when they dumped us out the champions league, would be interesting to revisit their line up from that season.