In a landscape that’s become increasingly accustomed to suiting the needs of more established superpowers, the 2019-20 Copa del Rey has been a substantial step in the right direction for “the little guy” in Spanish football.
It’s not common these days for supporters to unite so unanimously in favour of a governing body’s decisions, but an all-Basque final between derby rivals Real Sociedad and Athletic Club has proved the changes worthwhile.
This will be the first final in a decade to feature neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid—each of whom exited in the quarter-finals—while Atletico Madrid fell to Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32.
Spain’s major outlets have at times been guilty of not paying the Copa its dues without those giants present. However, a history-making fixture to crown the competition at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville on April 18 has caught widespread attention, per Sport Witness:
Sid Lowe of the Guardian expressed his delight at how a tournament for the ages will receive a befitting ending:
Doing away with two-legged ties until the semi-finals, earlier entry for teams in La Liga and an improved seeding system are some of the alterations that have received such rave reviews, and for good reason.
Change doesn’t come easily in football, and Spain’s authorities have encountered criticism for some years in helping tailor the system to aid their grandest–and most lucrative–clubs.
Barcelona—one of the teams to have enjoyed domestic domination in modern times—came under scrutiny this past winter when they were permitted an “emergency” deal to sign Martin Braithwaite from Leganes, who were not given the same clearance to purchase a replacement.
That sequence served as the most recent reminder of how unfair football can be, even at the most professional standard, with some among the elite still seemingly protected by the powers that be.
It was Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha who sang “If ignorance is bliss, then knock the smile off my face,” yet many are beaming in the wake of this year’s Copa del Rey revolution.
Basque Derby nemeses Sociedad and Athletic have never met in the tournament’s final. The two clubs competed against one another in 1910 when the competition was played among only a handful of teams in two mini round-robin tournaments, but this will be new ground altogether.
Gaizka Garitano will lead Athletic back to the Copa final five years after their last appearance, his achievement all the more special for a club whose league form has dipped since the start of 2020.
He’ll face another Basque native in Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil, whose first full season at the helm could now also feature major silverware. La Real haven’t journeyed to this stage of the contest since 1988, and journalist Pablo Garcia Cristan captured Alguacil’s emotion after guiding his old club back to the biggest tournament stage in Spain (via sportswriter Simon Harrison):
It was only last season that all but one of the last 16 in this tournament hailed from La Liga. Compare that with 2020, when third-tier outfits Cultural Leonesa and Badajoz each made it to that round, as well as four teams from the Segunda Division.
That’s still a long way from the fairytale stories we’re more used to seeing in England’s FA Cup, for example. Many neutrals might have been far happier to see semi-finalists Mirandes and Granada—the two lowest-profile teams in the last four—advance to the decider instead of the Basque representatives.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to argue valuable progress hasn’t been made in pursuit of attaining greater balance between the divisions.
The Copa del Rey has gone from seemingly stagnant to one of the most attractive competitions in Europe this term, benefiting from changes we can only hope are here to stay.