Thursday, May 26

A final like no other: Real, Athletic and the biggest Basque derby in history | Copa del Rey

TThey have waited a long time for this to happen, but not for it to be so. The final of the Copa del Rey on Saturday night between Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, the Basque derby played almost 1,000 kilometers south of Seville, should have been played 12 months ago. Instead, it was postponed by the pandemic and a decision that defines these two historical representatives of a unique place, a country: together, they refused to play without their people. But it is not that, or not only that.

It is not only that this party, the The match will take place one season late and, with fans not yet allowed, in an empty stadium. The 60-year-old barge in which Athletic Bilbao last celebrated in 1984 has been fixed just in case; that Luis Arconada, the most recent Real captain to lift a trophy, did so three years later; and that is the first time that they are measured in a cup final. It is not just one year that they have waited for this, there are more than a hundred.

“At a purely football level, this is the most important derby in history, the most significant moment in the history of Basque football,” says Real Sociedad sports director Roberto Olabe. It is not something I say lightly. The problem is that, as he eloquently explains, it is never just about football. And now the greatest night of their lives, even though they did everything possible to preserve it, part of who they are will be lost.

There is something in the Basque Country, in its football. Officially, the region represents 1.4% of the Spanish territory, 4.6% of its population and 20% of its first division soccer teams. It also represents 100% of this year’s Copa del Rey finalists. Well, no is year, exactly.

These clubs have had moments of success and symbolism. In December 1976, captains Inaxio Kortabarría and José Ángel Iribar carried the still illegal Basque flag before the derby. In 1981 and 1982, Real Sociedad won the League and in 1983 and 1984 it was recovered by Athletic, those successes celebrated like everyone else. He has won 35 leagues and cups, and has played more derbies than any local rival except Madrid. In recent years they have been in the Champions League, they reached the finals, they won the Super Cup, but it has been 34 years since neither of them won a great trophy.

Captains Inaxio Kortabarría of the Real Sociedad and José Ángel Iribar carry the still illegal Basque flag before the derby of December 1976
Captains Inaxio Kortabarría of the Real Sociedad (left) and José Ángel Iribar carry the still illegal Basque flag before the December 1976 derby. Photography: Courtesy of Real Sociedad

This is unique, a game that can seem to belong to another time, to another world. Perhaps even an act of resistance, revealed in that decision to delay indefinitely. “It’s a feat,” says Olabe. “Why? Because we are in 2021, a totally different social and sporting context from the 80s, and suddenly we find two clubs with a deep faith in what they have always been.” His Athletic counterpart, Rafael Alkorta, states: “Loyalty is central to our philosophy, a team forged from our environment. We share many things with our neighbors.”

If Olabe thinks there may never have been a derby like this, there may never have been a final like this either. “It is beautiful for Euskadi [the Basque country]”, Says Athletic coach Marcelino García Toral. He holds the trophy, won with Valencia in 2019, and will lead Athletic to the 2020 final on Saturday and the 2021 final against Barcelona on April 17. “We are used to seeing Barcelona, ​​Atlético or [Real] Madrid there. This time, neither is. That says something about success in the Basque Country ”.

The Basques are said to be the oldest peoples in Europe and there is some society, culture and football there, something that is felt along the route to San Mamés and Anoeta, which is seen in countless photos on the walls of the bars in the cities, palpable throughout the Basque Country. Include Osasuna and Navarra, as many do: Navarra is one of the seven historic Basque provinces, while Osasuna is even a Basque name, and the stats listed above increase to 3.6%, 6.2% and a quarter of everything high-flying equipment.

“That is the tip of the iceberg, the consequence of something deeper; we could have a whole conversation about sociology, ”says Olabe, laughing an hour later when he realizes that, in reality, that is exactly what has happened. “It begins in our socio-political context, our values. It is complex, intangible, but real: linked to the influence of matriarchy, society, family, the group. It is socio-affective, collaborative ”.

“Take the gastronomic societies: everyone brings an ingredient, cooks together, orders together. In bars, you honestly write down what you’ve eaten. In San Sebastián you see many crazy people running, behavior patterns rooted in effort, commitment. We are the beneficiaries of a sociological system that shapes us, generates patience and perseverance. There are many things: the concept of gang, for instance. And the gang it lasts. “

The gang it is an inseparable group of companions, lifelong friends. It is also the word used by Athletic striker Iñaki Williams. “You’re fighting friends you’ve grown up with,” he says.

