As we move into the 2020s, the widely accepted narrative seems to be that domestic cup competitions are in the doldrums. Many have lost the magic of old and are struggling to stay relevant on an increasingly crowded football calendar. None more so than Spain’s Copa del Rey which has this season undergone a radical transformation in an attempt to generate fresh enthusiasm for it. So far, the early signs are encouraging.
While it is the original Spanish football competition, predating LaLiga by 26 years, the Copa del Rey has never carried quite the same sense of tradition or evoked the emotion of the English FA Cup. Nor has it previously been inclusive enough to allow for the type of Cinderella stories that are relatively common in the Coupe de France.
Two-legged ties, seeding and a format which ensured only 12 lower league sides would be remaining by the time top-flight clubs even entered predictably made it almost impossible for the smaller clubs to progress deep into the latter rounds. The 2018/19 season’s last-16 consisted of 15 top-flight teams in addition to Sporting Gijón, who had only a couple of years earlier dropped down into the Segunda División. Not since 1980/81, when Real Madrid bizarrely met their B team in the showpiece, has a lower division side made the Copa del Rey final.
While the Spanish Football Federation eventually came to their senses and prevented reserve teams from featuring from the 1990s onwards, they’ve been slow to react as the competition has fallen into decline in recent years.
Not only did the Copa del Rey feel as though it was specifically designed to protect the big clubs and minimise the chance of upsets, fixture congestion has also become an increasing problem. Last season’s winners Valencia played 21 matches in all competitions in the space of just ten weeks at the start of 2019, largely due to their domestic cup progress.
Bottom-half top-flight teams invariably prioritised their push for league survival over trying to make progress in a competition which had been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona in seven of the previous eight years. Meanwhile, the elongated, two-legged nature of the competition has been a source of frustration for Spain’s European participants who have complained of fatigue creeping in at the business end of the campaign.
The widespread dissatisfaction with the format coupled with the Copa del Rey’s lack of a clear sense of tradition and identity has at least made innovation and overhaul a much easier and less controversial task than it would be in many other countries. As a result, there were few complaints when a streamlined and fairly radical new format for the Copa was announced ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Gone are the two-legged snoozefests in the early rounds, with all ties to be settled by a one-off contest upto and including the quarter-finals. The number of teams from outside of the top two tiers remaining at the stage when the first top-flight teams enter has increased from six to 75, giving a host of Tercera División sides the chance to pit their wits against top opponents, in many cases for the first time in a competitive setting.
While there is still seeding to ensure teams in a higher division get drawn against lower league opponents when possible, the most significant alteration of all has been to give home advantage to the lower-ranked clubs in every round.
As a result, every LaLiga team has faced at least one banana skin away day over the past few weeks and the Copa del Rey has headed to small villages, towns and islands across the length and breadth of Spain in a manner that simply wasn’t possible before. Already, there are countless tales of cup magic with the new look competition clearly capturing the imagination of Spanish football fans, particularly those of the smaller teams.
Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Unionistas, a fan-owned club set up following the dissolution of UD Salamanca in 2013. While the also newly formed CF Salmantino (now Salamanca UDS) took over the 17,000 capacity Estadio Helmántico and felt like the natural heir to the defunct club, Unionistas initially had to make do with playing at a local sports centre before moving to Las Pistas del Helmántico, a tiny athletics stadium immediately adjacent to the Helmántico in 2015.
Against the odds, Unionistas have risen through the regional leagues to the Segunda B just as quickly as their neighbours and appeared to strike gold when they were drawn against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey third round. Given the extremely limited facilities at Las Pistas, Unionistas were offered the chance to play the game at the Estadio Helmántico or switch it to the Santiago Bernabéu, which would have netted the club an estimated €500,000 – roughly the equivalent of their entire annual budget.
Club president Miguel Angel Sandoval had other ideas, though. “This clash must be played in Las Pistas and Salamanca,” he said following the draw. “We can’t allow this match to be held anywhere else, because this tournament rewards the humble.”
He was as good as his word. Real Madrid did visit Las Pistas, ultimately winning 3-1, but a small club’s decision to put principles before profit was the real story. As well as turning down the huge cash windfall that a stadium switch would have generated, Unionistas also refused to sell advertising space to betting companies for the televised clash. A day prior to what was by far the biggest game in their history, they also became the first Spanish club to sign up to the Common Goal, by committing to give one percent of match-day income to charitable causes.
Just minutes before Los Blancos kicked off in Salamanca, Barcelona were catching their breath having survived an almighty scare in Ibiza, an island synonymous with many things, none of which are football-related. Dubbed ‘Europe’s best away day’ when the draw was made, those sentiments would not have been shared by new Barça boss Quique Setien when his side were fortunate to be only 1-0 down heading into the final 20 minutes against Segunda B opponents.
