When Real Sociedad moved to Anoeta in 1993, the change in culture must have been immense. It was not just a mile or so to the south of this beautiful coastal city, but a world away from the intense and claustrophobic surroundings of Atotxa. The Penas and Ultras, who had been used to standing less than five feet away from the goal-mouth action, were now up to 50 metres away.
Work started on the construction of Anoeta in late 1990, on the site of the city’s old municipal athletics stadium, which had originally opened in 1950. The budget for the build was the equivalent of €21m, and the original specification had a capacity of 29,000 seats spread over two undulating tiers. It was inaugurated on 29 June 1993 with the staging of the European Junior Athletics Championships and saw its first football match, a friendly between Real Sociedad and Real Madrid, on 13 August 1993. The north and south ends of the ground were developed further in 1998, with the addition of a shallow extra tier between the existing two levels.
Results at home in that first season were actually better than the last season at Atotxa, but to be honest “La Real” were already a team in decline. Since moving to the new stadium, Real Sociedad has achieved just two podium finishes, third in 1997-98 and second in 2002-03. The decline cannot be wholly attributed to the move to Anoeta. Since the introduction of the Champions League and individually negotiated TV rights for teams in La Liga, it has become even harder for mid-ranking teams from smaller cities (San Sebatián has 185,000 inhabitants) to compete. Then in 2007, La Real were relegated from La Primera for the first time in 40 years, and it took them 3 attempts to get back. Normality appears to have been restored, as Real Sociedad have clocked up a series of mid-table finished since their return to the top flight in 2010.
Let’s talk about the stadium. Anoeta was a bit like an old-school beauty queen; Beautiful to behold, fabulous curves, but emotionally vapid. It’s shares a large part of its DNA with Roger Taillibert’s iconic design for the Parc des Princes in Paris, and is in effect a smaller version of the Olympic Stadium in Seoul. I am sure it worked well as an athletics venue, but I don’t recall any major championships being held here. It has held the ubiquitous stadium concerts from U2/Rolling Stones/Springsteen and Rugby has featured with Bayonne and Biarritz popping over the border from France, but as a football stadium? No, it didn’t work.
Owned by the Municipality, Anoeta had a peak capacity that was only slightly larger than Atotxa, standing at 32,076. However, all-seater regulations saw the capacity drop to 26,000. The roof undulated and peaked on each side of the pitch, under which sat large two-tiers of seating. These swept away to the lower ends, which included between their two tiers a third mezzanine level. It did look very attractive and had weathered surprisingly well, but it was still an athletics stadium with a football pitch in the middle.
Over the years, number of plans to convert Anoeta to a football stadium have been considered. Eventually, in 2014, the club chose Izaskun Larzabal’s design. This would involve excavating the playing area, building new end stands and extending the lower tier closer to the pitch. Corporate facilities would be expanded and the roof extended to cover the new seating areas. This would increase capacity to 42,300 and come at a cost of €47m. The project was jointly funded by Real Sociedad (€33m), the Basque Government (€10m) and the Gipuzkoa Provincial Council (€4m). Work eventually began in May 2017, with the demolition of the southern end of the stadium and the building of a new Gol Sud. The project has been co-ordinated so that La Real avoid having to play away from Anoeta during the building work.