Hope lives for minnows in Spain's fallible Copa

Posted by Sid Lowe

Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty ImagesFootballer/banker Pablo Infante and Mirandes' magical run to the 2011-12 Copa del Rey semifinals is one of the rare examples of a minnow defying the odds in Spain's cup competition.

It is the morning of the game and there's grocery shopping to be done.

"They probably have someone who does that for them," jokes the striker of the home team. He, on the other hand, has to get to the supermarket and back to the ground in time for the biggest match of the season, the biggest his club has played in years. Today marks the final 32 of the Copa del Rey, the round when the First Division clubs enter the competition and a day for Spain's smaller clubs; this is their moment in the sun.

That, at least, is the theory.

Down on the east coast, they're preparing for the visit of Real Madrid. When the draw brought Olimpic de Xativa and Madrid together, the president shouted out: "We've won the lottery!" Last weekend, Sant Andreu lost to Atletico Baleares; on Saturday they face Atletico Madrid. Cartagena are up against FC Barcelona, where their captain's idol plays. And Algeciras play Real Sociedad. All three normally play in the country's regionalised, four-group Second Division B in front of crowds typically not much more than two or three thousand. This weekend, they will face Spain's Champions League teams.

It is a different world. Xativa's coach is a PE teacher at the school next door and Cartagena's captain is an architect, while their president once admitted to signing up players on the advice of a mystic. Players are professionals. "You can't really live off football at Second Division B level, though," admits the former footballer Patxi Salinas, who once appeared on the Spanish version of "Survivors" and is now the coach at Sant Andreu.

At Xativa, temporary stands have been added to bring the capacity up to 6,000 and ticket sales are going well. The population of the town is just 29,000. A local bar is selling a special Copa del Rey beer. "Everyone's excited here," says the Cartagena manager, Luis Tevenet, further down the same coast. Up at Sant Andreu, tickets for the two side stands sold out immediately; the remaining 1,000 tickets are expected to go today. Algeciras, near Gibraltar at the very south of Spain, will wear special shirts, designed for the occasion when they face Real Sociedad. They're expecting 8,000 at the game.

The media has descended upon them. "Anyone not on the training pitch at 4:31 normally gets a fine," shrugged Xativa coach Toni Aparicio, nodding towards the journalists milling around, holding players up as the clock ticked on. "But look at this. We have to enjoy it."

"When we got the videos of them, we thought: 'Where do we even start?'" says Salinas. "We're fighting with wooden swords; they're fighting with tanks."

There's always a chance, though. And that is what makes it special, that feeling that something might just happen. "They're the best team in the world," admits the captain of Cartagena of Barcelona. He insists: "Every year there are surprises, and we want to be one of them." He says his side have a "1 percent chance".

But do they? Is it even that big? It may be a cliche and the risk of slipping into something patronising always lingers, but if this is the essence of the cup, it has been eroded. Worse, it has been eroded entirely deliberately, dismantled from within.

It is not just that the entire annual budget of one of these clubs could not pay Cristiano Ronaldo's weekly salary -- a huge financial gulf exists even within the First Division, let alone between the First and the Second Division B -- it is the way this competition is structured. If the Spanish football federation tried to ruin it, they could hardly do a better job: the Copa del Rey has been set up make sure what is supposed to happen in cup competitions doesn't happen in the cup competition.

The draw for the Copa del Rey last 32 was set up so that the teams playing in European competition were guaranteed to get the "easiest" draw; they knew they would face Second Division B clubs. They also knew that they have the advantage of playing the second game at home. If a smaller club beating a bigger one is unlikely in a one-off game, with this format it is virtually impossible (unless of course those bigger clubs care little). "We could give them a run for their money: I think we could get something at home," says one player. "The pity is that the draw is not fair. We're all conscious that there's a second game at theirs."

It seems so obvious, so clear, that the decision to adopt this format is baffling but the reason is simple: no one wants any giants getting killed, especially not the giants. The big clubs were scared of the very surprises that are supposed to make cup competitions exciting. The payoff for the small clubs was that they were get two big occasions that would benefit them financially: a big club would visit them at home, packing their stadium, and then they would visit them away. For a club like Xativa, the shares of gate receipts from the Santiago Bernabeu are massively significant.

But the format remains flawed. Because big clubs know they have the second leg at home, they rarely take their biggest players away, and local fans know that. They will be watching Madrid, but perhaps not the real Madrid.

Because big clubs sometimes have a significant lead from the first leg anyway, they sometimes do not play their bigger players in the second leg either. Even the smaller clubs may field weakened teams: one Second Division B manager, aware of the reality, is treating next week's league game as more important than the visit of their Champions League opponents this weekend; by the second leg, in ten days' time, that belief may be reinforced. All of which eats into the attendance too. So much for a huge payday.

For smaller clubs the excitement of drawing a European team is also diluted by the fact that fans know they will be playing a European team and in all probability a weakened one. For Algeciras, playing Real Sociedad is exciting; for an Algeciras team that knew they would get a European team, playing Real Sociedad is not, in truth, quite so exciting. After all, there was a good chance of it being Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona. Anoeta attracts; but a quiet Anoeta is likely to disappoint. Racing Santander, traditionally a First Division club but now in the Second Division B, face Sevilla. Put bluntly, few care.

When the draw was made for the last 32, it was also made for the last 16, the last eight, the last four and the final, instantly removing some of the cup’s charm: the draw itself. A seeded draw is bad enough; a competition conditioned to favour the big teams and then laid out from start to finish removes at a stroke the uncertainty that adds to cup competitions. The way that, like pass the parcel, with each layer there is a new surprise is part of it, but not here. This format also removes motivation: teams know their path to the final and as a result, some of them do not even bother embarking upon it. Why fight to overcome one big club if another will await you, and another, and another?

Every year, they wonder what they can do to revitalise the Copa del Rey; this year, they moved this round to the weekend, taking it to centre-stage ... until the second leg, which will be late on midweek nights. The idea of giving the winners a Champions League place has yet again been floated too.

Jvaier Soriano/AFP/Getty ImagesAlcorcon's stunning two-legged upset over Real Madrid in 2009 will long live in Copa del Rey lore.

But it is doubtful that it would change anything; if anything is likely to demean the competition further it is making it a qualification round for another tournament entirely. Besides, the truth is that at the semifinal and final stage, the Copa del Rey has been brilliant over the last few years; it is earlier in the competition that there are problems, a risk of anticlimax.

One thing they never seem to seriously contemplate is the simplest thing of all: a straight draw with no conditions, no seeding and no favouritism. Just a bag and some balls. It has at times felt like all Madrid and Barcelona have to do to get as far as the semifinal or final is to want to get that far. And just in case, those who least need second chances are given them. It has at times almost felt like a closed competition, one where the essence, the life, has been squeezed out of the early rounds.

Almost but not quite. Fortunately, football tends to find a way; teams rebel against their fate. Sport is like that. The hope is never entirely extinguished and incredible feats can be achieved. Just ask fans at Xativa, Cartagena, Sant Andreu and Algeciras; they know what the truth is but they will not accept it. Not yet, anyway. Cartagena's coach admits that the conversation which has been repeated over and over since the draw has been: "Imagine if we did beat Barcelona."

Imagine. For one night, they will share the same space with Barcelona, as equals. Well, sort of. It may not last for long but for one brief moment it will be their turn to stand at the centre of the Spanish football, fighting the rising odds.


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