When Royals could have been Kings: Real Sociedad’s push for the 2002/03 La Liga title

When Royals could have been Kings: Real Sociedad’s push for the 2002/03 La Liga title

Señor Dávila blew the final whistle, sending the Balaídos stadium into raptures. Celta Vigo had just qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history, a 3-2 victory over Real Sociedad securing the fourth and final European spot.

The travelling fans watched on as the Celestes rejoiced. Some applauded their team, while others stared blankly onto the field. They had watched their gallant players push the Madridistas all the way, leading the table in the penultimate week, only to see their hopes run aground on the Galician coast. They knew Real Madrid would capitalise on their mistake, eventually beating their rivals Athletic Club to bring the title back to the Bernabéu after its one-year stay in Valencia.

While it may have ended in flames, it had been a glorious campaign for the team from San Sebastián, awash with flair and goals, with exciting new talents and shattered expectations.

I’ll be wishing them luck, and maybe advising some of them to concentrate a bit more.” It was March 2002 and John Toshack had just been sacked as the coach of Real Sociedad. A string of poor results had seen his side languish second from bottom and, with nine games to go, they were perilously close to the LaLiga trapdoor.

Toshack had invested heavily in the squad that summer, looking to improve on an anonymous mid-table finish the previous year. Sander Westerveld was recruited from Liverpool after being frozen out at Anfield by new coach Gérard Houllier. Kahveci Nihat, an exciting young forward from Turkey, reunited with the man who gave him his Besiktas debut a few years before, while Darko Kovačević rejoined the club he’d left for Serie A and Juventus. Another former Liverpool player, Bjørn Tore Kvarme, had crossed the Pyrenees from Saint-Étienne to bolster a leaky defence.

By the time Toshack was sacked, the signings appeared to have achieved little. Only a decent run of results under sporting director Roberto Olabe preserved La Real’s LaLiga status, as they dragged themselves to the obscurity of a third consecutive finish in 13th place.

Olabe’s replacement that summer was Raynald Denoueix. The Rouen native had just been sacked as manager of Nantes, after a title win in 2001 had been followed by a disappointing campaign in the Pays-de-la-Loire. Denoueix had taken over from the legendary Jean-Claude Suaudeau, who had led the Canaris to the Champions League semis in 1996 with the likes of Nicolas Ouédec, Claude Makélélé and Japhet N’Doram in tow.

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Denoueix had spearheaded a team with much less quality to the title, with the goals of Olivier Monterrubio and Viorel Moldovan proving too much for pre-oligarch French defences. He, like most pundits and commentators at the time, could never have fathomed the heights that his team would go on to achieve. Westerveld had built a career on his shot-stopping ability, but a litany of errors had convinced Liverpool to part with his inconsistency in favour of Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland.

In front of him was Gabriel Schürrer, who had been let go by Deportivo after the 2000 title triumph, signing for the Basques after a brief stint in the Canary Islands. Further defensive duties were shared between the Norwegian Kvarme and another local boy, Igor Jáuregui, who had just returned from a loan spell at tiny Eibar. Aitor López Rekarte was halfway through a decade in the first team at right-back, while Agustín Aranzábal supplied potent attacking threat from the left.

In front of Aranzábal, Javi de Pedro had one of the finest deliveries on the Iberian Peninsula. By the time he signed for Blackburn in 2004 his talents had waned considerably, but nobody doubted the quality of a player who had been part of La Roja’s 2002 World Cup squad. On the other side was Valeri Karpin, one of the best wingers and characters in LaLiga, a player who, as Sid Lowe recalled, had been described as “capable of making a good team out of a bunch of tellytubbies”.

Central midfielder Mikel Aranburu was a La Real icon who would go on to spend his entire career in San Sebastián, sitting alongside the captain and prodigy Xabi Alonso.

For all his missteps, John Toshack knew quality when he saw it. His decision to appoint the Gipuzkoa native as captain aged 19 was a testament to the floppy-haired youngster, whose older brother Mikel was also a member of the squad. Both had followed in the footsteps of their father, Miguel Ángel, who had starred for the title-winning Sociedad sides of 1981 and ’82 before playing alongside Diego Maradona at Barcelona.

But Xabi was the special talent, who had honed his faultless passing as a youngster watching his father training with CE Sabadell. It was the start of a special relationship with the football that, 16 years later in Bavaria, still doesn’t look like ending anytime soon. Up front, the little-and-large combination of Kovačević and Nihat would score 43 goals in the league, in what sometimes seemed like a friendly competition to claim the Pichichi.

Jupp Heynckes’ Athletic were the opponents in the first Euskal derby on the opening day of the season. The German had just signed Aitor Karanka in defence, the former Madrid man complementing an already strong line-up that included club icons Joseba Etxeberria and Ismael Urzaiz. In a pulsating encounter, Real overcame their Basque counterparts 4-2, Karpin and Kovačević grabbing goals either side of a Nihat brace. Sociedad were all over the pitch, tugging at the manes of Los Leones, snapping at their heels. In the end, a hapless display from Lafuente in the Athletic goal helped the result, but a marker had been laid down. This team meant business.

