Spring is starting to bloom, the sun is coming out and that can only mean one thing – we’re coming to the business end of the season. Title races at one end, relegation scraps at the other and, most importantly, trophies to win. The stage is set, the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville awaits. We’re fast approaching the Copa Del Rey final.
Now, you might be thinking “I could have sworn that final was played only two weeks ago?”. Well, you’re right, it’s not the pandemic timeframe playing tricks on you. The delayed 2020 final went ahead earlier this month with an all-Basque affair. Real Sociedad came out historic winners against their brotherly rivals Athletic Bilbao. But all is not lost for Los Leones. They get another bite of the cherry as they take on Barcelona on Saturday night in this years’ final.
History has a habit of repeating itself. Bilbao have not won the Copa Del Rey since 1984 when they beat, you guessed it, Barcelona in the final. It wasn’t just any final either. This was a game of intense cultural significance in Spain. These were two teams forging a new identity amid the backdrop of Basque separatism and increasing calls for Catalan independence.
The night of the match, held in Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu, is remembered today as something biblical and barbaric, the likes of which we’ll never see again. The match itself was by all accounts a fiery but cagey affair, with Bilbao’s Endika scoring what would turn out be the winning goal in the 13th minute. The final whistle signaled Bilbao’s victory. By this stage, Barcelona’s star man Diego Maradona was close to boiling point, having been hacked at all game. It took a few mocking gestures and barbs from Bilbao’s defender Miguel Sola at the end of the game to send the diminutive Argentine over the edge. Sola found himself knocked to the ground via the head of Maradona and, from that point on, all-out warfare ensued.
A massive brawl broke out, with some players being knocked out cold. Fans threw everything they had in their pockets at players, officials, and photographers. Riot police guided pitch-dwellers into the tunnel to safety, shields battered by projectiles from the stands. In the melee, Maradona was scissor-kicked in the chest by the infamous “Butcher of Bilbao” Andoni Goikoetxea. This was the man who a year before, came close to ending Diego’s career by breaking his ankle. Known as “Goiko”, he was a stone-faced wrecking ball of a player. Think Roy Keane if he had grown up in Biscay rather than Mayfield. In fact, a little more terrifying than that.
Despite the madness at the end of the match, there was still no changing the result. Bilbao were champions and the glory of that night still echoes with the fans today. It was a disappointing end to Maradona’s time at Barcelona. Having been slapped with a three month ban for his behaviour, he eventually left for Napoli and continued to flourish into one of the greatest players to ever grace the game. Bilbao’s manager said after the match:
We’ve shown two things. First that we are better than they are and secondly that Barcelona still don’t know how to lose.
Since that fateful night, the fortunes of both clubs have diverged greatly.
Bilbao, while remaining one of the largest clubs in Spain, have found trophies to be few and far between. In 37 years, just two Super Cups have been added to the collection at San Memés. But now they have the opportunity to bring glory to a new generation of players and fans alike. There seems to be something special about this Bilbao side, a team you always find yourself rooting for.
Perhaps it’s their rich heritage as a club or their principle, albeit loosened in recent years, of fielding only Basque players.
Maybe it’s the players themselves. Among them, Iñaki Williams, named after the priest who gave his parents refuge after they left their home country of Ghana looking for a better life. At just 26 he has already expressed his desire to retire at Athletic Club. His aspirations are rare these days but show the dedication some players have to this club. Whatever it is that is so endearing about the Basque side, this final means a hell of a lot.
They came so close this month already. The 2020 final was a majorly historical derby and both sides felt the pressure of bringing the trophy home. The game itself was tense and admittedly boring for the most part. The winning goal came from Sociedad’s captain Mikel Oyarzabal tucking away a penalty in the 63rd minute. Other than that, there were a combined three shots on target.
Saturday’s final promises a much different, but no less significant, encounter. Bilbao enter the match as underdogs. The experience of already being in a final this season may lend them a hand, however, now they are the sole Basque representative; A responsibility that will weigh heavy on their shoulders. While there is an intense rivalry between the two Basque clubs, there is also a sense of pride in seeing the other succeed. Bringing back two Copa Del Rey’s to Euskadi in one year would be a historic honour that both clubs can celebrate and there is no doubt that Sociedad fans will lend their support.
At Barcelona, there has been decades of success. But recently, crisis both on and off the pitch has put the club’s future in doubt. Debt and scandal have been rife, and the club have found themselves scrambling for stability. Last summer it seemed that even Lionel Messi had wanted to jump from the sinking ship.
Despite this, Ronald Koeman has come in and somewhat steadied the vessel. Now it’s his job to steer it in the right direction. His team have not been pulling up trees, but confidence is increasing around the club that seemed devoid of it last season. Koeman has put faith in the likes of youngsters Pedri, Óscar Mingueza, and Ronald Araujo, showing the depth of talent Blaugrana have in their ranks. Given the financial mess the club is in, they will be hoping to prove that superstars are made and not bought.
A lot rests on this final as the club attempts to match Lionel Messi’s ambitions. The clock is ticking on a glorious career and winning the Copa Del Rey will ensure he goes out in glory rather than disappointment. Something his compatriot and idol Maradona could not achieve all those years ago.
Unlike 1984, the stands will be empty and silent, the players more subdued on the pitch. But even so, there will be fire in the belly of both teams with so much to lose, but even more to gain. For Athletic Club, a rare second chance to regain glory to the streets of Bilbao. For Barcelona, a marker for the start of a new era.
Once again, the Copa Del Rey trophy symbolises a statement for either club and there’s as much on the line today as there was on that fateful and fiery night 37 years ago in Madrid.