Author Sid LoweSpain
The posters are still hanging on the balconies, the barge is still waiting on the quay, the flag is still flying above the city. The shop windows remain red and white, like the nativity scene in the pedestrian zone, Bilbao for Bethlehem. A line of honour has formed in Lezama, to cheer on the buses taking Athletic Bilbao’s players to another Copa del Rey final – fate is calling them again. In Seville, the same hotel, the same routine and the same shirts they wear will have the same slogan on the sleeve: bizi ametsa (live the dream).
But two weeks later, everything is different.
That’s partly because Saturday’s Copa del Rey final (3:15 p.m. ET, live on ESPN+) is the second of two games Athletic plays in two weeks. Partly because of the pandemic and the police. Partly because it’s not a Basque final, and partly because it’s Barcelona. For, briefly, he is not so great, not so likely, not the same; he is special, but not so special, not the case he was. Partly because they can’t do anything about it, pessimism has set in since the loss against Real Sociedad. Partly because they can.
If the run-up to Saturday’s historic final was low-key, it was on purpose.
Defeat in the final of the first ever Copa del Rey against their Basque rivals, which was played on the 3rd. April wounded. Real Sociedad’s reign will be the shortest in history, but it was an eternity. And Athletic, who were defeated in the final, know this better than anyone. They found this out after the match, when Iker Muniain stood silently applauding as his opponents held up the trophy. More than that, they knew it before the game and during the game.
This sport is unique, as everyone knows: a club that only plays with Basque players. Of the 25 players who have played for them this season, 18 have played in the first team. There is a certain myth surrounding them – and Real Sociedad have also built a team largely made up of homegrown talent, a club where 18 of the 28 men who have played for them have gone through the academy – but Athletica are different to most other clubs. There has probably never been a final where more players on the pitch were fans of the club they represent than the one two weeks ago, with a deep sense of what it meant, how historic it was.
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I’ve imagined it so many times, Muniain said.
Athletic players have a club affiliation that few, if any, teams in the world have. Jorge Valdano compares them to Gaul, a small but resilient nation standing up to stronger forces, a team that pays tribute to Basque football in the simplest way possible: by being themselves. The president of the club, Aitor Elizegi, describes them as the new craftsmen of the sport, surrounded by openness and industry, a model that must be strengthened by triumphs.
If their policies can keep them from gaining access to better players – although given the market power of the surrounding teams, it’s questionable how much better they are – it gives them something more, something intangible but real. The depth of a sense of belonging and commitment that really makes a difference and makes them stronger. Coach Marcelino describes them as a cuadrilla, a group of comrades who have known each other all their lives. He insisted that it was easier that way; it gave them the strength to work on the skill again.
In a speech before the first final, Inaki Williams said: For every kid born in Bilbao, it was a dream to play for Athletic, and that was no empty cliché. All 25 of us are willing to go to extremes [for this team]; we’re different in that regard. It’s like arguing with your friends, it’s family, it’s what we were taught from childhood, it’s what we were taught.
It helps. Or at least it should be. But maybe there are times when that is not the case, and maybe this was one of them. In Seville, two weeks ago, it was perhaps the opposite. This is the hardest moment of their lives, Marcelino is sad after the 1-0 defeat. This is very, very important. Maybe it was too important.
It’s certainly a conclusion that many people in Bilbao have come to, and watching the game at La Cartuja, talking to people before the game and again after, is a conclusion that is compelling. The fear, the gravity of the situation, was palpable. The realization that this will never be forgotten or repeated; a unique opportunity that could be seized, but could also be taken away. And they were frozen, they were tied up. They only shot twice, they could barely defend – and if there’s one thing Athletic always does, it’s defend.
