Eibar’s home league meeting with Villarreal this September was a meeting of two tiny clubs. You could fit the population of both towns into the Nou Camp and still have room for another 24,000 fans. Mist shrouded the hills around the town, adding to the sense of unreality: this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in modern football, not in the top flight of one of Europe’s major leagues.

Locals still can’t quite believe that Eibar won a second straight promotion last season to reach the primera for the first time, but the Basque side can draw encouragement from the example of Villarreal. Before their promotion in 1998, Villarreal had never played among the elite, but they’ve had just one season out of the top flight since. 

Three hours before kick-off I was ticketless, but there was no rush: there was no chance the game would be a 6,000 sell-out. As the TV crews set up their cameras in the ground, I nipped through an open door to witness the pitch being marked after the nets were put up. No one showed the slightest concern that a stranger had entered: this was a million miles away from the tight security of British stadiums.

Inside the basic Ipurua ground that sits at the top of Eibar, 4,231 supporters witnessed the club’s third home game in the topflight. A few dozen of them were wearing the boisterous yellow of Villarreal. Flats that overlook the stadium offer a view for another few hundred non-paying supporters. Bars around the ground are draped in the blue and purple colours of Eibar.

Having seen the quaint surroundings, I moved to the club offices to buy a couple of tickets. When the young assistant realised there was no change, he went to his own wallet to get a €10 note. It’s not something that’s likely to happen at Old Trafford or the Emirates. 

I sat behind the goal, watching as the socios made their noise for the whole game. It was hard to believe this was one of the world’s most watched leagues, only the adverts for betting companies and holidays in Dubai providing a reminder of the context.

A wander around the ground throws up a few surprises, including a ‘Scotland the Brave’ emblem on the wall where the Basque flag and Saltire are pictured side by side, 20 yards from a temporary stand installed to cope with the increase in demand. In 2001, a group of Eibar fans went to Murrayfield to watch a rugby international and were so taken by the home support that they founded the Ezkozia La Brava fan club.

That in turn prompted an interest in the club in Scotland. Eibar needed all the external support possible during the summer of 2014, as they had to raise €1.7million to comply with La Liga regulations that teams must have capital equal to 25% of the average expenses. 

The head of Ezkozia La Brava, Jose ba Combarro, believes his club were paying for the errors of the bigger clubs. “I am grateful to all those who paid to support the club to avoid us suffering an unjust demotion,” he said. “Eibar have never had any debt nor owed money. We were having to pay for the financial mismanagement of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña.” They received donations from 48 different countries, much of it from people who had never heard of Eibar before their remarkable promotion. Supporting Eibar became a gesture of defiance against the corporate machine of modern football.

The striker Mikel Arruabarrena, in his fifth season at the Ipurua, opened the scoring early against Villarreal. Gerard Moreno equalised but the visitors struggled to break down the well-organised home defence, which has become a theme of Eibar’s games.

Three days after the draw with Villarreal, Eibar would once again show their doggedness as they earned another point away to Athletic. They took almost 5,000 fans to Bilbao, the majority sitting with home supporters in a show of Basque unity. Before this season, a Copa del Rey win at the San Mamés in 2012 was the highlight of club’s existence – Arruabarrena also scored that night.

“We very much appreciate all the help we have had,” the club president Alex Aranzábal said. “It has been surprising for us, a small club in a small town in the Basque mountains. We have discovered that we have a story to tell and that people want to hear stories like this, that we are fighting against this rule and we have achieved something big.”

This has certainly brought a new audience to Eibar, but the club remains rooted in the town. Eibar was founded on the arms trade, having made weaponry since the 14th century – hence the club’s nickname, ‘los armeros’. The area has suffered during the recession. It’s industrial and there’s no huge wealth, which has perhaps increased the club’s importance as the centre of the community.

Villarreal, with a population slightly over twice that of Eibar, was founded by James I of Aragon in 1279 to consolidate his conquest of eastern Spain from the Moors, but despite its name meaning ‘royal town’ there’s not much to excite tourists beyond a couple of churches. Villarreal offered free season tickets to out-of-work fans when unemployment peaked in the town before the 2009-10 season as the pottery industry went into decline. Just four years earlier, with a team managed by Manuel Pellegrini and featuring Juan Román Riquelme and Diego Forlán, they reached the semi-final of the Champions League.

Humble as Eibar is, World Cup-winners have worn their shirt in the past: both David Silva and Xabi Alonso have spent time on loan at the Ipurua. Silva was part of a team that finished fourth in the second flight, their highest finish before last season’s promotion.“I had a marvellous year in Eibar,” Silva said. “I made many friends there and I am grateful to all for their help at that time.”

To grasp the scale of Eibar’s achievement, it’s worth noting that the smallest town to have produced a team to have played in the Premier League is Burnley, with a population of 73,000. The Clarets were noted for their prudence, yet they spent over £8m on transfer fees alone after ascending from the Championship. 

Eibar’s summer incomings barely added up to €160,000 and no player will earn more than €500,000 during the year. Javi Lara, who scored the club’s first goal in La Liga in their opening-day victory over their Basque rivals Real Sociedad, had bought himself out of his contract with the Segunda B side Ponferradina. “We want to demonstrate that in football, the small club, when it handles things well, can beat the powerful,” Aranzábal said. “This year, it will be a lot more difficult because the differences are gigantic.”

Despite their lack of top-flight experience, Eibar allayed fears they would be cast adrift by taking eight points from their first six games. Even finishing outside of the relegation zone won’t guarantee survival, though. Eibar’s stadium does not meet La Liga criteria, meaning they are proposing an increase in capacity at the Ipurua. That has not pleased local residents, with many protesting against the plans, threatening the club’s future.

Reaching the elite will bring financial rewards for Eibar. Barcelona and Real Madrid will get up to €150million, with los armeros expecting to receive around a tenth of that figure. The Premier League’s bottom club last season, Cardiff City, picked up more than £62million for their efforts on the pitch and are entitled to another £60million in parachute payments to ease the burden of relegation.

Playing the loan market with expertise has served Eibar well in recent years: last season four Real Sociedad players shone at Eibar, including Yuri Beriche who has been a regular starter for Sociedad this season. The imminent adoption of collective negotiation of television rights will make that less of a necessity, providing Eibar will a sustainable model if they do finish above 18th. “Staying in the Primera Liga, that is to say, not being relegated, this would be a success this season,” said Combarro.

Things are stacked against lower-league clubs in both England and Spain. Ticket prices are constantly on the rise as boards desperately try to eke out every last penny from those loyal enough to support their team on a weekly basis. Eibar fail to fill their stadium, which Camborro puts down to price: “The tickets, costing €30 or €50, are just too expensive. It’s a little sad, but this is something that all football fans are facing.”

Over the coming season Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will visit the Ipurua in knowledge that their annual income is greater than that of the squad they will come up against. They may not appreciate the surroundings, but they will remember the experience of visiting Eibar. There will be around a tenth of the people in the ground for that game than there were when Ronaldo was unveiled at the Santiago Bernabéu.

Eibar didn’t chase the dream, they stumbled upon it, but now they are in the middle of it, they will savour every single second.