Jokin Aperribay referred to it as one of the worst parts of his job. The Real Sociedad president said selling a player—no matter the price tag or transfer fee—is always an unhappy moment.
Like a proud mother bird, Aperribay doesn’t like seeing his young leave the nest. Real Sociedad takes pride in scouting, developing and promoting local talent; in fact up until 1989, the club signed only Basque players.
The club’s importance on local talent is evident still to this day. During the 2018/19 season, nine Real Sociedad academy players made their first-team debuts. Over the past five seasons, 42 players trained by Real Sociedad for at least three seasons between the ages of 15-21 played in Europe’s big-5 leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga, Serie A, Ligue 1).
“When they come to the first team it’s incredible news,” Aperribay said. “These players come up through our system and know our colors, they understand our community and they are willing to push that, work hard and be part of the community and understand why we are here.”
Founded in 1909, Real Sociedad was one of the clubs to play in the inaugural LaLiga season in 1929, and is one of just nine clubs to ever win its title (1980-81, 1981-82).
Real Sociedad’s commitment to the community begins with its association to local clubs. La Real has relationships with 84 clubs throughout the province to continue a constant influx of local players. Scouts keep a vigilant eye on these players, selecting the best to join the Real Sociedad youth system. Once part of the system, the players visit the club’s training facility, Zubieta, then have the ability to return home to have meals and quality time with their families.
“It’s our heart,” Aperribay said. “It’s the reason behind our club. We exist because the community is behind the team.”
Xabi Alonso, Asier Illarramendi, Iñigo Martínez and Álvaro Odriozola were all local Basque players who rose to prominence through Real Sociedad’s youth system. Martínez (Athletic Club) and Illarramendi (Real Madrid) each moved on for a club-record £28.8 million, while Odriozola (Real Madrid) and Alonso (Liverpool) returned £27 million and £14.4 million respectively in their transfers.
Like Athletic Club, Real Sociedad remained a Basque-only club until 1989, citing a need to compete with its bigger rivals who were flexing their financial muscle as the justification to acquire outside players. Liverpool and Republic of Ireland international John Aldridge became Real Sociedad’s first non-Basque signee; he’d go on to score 40 goals in 75 appearances in all competitions with the club.
Nihat Kahveci (Turkey) and Darko Kovacevic (Serbia) guided Real Sociedad to a second-place finish in LaLiga during the 2002/03 season, but the biggest non-Basque name to come from the Sociedad—particularly its youth system—has been 2018 FIFA World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman spent six seasons playing with the club’s first team before moving to Atlético Madrid for £27 million in July 2014.
Real Sociedad’s academy is currently comprised of approximately 100 players. Aperribay said the goal of the club isn’t just to develop first-team players, but also better people who will give back to their community. Ander Barrenetxea, who became the first player born in the 21st century to play in LaLiga when he made his debut in December 2018, has even been spotted riding a public bicycle to matches.
“Our players are fantastic,” Aperribay said. “They are the guys who teach the younger ones to have the right values.”