Eto’o, Pandiani and Ibagaza: remembering Real Mallorca’s stunning Copa del Rey triumph of 2003

Eto’o, Pandiani and Ibagaza: remembering Real Mallorca’s stunning Copa del Rey triumph of 2003

June 28, 2003, was a historic day for Spanish football. A century on from the first Copa del Rey final in 1903, one of Spain’s two principal pieces of silverware left the mainland for the very first time. Yet, as the cup headed across the Balearic Sea to be jubilantly received in Palma, Mallorca, few eyebrows were raised in the country’s traditional powerhouses.

This, after all, was an era when Barcelona were deep in the midst of their early-noughties trophy drought, while the Galácticos of Real Madrid were exciting on their day but deeply flawed as Mallorca had exposed during their run to the final. Valencia and Deportivo had both won LaLiga within the previous three years and it was five years since either of the big two had won the Copa del Rey. Therefore, for Mallorca, who were very much an established top-flight club at the time, winning the cup wasn’t the huge shock that it would be today.

Indeed, their final win itself was to be expected given their opponents Recreativo Huelva had just been relegated from LaLiga. Spanish football chiefs had no doubt been hoping for a glamour contest in the competition’s centenary year but what they got was perhaps the most unlikely ever final match-up. The almost petulant response was to give the game an equally unlikely venue with Elche’s Estadio Manuel Martínez Valero, the somewhat underwhelming choice.

Only the 1927 final between Basque sides Real Unión and Arenas Club had seen two obviously smaller clubs face-off for the King’s Cup, and even that wasn’t such a surprise given both teams had already won it during the competition’s formative years.

Mallorca’s success was big news for a day or so but the country’s football media soon got back to focusing all their attention on matters such as David Beckham’s imminent arrival in the capital and exactly how Frank Rijkaard was going to revitalise Barça.

Of course, there were celebrations on the Balearic island but their victory that day hardly reverberated anywhere beyond the bars of Elche and sunny shores of Mallorca, with some rendering their triumph as more a sign of the failings of Spain’s bigger clubs than anything else. That, though, was more than a little disrespectful to a Mallorca side that boasted a lot of quality and thoroughly deserved to lift the Copa del Rey that year.

To trace their rise to a position where they were able to compete for and ultimately win a major trophy you have to go back to the reign of Héctor Cúper, who guided the club to a surprising fifth-place finish in their first full season back in the top flight after a five-year absence. They went even better the following year, finishing third in the 1998/99 season – their best league finish – whilst also winning the Spanish Super Cup and reaching a European final.

Although Cúper would leave for Valencia that summer, he left behind a winning mentality and a real, albeit very sudden, culture of success. For the first time in Mallorca’s history, fans and players alike truly had reason to believe that they could compete with the country’s elite. And compete they most certainly did, again finishing third and again qualifying for the Champions League in 2001 under Luis Aragonés.

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Despite a turbulent 2001/02 season that saw three managers come and go and the club sink dramatically to the depths of 16th place, there was still plenty of quality in the side for incoming manager Gregorio Manzano to work with going into the 2002/03 campaign.

His boldest move was to pair a talented – but at the time incredibly hot-headed – Samuel Eto’o with loan signing Walter Pandiani, himself no stranger to controversy in attack. The partnership was one that had the potential to frustrate as much as it did flourish, however the 21-year-old Cameroonian combined brilliantly with Pandiani to form what was on a good day one of the most devastating strike partnerships in Europe.

Although their league form was patchy, Mallorca were a side capable of playing some excellent football and were dangerous opposition for any team in Spain when everything clicked. Despite only finishing ninth in LaLiga, they enjoyed plenty of memorable league wins, including a stunning 5-1 victory at the Bernabéu when Eto’o all but ended Fernando Hierro’s Real Madrid career in one blistering second-half display.

They also won at the Camp Nou in the league but suffered seven home defeats, three of which were by four or more goals so their erratic nature meant they were always likely to find more joy in one-off cup ties rather than over the course of a 38-game league season.

They would enjoy a stellar run to the Copa del Rey final, getting the better of some of the country’s best sides, but it could all have ended long before that point. Their path to glory started in Barcelona, but not at the Camp Nou or even Estadi Olímpic, home of Espanyol at the time. Third-tier Catalan minnows UDA Gramenet provided the opposition and pushed Mallorca hard, only succumbing to a 90th-minute goal from winger Álvaro Novo. The next round was an even closer call as Mallorca were taken to penalties by another Segunda B side in the shape of Hércules.