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As his second goal went in, Nihat pointed to the name on the back of his shirt. By the end of the season it would be known all across Europe, with his performances attracting scouts from across the continent. The imp from Istanbul had been on the periphery of the Turkish side at the World Cup in Asia, but only Roy Makaay and Ronaldo would score more in the league that season.

He would eventually go on to Villarreal, bringing the Valencians to a triumphant second-place finish in 2008 before retiring four years later after an unproductive spell back home. At the time, though, it looked like a real star had been found.

The victory against Athletic was the start of an inspired run of form that saw Denoueix’s side top LaLiga with six wins and three draws before they visited Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. Despite being top of the table, barely any of Sociedad’s games had been shown on live television, unlike the media-friendly side from the capital.

Madrid were at the height of the Galácticos era, a rejuvenated Ronaldo having signed from Inter after winning and starring in the World Cup the year before. O Fenômeno was ably assisted by Raúl, Luis Figo and Esteban Cambiasso, and even with Zinedine Zidane on the bench, everybody expected Real to roll over the upstart Basques.

It was a game where Sociedad more than matched Los Merengues. After the post had kept out Raúl’s looping header, Westerveld expertly snuffed out a Cambiasso chance before the fizzing Nihat was denied by Iker Casillas. The Madrid keeper then beat away a powered drive from Kovačević in the second half before Westerveld again denied the Real captain. Schürrer’s opportunistic strike was hacked off the line before Morientes wasted a free header from Roberto Carlos’ pinpoint delivery, while Kovačević would rattle the bar before the final whistle was eventually blown after a breathless 90 minutes.

It was a fantastic result for the visitors, but the real triumph would come two weeks later at the Anoeta against Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona. In a sodden evening, Van Gaal’s struggling side opened the scoring courtesy of Patrick Kluivert, his turn and volley deflecting into the net against the run of play. Kovačević levelled matters shortly after with a beautifully flighted header, before adding a second with a deft chip from de Pedro’s weighted through ball. La Real had arrived.

It would be another seven games and a new calendar year before the club lost their first game of the season, with Athletic gaining revenge for their opening day pasting with a 3-0 victory at the San Mamés. Goals from Exteberria and Ezquerro prompted a horrible run of form for the league leaders, who went on to lose against Betis, Valladolid and Depor before Real visited the Basque Country.

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After dropping 12 points from a possible 24 after the Athletic defeat, confidence was low as Madrid’s players lined out in all-black in San Sebastián. Denoueix looked calm and relaxed before the game, as though he had some foreknowledge of what was to occur. His side were about to put in their finest performance of the season against Vicente del Bosque’s footballing celebrities.

Kovačević opened the scoring after two minutes, sweeping home after some great work by Aranzábal down the left. A Roberto Carlos free-kick was saved comfortably by Westerveld, whose long punt up-field eventually met the boot of Kovačević, prompting a smart save from Casillas.

Kovačević would score his second on 20 minutes, guiding de Pedro’s searching low cross into the net with the deftest of touches. Nihat decided to get in on the act ten minutes later, perhaps mindful of his striking partners’ goal tally as he bobbled a finish past the despairing Real Madrid ‘keeper. Less than a minute hence, Zinedine Zidane arced a beautiful through ball to Ronaldo, who was never going to miss.

Xabi Alonso buried the idea of a Madrid revival with a stunning strike from 25 yards, curling the ball past Casillas to make it 4-1 at half-time. It was the defining goal of a landmark season for the youngster, whose range of passing was at the hub of everything his side would achieve that year.

After Westerveld made another stunning interception to stop Ronaldo scoring again, Vicente del Bosque brought on promising young striker Javier Portillo, whose 83rd-minute goal was nothing more than a consolation. The capital club had been obliterated by a blue and white tornado. It was the shot in the arm that Sociedad needed.

A loss at the Camp Nou was the only blip in a run of five wins from their next six games. With three fixtures remaining, the Royals were on the verge of a historic league title. An away tie against Celta Vigo was bookended by home games against Valencia and Atlético Madrid – win all three and the title would be going to the Basque Country for the first time in nearly two decades.

Valencia had endured a difficult season. Rafa Benítez’s men had won a glorious title the year before but had struggled to match their own high standards, eventually finishing outside the Champions League places. Pablo Aimar was the only bright spark in a campaign that had largely flattered to deceive. Still, when Los Che visited the Anoeta that June evening, they had more than enough to ruin La Real’s title hopes. And that’s exactly what they did, Jáuregui’s own goal cancelling out Xabi Alonso’s opener in a game that was fraught with nerves.

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Denoueix’s men, granted an advantage after Roberto Ayala’s second-half red card, choked under the spotlight as Valencia clung gamely to the hope of securing a Champions League spot. The failure to take advantage of Madrid’s home draw against Celta meant that they would have to beat the same team in Galicia to keep their title hopes alive, whilst also hoping that Los Blancos would slip up in the Madrid derby at the Calderón.

