Heart of Football

The first-ever all-Basque Copa del Rey Final

Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao: Despite the enforced delay, an historic cup final with a rivalry running deep to the heart.

Prior to the 2019/20 season, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that Spain’s domestic cup competition lacked the prestige, diversity of winners and ability to produce memorable shocks of its English counterpart, the FA Cup. Since the competition’s inception in 1872, the FA Cup has seen 36 different winners. The Copa del Rey, on the other hand, founded in 1903, has only seen 14 different winners throughout its history.

Change was needed and three major reforms for the competition were initiated by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) for the 2019/20 competition and beyond. All ties until the semi-final are now just one leg instead of two; when two teams in different divisions are drawn against each other, the lower ranked side gets home advantage; and finally, many more sides in Spain’s semi-professional fourth tier remain in the competition come the round when the La Liga teams enter the competition.

The reforms have worked a treat. The 2019/20 edition instantly proved one of the Copa’s best editions. With the safety net of a second leg now removed, a bad display now sees the big boys eliminated immediately. In the second round of last season’s competition, third tier Badalona defeated La Liga outfit Getafe 3-1. The next round saw an even greater shock as fellow third tier outfit Cultural Leonesa eliminated Atletico de Madrid 2-1 after extra time. 

Neither FC Barcelona, either cup winners or runners-up in eight of the last nine editions or their great rivals Real Madrid made the last four. It was a season which saw the Copa revitalised. Perhaps fittingly, the final was confirmed as a Basque derby during the first week of March 2020, Real Sociedad versus Athletic Club de Bilbao – the first time the two great rivals will meet in the final. 

However, just weeks after this historic final between La Real and Athletic Club was confirmed, the whole world was plunged into a shutdown never before seen due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the remaining matches of the 2019/20 La Liga that had yet to be played when the shutdown occurred were eventually concluded throughout June and July, the Copa del Rey final was not. 

Reports suggested that the Spanish football federation did ask both Real Sociedad and Athletic Club if they wanted to play the game, however, both clubs unanimously agreed to delay playing the final until 2020/21. The remainder of the 2019/20 La Liga campaign, like most European football leagues, was finished off behind closed doors. Both Basque rivals opted to delay playing the final due to a desire to see such an historic match played in front of spectators. Sadly, the re-arranged historic 2019/20 Copa del Rey final will take place today behind closed doors, with Spain still unable to see spectators return to football matches.

Despite the fierce rivalry that exists between La Real and Athletic Club, it is worth applauding both clubs’ decision to delay last season’s final to this season under an ultimately unsuccessful desire to see the contest played in front of fans. Whilst Real Sociedad did eventually finish 6th in La Liga and thus qualify for the 2020/21 UEFA Europa League, Athletic Club only finished 11th – their only chance of playing in the 2020/21 Europa League would have been to win last season’s Copa del Rey.

By delaying the final until this April, Athletic Club very graciously sacrificed the chance to qualify for European competition – a very commendable gesture made even more respectable given that for the winners of this delayed 2019/20 Copa del Rey final, there will be no European club competition qualification to come through emerging victorious. Only the winners of the 2020/21 Copa del Rey final (to be played in two weeks’ time on 17 April 2021) will qualify for the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League. Intriguingly, given they have made the final of this season’s competition, Athletic Club may still qualify for European competitions in 2021/22 via the Copa del Rey.

In addition to the local bragging rights, there is much more at stake as many subplots transform this delayed final further. A game that for both clubs’ players, officials and most notably spectators runs deep into the heart.

Same region, different club philosophies

The first noticeable subplot to this final is that both clubs employ very different philosophies on how they operate. Athletic Club – Los Leones (The Lions) as they are colloquially known – have, since 1912, remained faithful and loyal to a policy of only playing players classified by the club as “Basque”. 

Losing a star to Real Madrid, Barcelona, an overseas club or even retirement, means Athletic Club has to source a Basque replacement from another club or promote a young player from their reserves or academy. Given world football’s mass globalisation over the last two decades, understandably, Athletic have had to add elements of flexibility to the policy over the years. 

For a player to be “Basque-qualified” and represent Los Leones they have to be born in the Basque Country (either the Spanish or French part) or the neighbouring region of Navarra, have either one or two Basque born parents or grandparents or to have spent some of their formative years as a child playing youth football in either the Basque Country or Navarra.

