Soccer in the City: But are there any exceptions to football's large town roots?

La Liga's Eibar would be one club that is based in a more modest sized local

Eibar,

Fans cheer Real Madrid's team as they arrive on their official bus before the match between Real Madrid and SD Eibar during their La Liga soccer match, at Ipurua stadium in Eibar, northern Spain, Saturday Nov. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Historically, football has always been an urban phenomenon when it comes to the professional sphere of the game.

Indeed, the developmental roots of Total Football should pay homage to the Coffee Houses of Central European cities like Vienna as you'll find out if you read Jonathan Wilson's excellent Inverting The Pyramid.

Success and prestige tend to be concentrated among the clubs based in the largest concentrated population centres - often in capitals - with a couple of exceptions.

If you look at the clubs that populate the top divisions in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, even middle of the road and quite small clubs are usually based in cities of over 90,000 people.

Very few are based in towns or areas which draw on a local population of 50,000 or fewer. It makes plenty of sense in the modern world where it's a case of "go where the people are to be found".

One exception is SD Eibar who we looked at in detail on this week's Team 33 with journalist Euan McTear, who wrote the book Eibar The Brave about the club.

The Basque club has managed to establish itself in La Liga despite being located in a town directly between one large city in the shape of Bilbao (home to Athletic Club) and a more modestly populated one of about 180,000 in the shape of San Sebastian (home to Real Socidedad).

"[Eibar] is a tiny town of about 27,000 people but they have even fewer fans than you might expect because a lot of people for years would associate themselves with Athletic Club or Real Sociedad and that was perfectly reasonable, whereas now they're seeing a bit of a resurgence obviously now their team's doing well. But most people there still have a loyalty to one of the two big teams because they are just a 20 minute drive in either direction," he said of the catchment areas that see Eibar squeezed between traditional regional powers.

Even at 27,000, the population size of Eibar town is way larger than the wee town of Mohill, Co Leitrim, I grew up around in terms of the number of people residing there.

Significant European clubs in the Big 5 Leagues from smaller urban centres by population

Eibar (27,000)

Numancia (39,000)

Hoffenheim (3,700)

Empoli (48,000)

Sassuolo (40,000)

Ascoli (45,000)

Socheaux-Montbeliard (26,000)

Lens (32,000)

Auxerre (38,000)

TSG Hoffenheim, on that list, is a very different case to Eibar. Historically they are from a town of fewer than 4,000 people. 

Their Rhein-Neckar-Arena is in a suburb of the larger Sinsheim town that Hoffenheim also forms part of.

But also the club's rise has not been organic in the way that Eibar's was. German billionaire Dietmar Hopp grew up in the area and also played in the Hoffenheim youth teams in his formative years and has provided the financial backing that has lifted the club up from the lower divisions right into the Bundesliga.

Thus they're not exactly loved in Germany and not seen as a particular fairytale story.

 

Die Rhein-Neckar-Arena in Sinsheim, das Stadion der TSG 1899 Hoffenheim ist am Mittwoch, 27. Mai 2009, aus der Luft zu sehen. (AP Photo/Daniel Roland) ---The Rhein-Neckar-Arena, home of German first division Bundesliga soccer team TSG 1899 Hoffenheim is seen in Sinsheim, southwestern Germany, from a Helicopter on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Daniel Roland)

The Irish context at the moment is quite interesting as Dundalk come from a town of about 30,000 to 40,000 depending on whether you take into account the urban part or also include the environs.

Having just won a third League of Ireland title in a row, the Louth club are the most successful side from outside Dublin when it comes to trophies won.

And in contrast to the GAA - including my own home area - where the grassroots of clubs are often rural, soccer is more often an urban phenomenon.

And old garrison towns - sometimes identifiable by street names like Barrack Street which can also be found in Dundalk - are often the urban root of the game here.

As Wexford TD Mick Wallace, who founded Wexford Youths and serves as club chairman, once told me of his historical view in terms of the urban-rural difference in Irish soccer, it's been a long-time feature of the league.  

"Historically, the League of Ireland has often been based in garrison towns like Waterford, Dublin, Sligo and Derry with a couple of exceptions," he said.

Wexford would be one exception and Finn Harps in Ballybofey, Co Donegal.

But when you take big cities into account whether it be Dublin over here or London, Madrid or Rome, they are not a house united but split into different camps which perhaps mitigates the power of the clubs in evenly-balanced cities.

London in particular is stocked with six clubs within the wider urban area if you include Watford, as well as more clubs lower down the division. And as recent trends show, like the time Arsenal were able to beat Liverpool to Alexis Sanchez's signing, the major city can have a pull. But while the Gunners are the most successful club in the city when it comes to leagues and FA Cups but have never truly dominated London with Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham all counting big fanbases and their own successes.

In the context of Madrid, it's different because there is arguably the world's biggest club and another city rival that is also huge in its own right. Euan McTear, who often reports on Atletico Madrid, the Colchoneros are soon moving into a stadium which is on the opposite side of the Spanish capital from where they are now.

Hoffenheim's sponsor Dietmar Hopp, center, celebrates with the players after winning the German second division Bundesliga soccer match between 1899 Hoffenheim and Greuther Fuerth in Hoffenheim, Germany, Sunday, May 18, 2008. Hoffenheim ascends to the first division. (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)

"The thing with the Madrid teams is that neither of their fanbases were based on a location in the city because both [Real Madrid and Atletico] moved around stadiums numerous times. So you're being told which team to support based on your family rather than what part of the city you live in," he said.

And Madrid's wider metropolitan zone, like London, also has a set of smaller clubs that have reached La Liga status such as Rayo Vallecano, Getafe and tiny Leganes.

For example, Rayo and Getafe drew on average home attendances of about 7,000 and 11,500 last season, which shows how hard it can be for smaller urban teams where mega clubs co-exist.

But then there is Berlin which has one major club in the shape of Hertha Berlin but has never enjoyed significant success despite being the only big club in Germany's highly populous capital.

Obviously, one must remember that Berlin was a city divided between two states during the Cold War.

But then again, Lens and Auxerre in France were both able to win Ligue 1 in 2000 and 1996 respectively from more modest sized towns in a football nation which has tended to be an exporter rather than importer of talent.

But that was in an era before Paris' potential was realised with the money pumped into Paris Saint-Germain turning that club into an importer of big names.