Both games kicked off on the evening of 15 June 2003. Real Madrid laid down a marker immediately, Ronaldo rifling home a Zidane through ball after six minutes. Three minutes later, Aleksandr Mostovoi capitalised on a misplaced Sociedad pass to strike a deflected effort past Sander Westerveld.

Things would get worse soon after, Raúl sliding in an 18th-minute cross in Madrid to double his sides’ lead. Back in Galicia, Mostovoi would add a second, escaping the attentions of Kvarme to head into the bottom corner. Another goal by Ronaldo ensured that Sociedad’s title hopes were fading fast. Like so often throughout the season, it would be Nihat who gave the Basques hope, as he buried de Pedro’s low cross in the 65th minute. The Spain winger turned to the travelling support, waving frantically at them – this wasn’t over, not yet.

Five minutes later it would be over, future Spurs flop Mido passing into an abandoned Sociedad net. The depression was compounded instantly, with Raúl sticking a leg out at Zidane’s hopeful ball to score Real’s fourth. Xabi Alonso turned his head skyward as Karpin remonstrated with his deflated team-mates. They knew the jig was up, even after Nihat headed in Óscar de Paula’s overhead kick in the 82nd minute.

It was Nihat again whose arrowed strike prompted a corner two minutes from time, from which de Paula skimmed the post with a guided header. As he banged the turf in frustration, it mattered little to Madrid fans, who already knew that the title was theirs if they could beat Athletic on the final day.

Real Sociedad would face Madrid’s cross-town rivals at the Anoeta in the final game of the season, in a game that would matter little if Del Bosque’s men beat their fellow Basques at the Bernabéu. That didn’t stop the home support from singing their hearts out as the teams emerged from the tunnel, however. The stadium was enveloped in a sea of blue and white hope, and the players looked ready to fight to the death for their unlikely LaLiga dream.

The tension was palpable as both sides traded early blows, Nihat firing just wide of the Germán Burgos’ goal before Kvarme kept out a José Mari cross. The game would come alive in the second half, a skin-headed Kovačević blasting in from a hawk-like through ball from de Pedro on 51 minutes. The flags starting waving as Denoueix and his coaching staff paced the technical area, nerves shredded.

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They were calmed slightly when de Pedro himself scored four minutes later, shooting over the dive of Burgos to send the scarves waving in the stands. It wouldn’t be a true Sociedad performance without a goal from Nihat, so it was no surprise when he expertly evaded two Atlético challenges to poke home a third with 15 minutes to go. When a player kisses his badge it always seems somewhat contrived, but the passion in the Turk’s eyes as he pulled his shirt to his lips said it all about his love for the club.

All the passion in the world could not stop Real Madrid from securing their 29th Spanish title, dispatching Athletic courtesy of two Ronaldo goals and a Roberto Carlos free-kick. Perhaps the left-back was firing a warning message to the incoming David Beckham, whose signing from Manchester United had just been confirmed. Madrid struggled in the debilitating heat, but in the end it was the Galácticos who pushed them over the line, Zidane setting up Ronaldo’s league clincher to break thousands of Basque hearts.

After a monumental campaign, Real Sociedad had proved everybody wrong in pushing Real Madrid all the way to the last weekend for the league title. They went unbeaten all season at the Anoeta, a fortress where they eviscerated the big two in comprehensive victories. Nihat and Kovačević, who scored nearly 50 goals that season between them, had led a team of journeyman, locals and prodigies to the gates of LaLiga heaven, only to be refused entry by Del Bosque’s glittering Madridistas. Alonso and Nihat’s awards for Best Spanish and Foreign Player were scant recompense for a season which had promised so much for so long.

It would prove to be a short stay in the spotlight. The 2003/04 season was notable only for the successful Champions League campaign, where the Basques made it through the group stage only to be knocked out by Lyon in the second round. Domestically, they couldn’t match the heights of the year before, with Raynald Denoueix sacked after a meagre 15th-place finish. The disappointment would see Xabi Alonso secure a multi-million pound move to Liverpool in the close season, Nihat and Kovačević staying for a few more years as the club battled to stave off the threat of relegation. They were eventually demoted to the Segunda in 2007.

A bitter pill was made harder to swallow in 2013 when claims emerged that the club had made annual payments to the infamous Eufemiano Fuentes for “strange medicines”. The new president, Iñaki Badiola, admitted to sacking two medical personnel after an investigation found that payments had been made by the club for a period of six years, including at the time of Denoueix’s reign at the club.

Badiola’s predecessor denied any knowledge of illicit practices throughout his tenure. Denoueix still hasn’t had another coaching job over a decade on, becoming a football commentator for French television on the way to being one of football‘s more interesting enigmas. Still, the quality of football on display that year won the hearts of football fans everywhere. They may not have won it, but they brought excitement to a league that had seemed intent on knocking Real Madrid and Barcelona off their perch.

Madrid’s win meant normal service was resumed, but for that fleeting moment, it seemed that new royalty would be crowned in Spain. The Txuriurdin will always wonder what could have been, but football in general will treasure the memory of that swashbuckling year in San Sebastián, where for so long it seemed that dreams could come true.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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