Basque derby preview
Mikel Oyarzabal is back for La Liga's third-place squad ahead of Thursday's Basque derby. Javier Etxezarreta/EPA.

It promised to be one of the greatest spectacles ever witnessed in Spanish soccer. Never before have Athletic Club and Real Sociedad met each other in a Copa del Rey final. Real Sociedad have not been in a final for 32 years. While Athletic Club have earned a spot in a final, but they haven’t won one. This is a rivalry that means more than just silverware, largely because these are two teams unaccustomed to claiming it.

The Basque Country is Spain’s true footballing hotspot. 20% of La Liga’s member clubs are rooted in the region. The 1980s saw Athletic Club and Real Sociedad enjoy successful times, but those days are a long way in the past, with Spanish soccer now dominated by the trio of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

In terms of their size, these two Basque clubs are giants. They boast over 80,000 members between them and play in state-of-the-art stadiums to rival anything else in the Spanish game. The rivalry between Athletic Club and Real Sociedad is rooted in geography, tradition, history and the fervour for life that tends to be found in people from northern Spain.

Athletic Club and Real Sociedad, and their fans, have had to wait longer than anticipated for the biggest game in their respective histories. 32 years without a meeting in the Copa del Rey final is edging closer to 33 years, as the 2020 rendition is still postponed until such a time that the global Covid-19 pandemic eases.

Originally scheduled for 18 April 2020, the 2019/20 Copa del Rey final will now played on 4 April 2021 — almost a full 12 months later. There’s a sense the match might not even take place on the rescheduled date with Covid-19 numbers growing in Spain and across Europe. It’s possible the final could be shifted even later into 2021.

That the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) have been willing to indefinitely delay the game says a lot about how significant this clash will be. There isn’t just a desire for this match to take place, but for fans to be present in the stands. For those that center their life around the club to enjoy it and add to the spectacle. After all, a Basque derby without supporters to provide colour and atmosphere isn’t truly a Basque derby at all.

Thursday’s derby clash, which will take place in front of empty stands at San Mames, will offer a hint of how the match itself might unfold on the pitch when it does finally take place. While Athletic Club are traditionally the more successful of the two rivals, it’s Real Sociedad who are currently flying higher.

Indeed, Real Sociedad are in the mix at the top of La Liga, with Imanol Alguacil’s side just six points off the pace being set by the two Madrid clubs in the standings. They held the top spot themselves for a number of weeks, although a recent run of poor form has seen La Real slip back to third place.

In Mikel Oyarzabal and Alexander Isak, Real Sociedad boast two of La Liga’s brightest young talents. Mikel Merino has grown into one of the league’s best midfield pace-setters, while David Silva has given them experience and creativity to compensate for the return of Martin Odegaard to Real Madrid at the end of last season.

Athletic Club aren’t without talent either. Inaki Williams can be a force of nature in attack, although the 26-year-old continues to struggle for consistency. Unai Simon is currently Luis Enrique’s first choice goalkeeper for the Spanish national team. Yeray Alvarez and Inigo Martinez are one of La Liga’s best centre back pairings.

Home form could influence the outcome of Thursday’s derby, with Athletic Club losing just one of their five league games played at San Mames this season. Real Sociedad are, on the other hand, winless in their last nine league games, but this poor run coincided with a number of injuries to key players. Those injuries are now easing off.

What unfolds on Thursday will be nothing compared to what Spanish soccer fans can look forward to with the 2019/20 Copa del Rey final, which promises to be one of the most memorable single fixtures in the history of the sport in the country, but there may be an indication as to the final outcome of that anticipated match. As a preview, this week’s derby will be worth watching. Basque derbies always are.