A shootout win ensured they would take their place in a Barcelona-less last-16, who were sent packing at the first hurdle by tiny Novelda, who caused one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history by beating Louis van Gaal’s team 3-2. Mallorca were paired with top-flight rivals Real Valladolid, but having only drawn the home first leg 2-2, faced an uphill battle as they headed to the Estadio Nuevo José Zorrilla for the return clash without top scorer Eto’o. However, in back-up striker Carlitos they found an unlikely hero.

The delightfully named Carlos Domínguez Domínguez was by no means a prolific finisher and never reached double figures in any of his five seasons at Mallorca. However, within 30 minutes that evening in Valladolid, he had netted a quick-fire hat-trick to set up a convincing 4-1 win and a mouthwatering quarter-final tie with Real Madrid.

Although Mallorca would win 5-1 at Real Madrid later in the season, they had been beaten convincingly by the same scoreline when Los Blancos had visited Son Moix only a month previously, so few expected anything other than the defending European champions to progress. The complacent hosts made a few changes for the first leg at the Bernabéu, but with the likes of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos in the starting line-up, and Raúl and Luís Figo featuring from the bench, it was by no means a total second-string side. Mallorca, though, as they had started to make a habit of doing, rose to the big occasion.

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Javier Portillo’s opener for Real was cancelled out by a strike from Mallorca’s former Barcelona centre-back Miguel Ángel Nadal to leave things finely poised at 1-1 and set things up perfectly for the second leg. The experience of Nadal was a calming presence in a Mallorca side not without its fair share of colourful characters. Talented captain Ariel Ibagaza was the chief playmaker in midfield, while local boy Albert Riera was regarded as one of the most promising young Spanish players at the time and had enjoyed a fine season on the left wing.

The islanders had the tools to hurt a Real Madrid defence that continued to leak goals, and in front of a raucous crowd in the second leg at Son Moix, they proved it. With the impressive Ibagaza pulling the strings from midfield, Mallorca started off at a tempo that their more illustrious opponents struggled to live with and were quickly ahead when Fernando Niño was allowed the freedom of the penalty area to head in from a corner.

After that, it turned into the Eto’o show. The striker had become Mallorca’s record signing when he’d signed from Real Madrid for €7m two years earlier and reserved a handshake for the entire visiting subs bench prior to kick-off, not to mention a kiss on the cheek of former boss Vicente del Bosque, who didn’t seem overly enamoured with the gesture.

Despite appearances, though, Eto’o was a man on a mission. His rejection from Real at a young age was something that would motivate him throughout his career and, on a chilly January night on the Mediterranean island, the Cameroonian made Real pay for what would prove to be an error of judgement on their part.

Having already spurned one good chance, he made no mistake in the 30th minute when, released by a moment of magic from Ibagaza, he broke free of a static Real Madrid defence to fire past César in the visiting goal. Ibagaza himself missed a good chance just moments later and with Real completely on the racks, bright work down the left this time set-up Mallorca’s third goal on 35 minutes, with Eto’o again providing the killer touch.

The tie was all but over and Del Bosque knew it, pulling off an unimpressed Zinedine Zidane at half-time and replacing him with Santiago Solari in a move that hardly pointed towards a potential comeback. The onslaught continued in the second half with Riera hitting the crossbar. Moments later, a smart one-two between Eto’o and Ibagaza once again sliced open the Real defence, with the Argentine pulling the ball back to an unmarked Pandiani to wrap up a crushing 4-0 win for Mallorca.

By now there was a real sense that Los Bermellones could go all the way and win the whole competition. They once again got the toughest possible draw in the semi-finals, where they were paired with holders Deportivo, a side that was still a real force at home and on the continent, while Recreativo met Osasuna in the other tie.

It proved to be a dramatic two legs that typified Mallorca’s Jekyll and Hyde nature that season. Kick-off in the first match at the Riazor was delayed by floodlight failure, but when it finally did get going, it was the tiny visiting contingent that had more to celebrate. That was despite a Depor player scoring the opening two goals.

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Pandiani was only on loan at Mallorca from Depor and had indicated his desire to return to the Galician club and regain his place in the side during the run-up to the game. If Eto’o had a point to prove in the previous tie, it was certainly the case for his strike partner here, and Pandiani did his case no harm by inflicting some serious damage on his parent club.

He headed past former teammate Juanmi in the 38th minute and converted again with a volley with ten minutes to play to put Mallorca 2-0 up at the Riazor. Neither goal did as much as to provoke a celebration or even a smile from the notoriously moody Uruguayan, but when Eto’o clinically finished just a minute later to put Mallorca 3-0 up away from home, the tie already looked as good as over.

