Real Sociedad’s secret to LaLiga contention

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — It’s raining in San Sebastian. It’s nearly always raining here, or has just stopped raining, or is about to rain. Set around a curl of beach on Spain’s northern coast, the compact city of elegant promenades is one of Europe’s loveliest settings and has some of the world’s finest restaurants. But nobody goes there for the weather.

The official statistics report that San Sebastian gets around 150 days of sunshine annually, less than half the national average. When I arrive at Real Sociedad’s training grounds, which climb a hillside in the nearby town of Lasarte, a drizzle drips from a sky the color of chimney smoke. It’s early-December, and it’s the region’s 18th straight day of precipitation.

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The following day, when Real Sociedad will host PSV Eindhoven in a game that will eliminate one of them from the UEFA Europa League, will surely be the 19th. My quick and unscientific survey of the changing room reveals that precisely nobody minds. “The fact is, it’s an advantage for us,” says Mikel Oyarzabal, who was born a short distance

By the time the players start walking up a hillside path in twos and threes, heading for a field of green so iridescent that it looks unreal, the rain is falling harder. Darker clouds are massing. Somewhere else, the training session might be moved indoors. Instead, nobody glances up. “It’s just normal for us,” says Ander Barrenetxea, a promising young winger who was born and raised in San Sebastian.

Much of the team is from here, the small hillside villages and stately cities of the Basque Country. Their surnames, with a proliferation of Z’s and X’s and K’s, reflect their singular heritage: Zaldua and Zubimendi and Zubeldia; Oyarzabal and Barrenetxea and Dozagarat and Karrikaburu. As they kick a ball around a circle, I can hear them talking in Euskera, the Basque language.

Euskera is unrelated to Spanish or to the French spoken across the border just a few miles to the east. In fact, it bears no known relation to any language anywhere in the world. It’s uncommonly difficult to learn; if you don’t start speaking Euskera in your childhood, you almost certainly never will.

That can be intimidating for anyone who relocates to the region, as Real Sociedad Nordic forwards Alexander Isak and Alex Sorloth have done in recent years, or even for another Spaniard like David Silva, who previously starred at Manchester City. Fortunately, their teammates understand. “They read the room,” says Mat Ryan, the Australian goalkeeper. “If a bunch of guys are sitting around, they’re probably talking in Euskera. But if one of us walks in, they’ll nearly always switch to Spanish.”

On the field, the secret language allows Real Sociedad’s players to openly discuss strategy against any opponent, except one of the other Basque clubs. “Even in La Liga games,” Ryan says, “nobody has any idea what they’re talking about.”

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