Two weeks ago Athletic Bilbao lost the final of the Copa del Rey to Real Sociedad. Mateo Villalba/Sports Image Quality/Getty Images
I’m sad because we weren’t ready, Marcelino said afterwards. We wanted to win this game with all our strength. And I think that was our big problem: Over-responsibility. Emotionally, we didn’t have that freedom, that happiness, that ability to appreciate what we were doing, what was at stake. We were very lethargic with the ball: We were more afraid of losing it than using it.
Maybe there was too much build up, maybe the weight of the story was too heavy, maybe the stakes were overwhelming, the euphoria and excitement overwhelming. And it helps explain why things are different this time, why the economies are flatter, and why that might be a good thing. Even though it happened partly by accident, it happened and it happened because they wanted it to.
After the first final in Seville, the feeling was that the second final would also be lost, that Athletic would find it hard to overcome this blow, but it didn’t happen. Their chance was the first final, not the second; any chance they had in the second final depended on the momentum of the first final. It’s also against Barcelona, the team they beat in 2009, 2012 and 2015; a team they should beat as opposed to Real Sociedad.
Athletic can beat Barcelona, that’s for sure. They showed it in the Spanish Supercup, and they didn’t lose to a Barcelona team coached by Diego Maradona the last time they won the Copa del Rey in 1984 – just as they are now coached by Lionel Messi. But that dream seemed to fall apart when they left Seville two weeks ago.
Since then, one gets the impression that they are trying to restore their self-esteem, their enthusiasm, their optimism, their sense of destiny – but not too much. To see a chance of redemption, to believe in it again; and yet not to believe in it too much, to feel only victory, is a bitter failure that will mark them forever, a scar. Not to make it bigger than it needs to be. To calm things down, to normalize.
Not everything was intentional, some things just happened naturally: Caution is a natural reaction, an elementary reality. Bitten once, fended off twice. Many just didn’t want to talk, little enthusiasm for the kind of gathering that characterises a cup final so soon after the last one, and one that was lost. We have to pick ourselves up and move on, Marcelino said, but it’s not easy.
The fact that it was the youth teams cheering them on at Lesama, rather than thousands of fans armed with torches waiting outside, was a response to criticism that this was the first time this had happened in the face of a pandemic – Bilbao’s COVID levels are the worst on the Spanish mainland – and the fact that local police wanted to prevent a repeat of the event.
However, this is partly an intentional policy. No more falling, no more freezing. To take the pressure off them, make them easier to digest and make it easier for them to win. Supporting them and letting them be themselves again has always been Athletic’s greatest success. Dani Garcia admitted that he was wearing a cap and sunglasses, hoping not to be noticed when he came out, worried about the reaction of the fans, but discovered that the opposite was true: They were trying to cheer him up, cheer him up. The association is now taking a similar position.
And maybe becoming Gauls again and facing the Roman Empire would help. We have to make it difficult for them, Elizabeth said. Barcelona is like the chosen world, with all the good and bad things that go with it. You will be facing a stronger and more original team. They have the talent, we have the dedication and the community.
The athletic players flew south on Friday. On Saturday, unlike last time, one member of each family may go. It’s a conscious decision, an attempt to contain her, to comfort her. Our diagnosis is too much responsibility, we are now trying to create an atmosphere where the players feel supported, the chairman said. We think this could be important. We think this can help them deal with their emotions before and after. We learned something from Saturday against Real Madrid: Let these players enjoy what they have to do and create a game that will be remembered for its intensity, motivation and football. We are a strong team, a good opponent in every game.
The flags are still hanging on the balconies and speedboat number one is still waiting for them, ready to set sail for the festivities on the Nervion for the first time since 1984. They were still there last time, but they weren’t the center of attention to the same extent anymore. This time people are dealing with it, pretending it’s not there. This finale is always grand, always historic, it will always mean everything to them. But this time it should not be an obligation, it should be an opportunity, a second chance.
Trains don’t come along often, Raul Garcia said ahead of the 2020 Copa del Rey final. But even though it’s not quite now, it’s quiet for a while, maybe in a few weeks they’ll hear another one rolling around the corner.
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