Copa del Rey: Spanish football needs an all-Basque final

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 06: Alexander Isak of Real Sociedad celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final match between Real Madrid CF and Real Sociedad at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on February 06, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 06: Alexander Isak of Real Sociedad celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final match between Real Madrid CF and Real Sociedad at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on February 06, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

As the semifinals of the Copa del Rey kick off, the possibility of a Basque derby in the final would be exciting for Spanish soccer culture.

The 116th edition of the Copa Del Rey, one of the most prestigious tournaments in Europe, has been an exhilarating, wild ride so far. The new format proposed by the Spanish Football Federation, intended to be similar to the wide-ranging, highly competitive FA Cup, has proven to be a complete success, with smaller teams being able to contest the supremacy of the country’s historical giants.

In fact, this is the first time in 14 years that the trophy will not be in the hands of the “Big Five” teams, as they have all been shockingly eliminated. Now it’s all down to the Basque teams, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club Bilbao, the newly-promoted Granada, and the second division shocker C.D. Mirandes.

The latter two are both terrific underdog stories that have stirred great interest among fans. Granada is starting to be seen (and starting to see itself) as a real contender, sitting 10th in the league table amidst a big re-build after its recent ascent to La Liga. C.D. Mirandes, on the other hand, are a modest club that just returned to the Segunda Division in 2019 and has now stunned the entire country by defeating Sevilla 3-1 and doing away with Villareal in the quarterfinals.

But the big favorites to enter the final are undoubtedly the Bilbao and San Sebastian sides, which would make for a sensational and historically significant matchup. A memorable way to wrap up a memorable campaign.

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Athletic Club and Real Sociedad are significant teams in Spanish soccer, but most importantly, they have both helped shape the culture and even the identity of the Basque football fan, and the region in general. Both sides are a heavy referent not only for what they are but for what they represent.

The modern Basque Country is a descendant of the independent Basque kingdom, and this is turn descends from the ancient region of Vasconia, a land with its own traditions, ethnicity, and language. A proud nation within the Iberian nation-state. And both clubs represent the two expressions in the Basque Country’s unique historical struggle.

In the case of Athletic Bilbao, they embody the idiosyncrasies of a people who have engaged in centuries of cultural resistance from the Castilian crown. Formed in 1898, it’s one of the oldest and most successful clubs in La Liga, and one of only three (along with giants Barcelona and Real Madrid) never to have been relegated.

Their golden rule to compete only with players born, raised, or developed locally in Euskal Herria and their commitment to preserving Basque culture and Basque autonomy has put them at odds with the monarchy and the political establishment. During the Spanish Civil War, Los Leones and their fans represented the Republican faction, and when dictator Francisco Franco came to power and re-installed the king, they were seen by the people as a symbolic army of the Euskaldunak resistance.

Real Sociedad, on the opposite hand, was formed in 1909 as a royalist, less nationalistic counterpart to the Athletic Club. Their closeness to King Alfonso XIII earned them the title of “Real” in 1910, setting a natural rivalry with the Bilbao team, not only on the field but also in the political and sociocultural realms.

There is also a class aspect; while Bilbao had a following of humble, mainly working-class people from the city and the rural areas, Real Sociedad fandom was concentrated among the more affluent people from the prosperous port of San Sebastian, one of the economic hotspots of Spain.

Both teams have enjoyed great success in La Liga, but their most important triumphs have been in the Copa del Rey.

Athletic Bilbao have won the tournament 23 times, being the competition’s second most victorious club — only behind Barcelona’s 30 — and the winners of the very first two cups. They were the most dominant team in the late 1940s, during the Telmo Zarra era, and they’ve been a serious cup contender in every decade.

Real Sociedad have won it twice; in 1909 — which culminated in them being granted the Real title — and in 1987, when they defeated their bitter regional rivals in a dramatic semifinal that is still talked about today among locals.

In on-field terms, it was during the 1980s where the rivalry reached its peak. After Real Sociedad’s back-to-back La Liga titles in ’81 and ’82, Athletic Bilbao conquered the league in ’84. Both teams were at their strongest, earning praise and prestige across Europe and introducing the world to players that would become legends. In a regular derby that decade, you could watch an epic battle between Jose Luis Arconada and Andoni Zubizarreta, the two goalkeepers of the national team, while stars like Dani, Pedro Uralde, and Manu Sarabia put heart and soul in the field.

During the 21st Century, the Basque derby is still attracting huge crowds, being the most-watched television event in the region, and shaping the cultural conversation even further.

As one side maintains its proud tradition of capping only locally-formed players and the other makes key overseas player signings, the two expressions and perspectives of the Basques —  Autonomy vs. Federalism, Nationalism vs. Globalism —  are still clearly represented on and off the pitch. All of that is at the heart of their spectacular games, whether they take place in the La Real‘s Anoeta or Athletic’s San Mames.

The Copa del Rey final may be set for a neutral location in Seville, but the possibility of a Basque derby in the showpiece would be something special, and say something about the state of the game.

Spanish soccer needs such an important, thrilling rivalry to stay alive, and the possibility of it being displayed in the biggest game of the Copa del Rey, a tournament defined by the historic relations and tensions between the Bourbon monarchy and the multi-ethnic, increasingly diverse population, would be all the more special.

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Leg one of the Copa del Rey semifinals kicks off on Feb. 12th, 3 p.m. ET as Athletic Club faces Granada C.F in Bilbao. The other semifinal begins on Feb. 13 as Real Sociedad host Mirandes. The return legs are March 4th and 5th.