One by one, Valencia’s players filtered through the mixed zone on Tuesday, each one looking as dejected as the next. Outside, beery-eyed Espanyol fans filled bars surrounding the club’s Cornellà El-Prat stadium on the outskirts of Barcelona, their faces wearing ear-to-ear smiles. Their team had just knocked Los Che out of the Copa del Rey, result that had them dreaming of reaching the final.
Back in Valencia, a storm had begun. The newspaper Super Deporte said the club’s supporters felt “defrauded” by professionals they expect much more from. “I understand the anger, disappointment and feeling of failure that our dressing room is sharing,” Valencia head coach Nuno Espirito Santo admitted. “We are saddened and frustrated, as are our fans, and today is a day of pain because we all dreamed of fighting for this trophy.”
Normally the reaction might not have been so severe, but this year is different. This year, everyone is daring to dream in the same manner as those Espanyol fans, hopes fueled by a draw that’s squeezed La Liga’s previous three champions, the last three winners of the Copa del Rey, into the same quarter of the draw.
Real Madrid won the competition last season when Gareth Bale cruised around Barcelona’s Marc Bartra using the outside lane and poked the ball under Jose Pinto, but there will be no repeat of that this year. Atlético Madrid and Fernando Torres made sure of that on Thursday, and while Atleti may have designs on reclaiming Copa, there’s no guarantee it will be Diego Simeone’s men who take Madrid’s place on the podium.
In the quarterfinals, they meet Barcelona, who eliminated Elche on Thursday. When the final whistle blows on Barça and Atlético’s second leg at the Nou Camp on Jan. 28, only one of La Liga’s three title contenders be left standing. At least one of the Copa’s Cinderellas will be invited to May 30’s ball.
An hour after Nuno’s side lost its chance, the fight for that invitation continued, with Levante almost battling back from four goals down against Malaga to stay in the competition. Twenty-four hours later, Celta Vigo came close to toppling Athletic Club, despite losing the first leg 4-2.
In San Sebastian, Real Sociedad was pursuing David Moyes’s own cup fantasy. “I’d love to win it,” he said when he was appointed top dog at Anoeta. As those aspirations began to vanish against Villarreal, his anger with the standard of Spanish refereeing saw him sent to the stands. At least he was fed chips there. His Copa del Rey fetish won’t be fed this year.
Because of the lopsided draw, interest is heightened in a competition which has had plenty of stones thrown at in recent years. A seeded third round draw — which is when the top flight teams enter — gives the minnows no chance of progression, although the complaints largely ignore the fact the seven lowest ranked teams remaining at that stage are assured of a home and away tie against a team representing Spain in Europe.
Speaking after being beaten by Real Madrid, the players of third-tier UE Cornellà, who are barmen, students and bike maintenance workers by day, didn’t seem to feel too hard done by at having to take on Carlo Ancelotti’s millionaires. Paired with Barça in the third round, Huesca’s players (also competing in the third tier) spent over 20 minutes on the Camp Nou pitch posing for photos. They didn’t find time to moan about the draw.
Others, though, say the structure all too often ensures an easy route to the final for the likes of Madrid and Barcelona. People crave magic, but there has been very little David Blaine-like wizardry going on in the King’s Cup recently. Sevilla won it in 2010, but the next four editions have all been shared by the big three, with only Athletic Club even daring to breach a final.
Spain’s oldest competition has seen 14 different winners, and Athletic have won it more times that Madrid. It’s not as exclusive as La Liga. The nature of the knockout rounds, like the NFL playoffs, mean teams have much more of a chance of usurping the likes of Barça, although the two-legged format does favor the bigger clubs (a common theme in Spain). Not since Alcorcon knocked out Manuel Pellegrini’s Madrid in 2009, in an event which has become known as the Alcorconazo, has there been a genuine ground-shaking shock.
Perhaps in the quest for more drama, a change to one-off matches would satisfy the consumer’s needs. At the very least, it would ease a crowded January schedule. An open draw from the third round onward may also produce the Disney fairytales which have had limited screen time this decade. Mirandes’s run to semifinal in 2012 provided a rare exception.
Still, over the last 20 years there have been 10 different names inscribed on the trophy. Barça have won it four times, with Real Zaragoza and Espanyol among the seven clubs to have won it twice in that period. Real Betis and Mallorca have also tasted cup success this millennium.
All eight teams left in this season’s Copa play in the Primera Division, but the clustering of Atlético, Real and Barca has generated a fevered belief that the mould may be broken. Espanyol believe they can beat Sevilla; Sevilla believe they can beat Espanyol; and Malaga and Athletic will both fancy their chances in their quarterfinal. One of those four teams will be in the final.
Getafe are the only side who don’t seem excited by the draw. Less than 1,000 saw them progress against Almeria, and they’ll have to beat Villarreal and then one of Barça or Atletico to make the final. Maybe they’re better off not getting carried away.