Real Sociedad used to operate a Basque-only signing policy themselves. However, in time for the 1989/90 La Liga season, La Real, as they are colloquially known, decided to abandon it. The first ever non-Basque player to wear Real Sociedad’s famous blue and white shirt was former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland striker John Aldridge.

Alongside Aldridge, some famous non-Basques to grace Sociedad’s famous Anoeta stadium over the years include Chile’s Claudio Bravo, Netherlands’ Sander Westerveld, Mexico’s Carlos Vela, Sweden’s Alexander Isak, Brazil’s Willian Jose, France’s Antoine Griezmann, Serbia’s Darko Kovacevic, Russia’s Dimitri Khokhlov & Valeri Karpin and Turkey’s Korkut & Nihat Kahveci.

A Cup final that will decide who has had the better of the last three decades

Since La Real’s decision to abandon the Basque-only signing policy in 1989, Athletic Club have maintained their proud record of never having been relegated from La Liga, one of only three clubs to have this feat alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid. Real Sociedad on the other hand spent three seasons in Segunda Division between 2007 and 2010. 

When it comes to participation in the UEFA Champions League, since 1989 both clubs have had two qualifications each; Athletic in 1998/99 and 2014/15, Real Sociedad in 2003/04 and 2013/14. La Real edge out their Basque rivals here though having reached the last 16 of the competition in 2003/04 before succumbing to French outfit Olympique Lyonnais, whereas Los Leones’ two appearances yielded two group stage exits.

Since 1989 both have failed to win the Copa del Rey. However, despite this, Athletic have performed better. In the 31 seasons since 1989/90 (including this season), Los Leones have reached five finals, the previous ones all being lost to FC Barcelona in 2008/09, 2011/12 and 2014/15. Prior to reaching last year’s final, the best finish La Real could muster was a semi-final loss in 2013/14 to Barcelona. 

When it comes to best league finishes over the last 30 years, both have one runners-up finish in La Liga each; Athletic in 1997/98 and Real Sociedad in 2002/03. However, in 1997/98, Los Leones were never close to winning the title and never topped La Liga. On the other hand, Real Sociedad’s 2002/03 campaign was far superior. Having topped the standings for 21 matchdays, they suffered an infamous 3-2 loss on the penultimate matchday away against Celta Vigo. Real Madrid then retook the lead of La Liga and eventually won the title by two points. 

Based on the above criteria, it is 2-2 between the rivals over the last three decades going into their historic first ever cup final meeting. Therefore, this could be judged to be the deciding factor as to who has had the better time of things over this period – an extra way to add suspense and excitement to an already anticipated fixture.

Iñigo Martínez: The pantomime villain takes centre-stage

Fans cannot ignore pantomime villains when watching their team play a rival and a former player returns to a stadium once graced. Inevitably, it often ends in said player scoring or getting red-carded. However, more prevalent in the modern-day is a new type of villain who receive a hostile reception on their return to their previous club, commonly known as “snakes”.

Often, in the eyes of fans, these characters have betrayed them by transferring to another club, and are often accused of dishonesty having previously appearing to display loyalty. They rarely win back the hearts of their previous admirers who try to erase them from memory so angered are they by their actions.

An already historic cup final has been spiced up even further by the presence of a player dubbed either a pantomime villain or a snake depending on your allegiances. That man is Iñigo Martínez. The 28 year-old Spain international began his career at Real Sociedad and broke into their first team as a regular in the 2011/12 campaign, going on to make 205 La Liga appearances for La Real. 

Then in the winter transfer window of the 2017/18 campaign, Manchester City, searching for a central defender paid GBP 58.5 million to Athletic Club for Aymeric Laporte’s services. With Los Leones in need of a Basque-qualified central defender to replace Laporte, attention turned to their Basque rivals and Martínez. With the Laporte funds, Athletic paid his 32 million release clause and the player transferred to La Real’s fierce rivals.

Player transfers between both clubs occurred long before Martínez of course. Igor Gabilondo and Joseba Exteberría both started their professional careers at Real Sociedad before then signing for Athletic Club. However, Martínez is viewed by La Real’s fans as a snake because of an interview the defender gave in 2014 when asked whether he would ever sign for Athletic. The defender replied “Nunca me iría al otro bando” roughly translating into “I would never go to the other side”. 

