The man who lived inside Real Sociedad’s stadium
The rule was simple: If on Sundays when Real Sociedad was playing at Atotxa, you suddenly saw two fireworks in the sky above San Sebastián, that meant the home team had just scored. If you saw only one firework, then the visiting team had netted the goal. For over three decades, from the early 60s until 1993 when the team moved to Anoeta, where they continue to play today, thanks to this unique tradition, the entire city learned about the score’s progression, even when lacking access to a television or a radio. Legend has it that all of this began for the sake of the fishermen who wanted to know the match’s progress even when they were far away from the mainland. The initiator of the idea was a simple supporter, Patxi Alkorta, but from a certain point onwards, the man responsible for the entire ritual became the jack of all trades, the soul of the club, Amaia Lamparta.
It’s often said that a team isn’t defined by its president, its coach, or its players. It’s solely defined by its fans, those who stand by its side through thick and thin, following and supporting it without gaining anything substantial in return. This statement doesn’t always encompass the whole truth. There are cases of teams where alongside the fans, you add a few individuals who formally are employees but essentially have dedicated their lives to the club to such an extent that no salary can compensate for. Lamparta was one of these individuals.
The Atotxa Stadium was the home ground of Real Sociedad from 1913 to 1993. Here’s a photograph of it from the 1960s.
Amaia Lamparta Rey was born in 1905 in a small town near San Sebastián, and at the age of 20, he moved there for the sake of Real Sociedad. The club agreed to pay him 10 pesetas a day, which was the same amount he had been earning up until then by working at a local foundry. (The initial proposal, for him to simultaneously work at a well-known local tobacco factory, didn’t go through because the factory manager had grown tired of doing favors for the administration by constantly hiring new players.) In the 11 years he played in the heart of the Basque team, he celebrated the Gipuzkoa championship three times, played in a Spanish Cup final against Barcelona, and was a member of the first starting eleven that Real Sociedad fielded in the inaugural Spanish championship held during the 1929-30 season.
The civil war that broke out in 1936 also marked the tombstone of his footballing career. Like most young men in the region, Lamparta put everything aside to fight against the nationalist forces of General Franco. In one of the battles near Bilbao, he was seriously injured in the eye and taken captive. Initially held in a neighboring concentration camp, he was later transferred to prison where he spent a significant part of World War II. The end of the war found him in a tragic state—malnourished, monocular, and with significant issues in his hands. He was forced to turn to the thing that had provided him sustenance before the civil war: Football.
First, he got his ‘practical’ experience by working as an assistant coach at his beloved Real Sociedad, and then he took on the role of head coach at Burgos, a team he elevated to the third division. His brief coaching career concluded a few years later in Pamplona, where he spent two seasons on the bench of Osasuna. His return to the field where he had played for over a decade occurred in the summer of 1952 when it was announced that the elderly supervisor of the stadium, Fidel Terán Visario, would be stepping down from his position after more than 40 years (he had been the stadium’s supervisor since the day it was inaugurated!). Lamparta expressed interest in filling the void, and from September of that year, he officially became the gardener-caretaker-handyman for all tasks related to the stadium.
The passion of the ‘Indian,’ as his nickname was while he played football, for his new job was such that shortly after assuming his duties, he requested to permanently move to the stadium, to a small space located just above the ticket booths. For the next 37 years, Atotxa became the regular home of a man who had until then regarded it as a “second home,” as most fans feel towards their team’s stadium. In that same space, he lived with his wife and his elderly mother, who often hung the family’s laundry on the railings of the stands.
During this period, Lamparta devoted his life entirely to Real Sociedad. He cleaned the stands, he marked the lines, he tended to the grass, he fixed whatever was broken, he brewed coffee or brought juices to the players, he organized the fireworks display at the goals, he prepared the stadium on match mornings to welcome the fans, he sneaked in young kids on weekdays and gave them a quick tour to let them feel a bit of the magic. The method was simple: You wanted to enter the stadium, walk through it, and experience a bit of the glory that the footballers feel? You knocked on the door of Mr. Amaia’s small apartment, and he took care of the rest.
And if some believe that a simple groundskeeper doesn’t make a substantial contribution to a team’s success, the great Alfredo Di Stéfano might just disagree. When asked by a Basque newspaper in 2009 which Real Sociedad player gave him the most trouble, the legend of Real Madrid responded: “The one I remember the most out of everyone was Atotxa’s groundskeeper. The one-eyed man who tended to the grass. He was the best because he knew how we played, and that’s why before kick-off, he’d water certain specific spots of the field more, making it difficult for us to develop our game. He pulled off tricks like that. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t.”
The sly Amaia Lamparta carried out this role well into his advanced years. With him still as the groundskeeper, Real Sociedad experienced its finest moments during the golden decade of the 80s when they clinched two championships, a cup, and a Super Cup. In July 1989, he passed away at the age of 84, thus missing the team’s move to Anoeta and not witnessing the gradual abandonment and eventual demolition of Atotxa. Fortunately, we would add, because while this was a challenging moment for every fan of the club, imagine how it felt for someone who had spent a significant portion of their life there.