Thursday, May 14, 2009
One title closer to the treble
It's is hard to imagine a better representation of the heterogeneous mixture of economic interests, political views and cultural identities that Spain has become than Wednesday's Copa del Rey final.
Well before kickoff it was evident that this year's deciding match would be unquestionably a great football encounter: the team with the most titles (Barcelona with 24) faced the second best (Athletic de Bilbao with 23, although they claim one more title won by their predecessor Club Vizcaya in 1902).
For Barcelona, this was the first match in a fortnight which could see them win a historical treble (Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles). For Athletic, it was their first chance to conquer silverware in 25 years, and judging by the difficulties of the team to recruit young talent, could be their last for several years to come.
While Barcelona were still busy trying (and failing) to win the Liga title last weekend, Athletic had been preparing methodically for this final. Although their team was the clear underdog, older Basque supporters vividly remembered a few Cup Finals of yore in which Athletic managed to upset big time favourites, such as Di Stéfano's Real Madrid or Maradona's Barcelona. The Catalans had already shown some tiredness in their draw against Villarreal last Sunday, and the absences of Thierry Henry and Abidal, among others, could have given Athletic a chance to surprise Guardiola's side.
The importance of the match went beyond its pure footballing aspects. Even though the State of the Nation debate was taking place at the Congress on Wednesday, most politicians got more airtime in the media to discuss the potential outcome of the match than to share their point of view about the endless quarrels between government and opposition. Journalists usually specialising in political matters thought the match was a nicer topic than the somewhat depressing state of the country, and understandably so.
Belonging to this last category, Patxo Unzueta, one of the most insightful observers of political matters in the Basque Country, wrote a delightful article in "El País" explaining the insurmountable challenge Athletic faces to maintain a Basque-only policy, in a time when the birth-rate in the region is one of the lowest in Europe. There's simply no Basque kids to keep the flame alive.
But the core theme of his piece was the fact that in these times of strong political controversy and economic crisis in the Basque Country, the people need something to bring them together, as the socialist Patxi López had stated back in March, and the Vizcaino Athletic could do that for them, even if it was only for the night of the Cup final.
It seemed to be the case on Wednesday in Valencia. The city appeared to be taken over by men and women in red and white shirts, despite the fact that most of them did not have a ticket to watch the match. The stadium looked as good as any Copa del Rey final I have seen, a beautiful feast of colour and chants hours before the match started. Barcelona fans also showed up, hoping to witness the first title of their team this season.
One subject had been conspicuously ignored in most pre-match analyses: Basques and Catalans would be playing for the Copa del Rey trophy in front of the king himself. Not precisely the ideal scenario for a quiet development of the usual Cup final proceedings... when the national anthem began to sound, a sizeable amount of both fan bases began to boo both the king and the anthem, an unjustifiable lack of respect and manners after more than 35 years of democracy. The Spanish TV muted the sound and pretended that nothing was happening, which is also hard to explain after those same 35 years of democracy...
But let's talk about football. Athletic started the match true to their promise: high tempo, direct football, no concessions. After a couple of good chances, the hard-working Toquero scored in the ninth minute, giving Athletic a deserved lead. Barcelona looked shocked for a few minutes, Athletic began to concede some space and then Xavi Hernández took over.
When this influential midfielder started playing for Barcelona's first team in 1998, Louis Van Gaal, at that time the team's gaffer, famously said that "Xavi is better than De la Peña". The Spanish media spent months mocking poor Louis (and his hilarious accent in Spanish), as it sounded like another attempt of Mr Van Gaal to appear smarter than anyone by comparing an unassuming, quiet youngster with the biggest midfield talent Spain had seen in a while.
Eleven years later, looking back at both players' careers, justice has to be made: the Dutchman was spot on. On Wednesday Xavi vindicated him even more with another spectacular performance. His passing accuracy and rhythm progressively got his team-mates involved, especially Daniel Alves and Lionel Messi, causing Athletic to feel the pain of running after the ball without getting much of it. Barcelona increased their pressure until Touré Yaya broke the deadlock with a beautiful solo effort. His ugly gesture towards the Basque supporters once he scored was unexplainable and will surely not go unpunished.
Barcelona kept control of the ball and missed a few chances (Eto'o will not be satisfied with his performance) until a terrific nine minute spell at the beginning of the second half. They scored three beauties almost effortlessly and made sure the title was in the bag. Barcelona's last goal was a fantastic free kick by Xavi that put a classy ending to the competitive part of the match.
The remaining twenty minutes were an extraordinary celebration of both teams on and off the pitch, with every single supporter chanting and enjoying a memorable evening. It truly seemed that both teams had won, if you were to judge by the behaviour of their fans. At the end of the match you could see the determination in the faces of the Barcelona players, as though this was just the beginning for them, while most of the Athletic players were in tears knowing that there won't be many more Copa del Rey finals awaiting for them in the future. The king delivered the trophy (no boos this time) putting an end to a great cup final full of contrasts.
Barcelona retained their unofficial Spanish "Rey de Copas" title and took their first step towards the treble. The Liga trophy should be in their hands this coming weekend, so actually there is only one more to go. Guardiola can now devote the next two Liga matches to decide the best way to cover for all the injuries and suspensions on the 27th of May. The role of their bench will be instrumental if they want to beat Manchester United in Rome.
It was an unforgettable football night in Valencia. The pitch was perfect, the atmosphere was top class and the teams gave everything they had to win the match. The whole country took sides and followed the contest with passion. Unzueta's recommendation for the Basque Country is actually the best possible medicine for the Spanish nation as a whole: we need more events like this Copa del Rey final, even if it is just to boo, suffer, argue and celebrate, as long as we do it together.