The Donosti Cup: Iñigo Olaizola’s Dream, hosted in the Magical City of San Sebastian


Over 25 years, the Donosti Cup tournament in the Spanish Basque _DSC9120town of San Sebastian (AKA Donosti) has quietly evolved to become one of the most prestigious youth soccer tournaments in the World. The success of the Cup has a great deal to do with the man who started it, Iñigo Olaizola, a believer in the power of soccer to transform lives, an ethos he lives on a daily basis as he manages the tournament. We spoke with him about the Cup, his vision for its future, and the factors that have made it a success.

The notion of creating a youth soccer tournament didn’t simply occur to Iñigo Olaizola overnight. In 1990 Iñigo had just begun working on an a small travel agency dedicated to supplying travel services to local soccer teams.  But as is the case with many pioneering ideas, the early days were hard.  As Iñigo reflects, “now it is quite normal for a team to go on on such a trip, but at that moment it wasn’t so simple, because in the first place you had to convince the club directors and later the parents.” However, Iñigo persisted, and the modest success of this venture inspired him to dream bigger, thinking that the most attractive thing was not to simply take teams to these types of tournaments but to try and organize a tournament in our city.” And so in 1992 the Donosti Cup kicked off.

Donosti Cup 2016 video by Donosti cup

The early years were slow and despite expectations to attract 100 teams to the first edition, the Donosti Cup team had to settle for a more humble sum of 32 teams in its first year. Only 6 of these were from foreign countries, making it hard for Olaizola to evaluate if there was international interest in his idea. However. he persisted andfrom the fifth year (1997) things began to improve, and then from the 10th edition (2002) we saw that the culture of [international soccer] travel was becoming more common.” One could attribute this growth to a widespread cultural change, but more probable was its basis in the team’s “great effort to evaluate every time we sign up a group, to understand the factors behind the motivation to register.” This information then allowed the team to more effectively market the tournament and grow it in future years.

The Social Impact

The backbone to any successful business is the values, or the ‘why’ behind the work you do, and with respect to this Olaizola has always had clarity, sharing that “from the very first edition we placed a great deal of value on themes such as sportsmanship, the sharing of culture and the respect for diversity.” These values have always been a part of the tournament, but it wasn’t until the third edition of the Cup that one of the most important philanthropic dimensions of the tournament became concrete.  The idea of giving back to the local and international community of participating teams at the Donosti Cup happened organically, as did the tournament itself. A team from Lima, Peru contacted Olaizola telling him that they had come to Europe to play in a tournament that was cancelled after they arrived. They said they were desperate to play after all of the effort and funds required to travel overseas, but they did not have any budget for further registration, accommodation, or expenses. The team asked if the tournament could host them. Olaizola didn’t hesitate, inviting the team as the first charitable initiative of the Donosti Cup, covering all expenses. He “recalls the moment when we said farewell, in which all the kids lined up to express their gratitude and share their experiences. And I remember thinking – well, this is really worth it.”  Ever since then, the idea of giving back has been an important aspect of the Donosti Cup.

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Every year a diverse group of invited teams compete as guests of the tournament, allowing them to enjoy an experience that would otherwise not be accessible to them. Examples of past invited teams include a mixed team of Arabic and Jewish players celebrating the power of tolerance and peace.  Another year, a team of women from the Bolivian rainforest, without access to basic services like electricity and who had never previously left their village was invited. Olaizola observes that “it gives us great satisfaction to bring teams from zones of conflict and poverty, and it is a definite objective for the future to continue with such initiatives.”

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Olaizola believes that one of the real proofs of the value of these social projects can be seen in the manner in which the players and teams at the Donosti Cup receive invited teams.  They welcome and cheer them on at the opening ceremony, support them at games, donate sporting equipment, and also purchase arts and crafts that these teams produce. There are countless other little gestures observed during the tournament, examples of extending warmth and friendship to these invited teams. During one game, “a US team played a weaker Palestinian team, and they offered to mix players so that the game was more even. All of these actions happen spontaneously and they are the biggest learnings of the tournament.” The tournament’s work has not gone unnoticed.   It was recognized by UNICEF in 2008 by the awarding of the Sport in Support of Children Prize.

generation adidas international has been working with the Donosti Cup for 15 years, bringing teams from all around the world to the tournament.   generation adidas international Cofounder German Arguelles fondly recalls his first visit to the tournament in 1992, and the relationship has continued to evolve ever since. Arguelles and GAI were delighted last year to become the preferred travel partner of the Donosti Cup. When asked about the relationship Olaizola offered to GAI, Arguelles notes that  “we are in tune with each other and share the same values. This relationship grows closer year by year, and… for over 15 years generation adidas international has been bringing groups to the tournament, because these teams leave the tournament happy with what they have experienced.”