To make matters worse, in 2016, Martínez also participated in video campaigns to promote loyalty in football. The defender was famously pictured wearing a Real Sociedad t-shirt featuring the words “Yo no tengo segundo equipo” (I don’t have a second team).

Martínez’s actions are not as memorable as those undertaken by Luís Figo who celebrated Barcelona’s 1997/98 La Liga title triumph by bellowing out on the balcony of the Catalan parliament “Blancos llorones, felicita a los campeones” (Whites cry, celebrate the champions). Figo infamously signed for the very Blancos of Real Madrid just two summers later, losing his status as an icon amongst Barca supporters forever as a result.

One suspects Martínez will find it difficult to ever receive forgiveness from the Anoeta faithful. On past returns to his former stomping ground, the defender has been the recipient of continuous jeers. There will be none this time however, due to the match taking place behind closed doors. Will this aid and assist the defender and help him play a pivotal role in a possible 24th Copa del Rey triumph for Athletic Club?

Who will a Copa triumph mean more to?

In an era of mass domination of Spanish football by Barcelona and Real Madrid, it seems barely believable that other sides were able to dominate La Liga. La Real won their only two La Liga titles in 1980/81 and 1981/82 with Athletic Club’s last two of eight triumphs coming in the following two seasons. 

The rise of the super-clubs both domestically and overseas has seen the battle for trophies become more and more a privilege enjoyed solely by the elite. When lesser sides get a chance to win silverware, it has to be taken. This historic final between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao will clearly mean a lot to both. The question is though, for whom will a triumph mean more?

There are arguments on either side. Real Sociedad have only ever won the Copa del Rey twice, in 1909 and 1986/87. Many of La Real’s fans will likely still be smarting over that missed opportunity in 2002/03 to win La Liga when based on the whole season, it could be argued they deserved the title. A cup final victory over their fierce rivals would be the perfect antidote.

Athletic Club have won the Copa 23 times compared to Real Sociedad’s two, so on first glance, one could easily dismiss the cup meaning more to Los Leones. However, until Barcelona’s recent domination of the competition throughout the 2010’s which finally took them past Athletic Club in terms of overall Copa victories, Los Leones were the most successful club in the competition.

To have this under a Basque-only signing policy in a globalised football world is something Athletic Club and their fans rightly hold to their hearts. Athletic are still ranked second for Copa wins, four ahead of Real Madrid in the overall list with 19 triumphs. Inevitably, Los Blancos may eventually push Los Leones down the overall rankings at some point. However, an Athletic Club Copa triumph in 2019/20 coupled with the possibility of back-to-back triumphs in the 2020/21 final that they have also reached could delay this future scenario for several more years. 

A double-edged sword

The 2019/20 final of the Copa del Rey between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao is more than just a derby clash for the supporters of both famous clubs with La Real deploying a global transfer policy against Los Leones’ exclusively Basque-born stars.

Given recent performances in La Liga, the Copa and European competitions having been relatively equal between both, a Cup final between the two seems fair to decide who has had the better last three decades. Finally, no drama is complete without a pantomime villain, so step forward the controversial Iñigo Martínez.

However, what makes this fixture so unique and will make it run deep to the heart of the spectators of the two clubs most, despite the match being played behind closed doors, is that although the bitter rivals were both founding La Liga members in 1929, nowadays they are not amongst their country’s elite clubs and are meeting in the final for the first-ever time. Eternal bragging rights alongside the Copa’s destination are at stake.

For the winners, the opportunity to never make your rivals forget you denied them an ever-increasingly difficult to win trophy. For the losers, a continuous feeling of what might have been and the annoying aftermath of having to drown out never-ending taunts. A fixture which passionate supporters love and dread in equal measure. Pre-match nerves and anticipation rolled into one, living through every emotion possible during and after the match.

Real Sociedad versus Athletic Bilbao may not gather as big a worldwide audience as a Clásico final. However, rest assured all of Spain will be watching with anticipation. It is a fitting final for a memorable Copa del Rey campaign and one that encompasses football’s heart and soul.   

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