Athletic is famous for having an unwritten historical policy of only fielding Basque players. Williams remembers a coach who expressed a phrase that expresses how special the game is for Athletic: “You can; Leo Messi can’t. “Alkorta calls this policy” unique anywhere in the world, “and it is. And the closest thing to someone is his closest team.

John Aldridge playing for the Royal Society
John Aldridge became the first non-Basque player in Real Sociedad history when he signed in 1989. Photograph: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Real Sociedad ended a similar policy when it signed John Aldridge in 1989, partly because of the difficulty of competing with Athletic in such a small group, but now it has as many homegrown players as its rivals, reestablishing the primacy of youth development. And Zubieta and Lezama, two training camps built more than half a century ago, are not just camps or academies; they are almost concepts, repositories of an identity. Although the styles of soccer are different, some ideals are shared.

If Messi cannot join Athletic, Martín Ødegaard, Nacho Monreal and David Silva can join Real, but they are few, carefully chosen and who arrive in an environment where identity is clear: Ødegaard soon became “Martinxo”. “We want to connect with that genesis,” says Olabe. “We had a hard time, which helps you learn. Since then, we have tried to be true to our origins. Who am I to say you can’t be a part of the real? I want you to have that feeling, share it: ‘made in Zubieta’ does not need a barrier. But we are targeting 80% of our region, 60% -40% in the first team ”.

They have wondered what would have happened if they had kept Xabi Alonso and Antoine Griezmann aware of their economic disadvantages and the reality of a fierce market, but eager to build stability and make the real somewhere the players stay. That includes outsiders; it also means competing. “The core of the dressing room is the base, but the signings provide something that perhaps we lack,” says defender Ander Guevara. “They see what kind of people we are, they adapt quickly. And the manager [Imanol Alguacil] he is someone for whom Real Sociedad is everything ”.

Olabe explains: “We needed our young players to benefit from the confidence of experienced players and we are trying to make the model more aggressive: we wanted to be passers but also explorers of space, which is where Martin came in, then David. It is demanding: a little ‘vinegar’, not just a beautiful player. The gang he needs someone to say: ‘We are here to compete, to win.’

There may not be a local derby that local. Of the 25 Athletic players who will play in the league this season, 21 are Basque (plus four from Navarre) and 17 played for the club before the first level. Of the 28 from La Real, 17 are Basque (19, including Navarra) and 18 graduates. The last time they met, including Navarra, 19 of the 22 starters were Basques. So were the coaches, both former players. Of 53 footballers, 41 began their senior career at Athletic or Real.

That can limit but also contribute, creating what Olabe calls “a consciously or unconsciously shared collective idea.” Monreal and Mikel Merino cite the meaning of a common identity, while Marcelino insists: “That makes the job of a coach easier. They are a gang. Sometimes a coach has to build cohesion but it is already here, a deep sense of belonging. The policy has proven plausible and it’s great to be principled. “

The fans of Real Sociedad and Athletic de Bilbao mingle during the matches
The supporters of Real Sociedad and Athletic de Bilbao mix regularly during matches. Photograph: Soccrates Images / Getty Images

All of which reinforces and nurtures the ties that bind them. There is something special about the Basque derby: mixed support, a unique sense of community, occasion and liturgy. And with lock the real and Athletic did something difficult to imagine other clubs doing. Even if it meant losing Europe – and in the case of Athletic it did – even if it meant risking those who had led them to the final without being able to play it (in the case of Mikel San José, Aritz Aduriz, Iñigo Córdoba, Ødegaard and Willian José, even the Athletic coach, Gaizka Garitano, yes), would wait for their fans. As long as it takes, as long as they can.

Until this Saturday, it turned out. The federation refused to host the 2020 final after the 2021 final, so their final, one they waited 112 years for, will be missing some of what makes them different. “It would have been a great party,” says Alkorta. “It will be difficult, strange.”

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“The rivalry is fierce but we watch games together. People come first: before winning, before anything else ”, says Olabe. “We would be hypocrites if we talked about our social dimension, identity, and then we didn’t show that. We could have played back then, but it wouldn’t have been right; not playing was logical, consistent. The two presidents were clear. What is commitment? Is that. A year later, we were not expecting this. Now we have no other choice. If we did, we would wait as many years as necessary together. We make that decision and the consequence ends up being this [anyway], what hurts.

“This could be the most important moment in our football history and we must not overlook that recognition, the recognition that both clubs deserve. Fans who aren’t there take something away. We hope to be with them, now we have to by them, find a way to make them part of it. We want to win for many reasons but basically for them. It was a hard blow, but we are the lucky ones; nothing is comparable to people who have been sick, who have suffered. So now more than ever we have to represent them ”.

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