This was the Copa del Rey everyone thought they could win. In the end, though, we’ve ended up with a final between the competition’s two most successful teams. Only Barcelona (26) has lifted the trophy more times than Athletic Club be Bilbao (23). The two sides have previously met in the final on seven occasions, and on Saturday they will face off at the final hurdle for the third time since 2009.
Perhaps the only surprise is that we’ve avoided a Clásico final, although King Felipe VI of Spain, who lends his name to the competition, would maybe have preferred that, even if he is an Atlético Madrid supporter. It will be Felipe’s first Copa del Rey final since he inherited the throne from this dad, Juan Carlos, last June, and it will be plagued with lilitical significance.
At the best of times, the competition is a mess. It’s antiquated, poorly organized, favors the Spanish league’s bullies, and let’s not talk about how they decide where to play the final (not yet, anyway). The appearance of a Catalan and Basque side in the final, once again, has not made things any less complicated this year.
Since the two teams won their semifinals, talk has turned to the Spanish national anthem. Not because people have been debating whether it’s a good thing for an anthem to have no words, but about what should be done if Barcelona and Athletic fans, who both support clubs from independence-craving autonomous regions, decide to disrespect Spain by jeering its hymn. Felipe’s not among those to have spoken about the matter, but plenty have.
“Maybe [Athletic and Barcelona] should refrain from competing then,” said conservative Madrid-based politician Esperanza Aguirre in March. “The rest of Spain should not have to put up with these offensive acts. It makes little sense for those who belittle citizens that make up Spain to be included in a competition which carries the King’s name.”
Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, said the final could be called off if booing is heard. “Why not? It’s not right for fans to whistle or boo the King or the nation. It’s not in my remit, but I will do whatever possible to stop things like that happening.” The country’s minister for sport, Miguel Cardenas, this week revealed punishments are in place for anyone who “contradicts the law.”
“It’s people expressing their angst,” said Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué, who gave a more interesting answer than most of the other personalities associated with the two clubs. “I’d also ask from the other perspective, why are they booing? They don’t do it just because they feel like it.”
Good question, Gerard (although you probably know the answer). Catalans and Basques boo the anthem because they want independence; or, at very least, they feel Spain should allow the two regions a chance to vote on their own futures. Catalonia held its own, possibly illegal, referendum in November, with over 80 percent of the two million voters (out of a possible five million) in favor of independence.
After 17 minutes and 14 seconds of the first and second half of every game at Camp Nou, Barça fans chant for independence. “In, inde, independencia.” Catalonia has its own language; it also has its own soccer team, who played a friendly match against the Basque Country in December. It finished 1-1, with 19 of the players in the two squads representing either Barça or Athletic.
The Basque Country’s quest for independence isn’t as front page news as Catalonia’s right now, but it exists. It has always been a slightly more sensitive issue because of the involvement of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’s (ETA), an armed Basque nationalist and separatist group proscribed as a terrorist organization by Spain. Basques, too, have their own tongue: Euskara.
Because of all of this, Real Madrid didn’t want to risk an anti-Spain demonstration rally taking place in the Santiago Bernabéu, so the club refused to cede its home for the final (although, El Real also still has bad memories of Barça winning the Copa there in 1997).
In typical fashion (remember, the competition is a mess), nobody could then decide where to play the final. The Spanish federation (RFEF), Barcelona and Athletic went back and forth without finding any real answers. Both clubs preferred to play in Saturday’s final Madrid, but Florentino Pérez’s resistance and an AC/DC concert at Atlético’s Vicente Calderón ruled out the capital.
In the end, the final that Spain may not have wanted and which nobody seemed prepared to host will be played: Barça and Athletic will meet at Barcelona’s home ground, Camp Nou, on Saturday night.
There will be no Spanish flags in sight. Instead, Les Corts, Montjuic and the city of Barcelona in general will be awash with the colors of the Senyera and the Ikurrina — the names of the two regions flags.
More than 50,000 Athletic fans will flock to the Catalan capital, thousands of them without tickets, set to watch the game at a Fan Zone near the city’s Olympic Stadium. “I feel sorry for the Madrid hoteliers who have lost out on 20 or 30 million euros,” former Barça president Joan Gaspart cheekily said when Pérez opted against hosting a Catalan-Basque party.
Gaspart might have been being cheeky, but he’s also right. The Catalan people largely look forward to welcoming the Athletic fans into the city, much more than they look forward to welcoming drunk British tourists making their way to the Primavera Sound music festival, which just happens to have fallen on the same weekend. Athletic fans will pump money into hotels, restaurants and bars, while the atmosphere, on the whole is normally fun and friendly when these two clubs meet.
On the pitch it may not be as good-natured as Luis Enrique’s side look to add the second trophy of a possible treble to its collection. Luis Suárez is set to return, and if his bromance with Lionel Messi and Neymar continues, Saturday could being an overwhelming victory for the overwhelming favorites.
That’s not to say a Cup-set is not possible. Athletic has already beaten Real Madrid this season in the league, and you can bank on the club’s supporters turning Camp Nou into San Mamés for the day. It has already scored the first goal, too, securing the home dressing room for the occasion.
And so the Copa everyone thought they could win will be won by one of the sides who has won it the most. Then, at approaching midnight Central European Time on Saturday evening, the King of Spain will hand over the trophy to the winners, who will keep the trophy in space that hopes to be free from his rule.