A late brace from Antoine Griezmann ultimately spared the blushes of the Catalan giants and narrowly prevented what would have gone down as one of the biggest cup upsets of all time, not just in the world of Spanish football.
UD Ibiza are just one of a number of new or reformed clubs that have truly announced their arrival on the Spanish football scene over the past few weeks via the medium of this revamped Copa del Rey. With some significant financial backing, their rapid growth isn’t quite the fairytale story it may appear at first glance but it’s still extraordinary that they managed to push the mighty Barcelona so close in just their fifth season of existence.
The 2019/20 Copa has also technically left Spanish territory with FC Andorra – owned by Barça’s Gerard Piqué – taking top-flight Leganés to penalties in the first round. Much like Ibiza, they are also pushing for promotion into the Segunda División with ambitions of one day taking on the cream of the Spanish crop on a more regular basis.
Even when the smaller teams haven’t acquitted themselves so well, there have still been tales that have helped restore football’s feel-good factor. After demolishing fourth-tier minnows Becerril 8-0, Real Sociedad invited the entire village, including the club’s players and staff, to come and watch a game at Anoeta with transport, tickets and dinner all to be paid for by the Basque outfit. There are only 754 people in Becerril but it was still a tremendous gesture.
Eibar made a similar offer to Cacereño defender Alberto Delgado after his nightmare 93rd-minute own goal settled the clubs’ second-round meeting. Whether an all-expenses-paid trip to Ipurúa would have really cheered him up is open to debate, but credit must go to the Eibar players who shunned celebrating their side’s late winner and immediately went over to console the unfortunate Delegado who was understandably devastated.
Every great cup competition needs a few upsets to really spark it into life and while the adventures of the likes of Unionistas, Ibiza and Andorra may now be over, the new Copa del Rey format has still helped serve up plenty of shock results. The biggest, at least in terms of positions on the Spanish football ladder, was Real Jaén’s 3-1 victory over Alavés, the first time in 39 years that a fourth-tier side has knocked a top-flight team out of the Copa.
Europa League participants Getafe were sent packing by Segunda B outfit Badalona in the second round and there were many other scares for LaLiga sides. However, it was the final night of the midweek third-round action that would best showcase the increased potential for upsets that now exists with so many second and third-tier sides enjoying home advantage.
Four of the five Thursday matches saw top-flight clubs knocked out by lower league opponents on one of the most dramatic evenings of Copa del Rey action for many years. The most remarkable result was Atlético Madrid’s shock exit away to Cultural Leonesa of the Segunda B, marking arguably the lowest point in the long and overwhelmingly successful reign of Diego Simeone.
The jubilant scenes that greeted the full-time whistle in León have been mirrored in small grounds up and down Spain in a manner that was seldom possible before. Under the old system, there was always an away second leg to come, when smaller teams who had managed to cause an upset in the first meeting were invariably brought back down to earth with a bit of a bump.
This season, six lower league teams remain at the last-16 stage and all will again be dealt home ties and the opportunity to send another top-flight team packing. In a country where the whole football environment is so centred around two clubs, it’s a refreshing change to see the balance shifted slightly to give the smaller teams a helping hand.
The much-maligned Royal Spanish Football Federation deserves credit for having had the foresight to make such sweeping changes, although it would be an exaggeration to suggest that there haven’t been any teething problems.
While many tiny grounds up and down Spain were packed to the rafters, in terms of media coverage at least, the first round was totally overshadowed by the rearranged Clásico in LaLiga, which fell on the same day as many of those ties. That was largely out of the control of the RFEF but their bold plan for a second round weekend, designed to mirror the famous third-round day in the FA Cup, would certainly have generated more buzz had it not coincided with the final of the considerably more controversial new Supercopa over in Saudi Arabia.
The draw is also still a bit too manufactured for some tastes and if there is a downside for players and fans of the smaller clubs, it is that the dream of a trip to the Camp Nou or Bernabéu has been largely taken off the table. Lower tier sides would essentially have to make it all the way to the semis for that to happen now, and while the likes of Cultural Leonesa, Mirandés and Badajoz can dare to dream as they take their place in the fourth round, they will still have to pull off two more big upsets to reach that stage.
The annual saga that is the debate over precisely where to play the final also still remains, but it might just be for the best given that despite those minor flaws, this new format has been almost universally welcomed in a country that loves few things more than having something to argue about.
The new Copa del Rey has delivered in terms of filling out stadiums, creating much more excitement and drama and has even resulted in teams fielding stronger XIs in the early rounds. Football associations around the world, with cup competitions that are struggling to recreate the magic of old, might be wise to take note.
By Mark Sochon @marksoc1