Donosti Cup video by generation adidas international



Youth Soccer Development

For the 2017 edition gai will be bringing teams from Georgia, South Carolina and New Jersey in the U.S., and also from Singapore and from Japan. Throughout its history the Donosti Cup has hosted teams from 60 countries and 5 continents. Olaizola and his team have effectively had a view of global youth soccer development over the 25 years of the tournament. Tracing the history of the tournament, he colegio-mayor-olarain-donostia-02remembers that “in the early years there were mainly teams from
Spain and France”, but then South American teams put their stamp
on the Cup with “the beauty of their football and their results.
It was a joy
watching teams from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.”
As the tournament became more diverse, “football from Africa played a leading role for the beauty of their long strides and the speed from countries like Nigeria and Senegal.”

Teams that travel with GAI often
stay at the Olarain Dormitory.

With respect to youth soccer development in the United States, Olaizola has noted that the different styles are blending, [and in] the US both the boys the girls teams are evolving…really positively.” Similarly, teams from Asia “have really emerged in recent years from countries like China and Japan, who have surprised for the cavalier and attractive manner in which they approach the game.” Teams from the Middle East have also stood out, with new generations influenced by the European tradition and love of football. The 2017 edition of the Donosti Cup promises to be a spectacular mix of all these global soccer styles, as the gap between European powerhouses and emerging countries continues to diminish.

As the Donosti Cup grows in prestige, so too does the list of Donosti Cup ‘alumni’ playing professionally around the World. Olaizola is keen to emphasises that this is not the objective of the tournament, however he enthuses it is a “positive effect” when discussing those in the professional ranks who have been part of the Cup. The list includes players like Jordi Alba, Xabi Alonso, Manu Trigueros, Nacho Fernandez and Mikel Arteta, who have played for some of the world’s greatest clubs. As a proud San Sebastian local, he reflects fondly on watching “Xabi Alonso in the first edition, who was amazing for the maturity with which he played at 12 years old, the way he distributed the ball. The same with Mikel Arteta, who is now the Assistant Coach to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Watching them both you just knew they would make it to the highest level.”


The San Sebastian Magic

Despite now being a global youth soccer event, the Donosti Cup still proudly retains its authentic local pride, a factor that adds to its appeal. Speaking about the ‘magic of the Donosti Cup’, Olaizola enthusiastically accredits his hometown for its charming beaches, compact historical center, creative gastronomy and local hospitality, elements which define the Donosti Cup experience.It seems that in the early morning when you go for a stroll on the beach you are the only person around.  When the city does wake up, it has this sense of magic.” And it seems that the feeling is mutual, as the city of San Sebastian has recognized the Cup’s contribution with the 2009 Tambor de Honor de San Sebastian, recognizing community leaders. The tournament was also celebrated with prizes for Commerce and Tourism in 2016, indicating the importance of the Cup to both the economy and heart of the City of San Sebastian and its people.


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The 2017 Edition

Olaizola is delighted to announce that this year there will be even more teams than last year’s record-breaking 25th edition, as teams from countries like the Philippines and Singapore join the tournament. Olaizola and his team are very conscious about continually improving the teams’ experience of the tournament, and also the role of technology in optimizing engagement. This year there will be a Donosti Cup mobile application again, but it has advanced so that you can follow the competition in real time to see the team line ups, the results, etc.” Despite the importance of San Sebastian, there is now a need to expand due to tournament growth. In 2017, “there will be some new playing fields used in the tournament in the South of France, a complex with 4 or 5 fields to unite the region between Biarritz and San Sebastian.”

The opening ceremony is often one of the great memories that players take away from the Donosti Cup. The event includes an official parade and introduction of each particpating team, and also performances by local dancers with music and fireworks.

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“The extent that they went to in creating an amazing event for the opening ceremonies was unbelievable. The fields have been beautiful, and seeing the culture of soccer in another country it’s the same game but it’s a different culture surrounding it and have just enjoyed it so much.” – Beth Park Parent


So as the days go by and the July 3 start to the tournament draws closer and closer, the excitement builds to see what is in store in the 2017 edition of the Donosti Cup!

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