However, there was a sting in the tail that gave Depor a fighting chance going into the second leg. Diego Tristán converted from the spot after a dubious penalty award in the final minute of the 90 and, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, he set-up Roy Makaay to reduce Mallorca’s lead to 3-2. It was still a fine result but when Depor’s Fran González struck to level the tie at 3-3 midway through the first half of the return match, it seemed as though Mallorca were on the brink of contriving to spectacularly throw away their best shot at landing one of Spanish football’s two major trophies for the first time.

The Galicians pressed for a second goal but Mallorca held firm and still held the advantage thanks to their three away goals in the first leg. The tension was palpable at Son Moix as the second half drew on, but the home fans had to wait until the 80th minute before they could finally start to relax when Ibagaza levelled the game at 1-1 and restored Mallorca’s aggregate advantage.

That booked a June date with Recreativo Huelva, who had seen off Betis, Atlético and Osasuna en route to setting up the unlikeliest of Copa del Rey finals. This time Mallorca were the favourites, but they had one or two demons to banish having suffered cup final heartbreak in recent years. They’d lost the 1998 Copa del Rey final in the cruellest of circumstances having battled through extra-time with only nine men against Barcelona only to lose a marathon penalty shoot-out.

A place in the last ever edition of the Cup Winners’ Cup was the consolation prize and, having seen off Chelsea in the semis, they suffered another final defeat, this time against a star-studded Lazio side at Villa Park. This, however, promised to be very different.

The odds were clearly in Mallorca’s favour given some of their stunning performances in the competition, and the fact that over the almost four months that had passed between the semi-final second legs and the final, Recreativo had lost their top-flight status, failing to win any of their final seven league games in their first season back in LaLiga after a 23-year absence.

The 100th anniversary edition of the Copa del Rey final proved to be a real throwback to another era. The game was low on hype and corporate spectators but the Manuel Martínez Valero was packed to the rafters with a 50-50 split of fans from the two clubs involved. One end of the ground was an absolute sea of red, while the other end a scene of blue and white stripes as the fans of Mallorca and Recreativo – Spain’s oldest football club – created a carnival atmosphere.

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The only disappointment – from a neutral’s perspective at least – was that the game ultimately proved to be a one-sided affair. The islanders were the side with the star quality and had several match-winners in their ranks; they were a team that clearly relished the big stage. Manzano had all those players available to him on the day, but as had often been the case, it was the front two that would really prove the difference.

It was the side from Andalusia that carved the first opening but goalkeeper Leo Franco, another star of Mallorca’s golden era, saved smartly with his legs to deny Raúl Molina. On 20 minutes the islanders assumed the lead, Eto’o winning a penalty that Pandiani emphatically dispatched into the top left corner.

Recreativo substitute Xisco had a goal chalked out as a half in which they’d struggled to get any change out of the referee drew to a close. After the interval, though, they could have few complaints with how the game panned out. With the underdogs needing to chase the game, it was set up perfectly for Eto’o to pounce on the break and, in the 73rd minute, he scored a decisive second goal with a cool finish, having used his pace to get in behind the tiring opposition centre backs. He saved the best for last, scoring his second with six minutes to go following sensible play by substitute Carlitos, who set up Eto’o to fire an unstoppable drive into the roof of the net.

By that stage, Recreativo were out on their feet and probably grateful when referee Eduardo Iturralde González brought proceedings to a halt to start a huge party in the red half of the ground and across the Balearic Sea in Mallorca, where Manzano’s men would receive a heroes’ welcome on their return to the island.

Mallorca’s King’s Cup win somewhat predictably prompted an exodus that had frequently followed other recent successful campaigns. This one was particularly hard to take for fans of Los Bermellones, though, as head coach Manzano took up the hot-seat at Atlético Madrid soon after the final and subsequently raided his old club for their best players.

Of the 11 that started the final, five left that summer, with midfielders Ibagaza and Álvaro Novo re-joining their former boss in the capital, while Leo Franco would also wind up at the Vicente Calderón the following year. The return of Pandiani to Depor and departure of Riera to Bordeaux left Mallorca with big holes to fill in their side, and although Eto’o would stick around for another fruitful season and Mallorca were again competitive, they couldn’t quite match the excitement or drama that the 2002/03 campaign had provided.

The club, which has hit hard times over the past few years since dropping out of the top flight in 2013, celebrated its centenary in 2016, and while mementos from those European ventures are held in high esteem, nothing takes pride of place at the renamed Iberostar Stadium more than their 2003 Copa del Rey success.

In many respects, it was the classic cup triumph. They almost lost games they should have won comfortably and beat sides that the league table at least suggested they had no right to be beating, particularly over two legs. Their success was born out of desire, belief and an abundance of genuine quality. The centenary Copa del Rey final may not have been the showcase many had hoped for, but in Mallorca it had a very deserving winner.

By Mark Sochon @marksoc1

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