The Basque Country’s special relationship with the Copa del Rey

The Basque Country’s special relationship with the Copa del Rey

“We’ve been closing at 6pm each night, but we’re going to stay open until 8pm today because of the Copa,” the waitress said. 

Some context. We’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s cup night in Spain. More specifically, in the Basque Country. Even though the autonomous community’s coronavirus restrictions mean all bars and restaurants have to close at 8pm, and that residents must be home in time for a 10pm curfew, it’s a big night in Leioa, a suburb of Bilbao.

Third-tier SD Leioa are hosting LaLiga side Villarreal at the 2,000-capacity Estadio Sarriena, just up the hill from this cervecería. It makes sense, then, for there to be a buzz around the neighbourhood and for this Wednesday night to be a little busier than a regular midweek evening.  

But, wait a minute. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. This match is behind closed doors and no fans are allowed, so why would the bar next to the stadium bother opening later? The match isn’t on TV and kick-off is at 9pm anyway, after the bar has to legally close, no matter how much longer they put off bringing the shutters down. “Oh no, you’ll see,” the waitress explains. “They’ll come.”

This is the Basque Country, the land of few monarchists but of football fans who love the Copa del Rey, the King’s Cup.

Over the first 117 editions of this competition, which has gone through various name changes based on who or what has been ruling Spain, the trophy has been lifted by a Basque side on 30 occasions – 23 times by Athletic Club, the team that dominated the first years of this tournament, four times by Real Unión, twice by Real Sociedad and once by Arenas de Getxo. That works out at 26 percent of the Copa del Rey titles going to the Basque Country, a region that makes up just 4.9 percent of Spain’s population or 1.4 percent of its landmass.

Crammed together in this land of valleys and bays and beauty is a passion for football that is unrivalled on the Iberian Peninsula. That’s not quite a stone-cold fact, but it’s a general consensus. In the Basque Country they’re built different and they love competing, so much so that Spain’s range of sports wasn’t enough for them. They went ahead and created several of their own, from wood chopping to bale tossing to sheep shearing to throwing disks at an iron frog. 

But football remains the most popular sport, with four of the current 20 LaLiga teams hailing from the Basque Country: Athletic, Real Sociedad, Alavés and Eibar. And the Copa del Rey is the most popular competition. There’s a different atmosphere when it comes to the cup.

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That’s why, at 9pm on a December night of torrential rain and of coronavirus curfew, dozens of fans climb through the trees that surround Leioa’s Estadio Sarriena to catch a glimpse of their players taking on Villarreal and to chant their support from the bushy darkness.

Even Yeremi Pino’s goal six minutes in, to put the Yellow Submarine ahead before most fans have clambered up the hill towards the pitch’s permitter fence, doesn’t put them off. They chant their support. They roar every sludgy tackle through the waterlogged pitch. They tease visiting coach Unai Emery, a Basque who left. 

At half time, when the strict 10pm curfew for everyone without just cause to be in their homes approaches, a few police officers do a lap of the fence to tell the fans that’s it’s probably time to leave. Cheering on Leioa isn’t a just cause, they explain. The fans believe it’s just that cause that they woke up for.

It finishes 6-0 to a Villarreal side that are simply far too good, even if playing on the Basque-est of pitches. “We’ve got the best groundsman in the Basque Country,” the club staff explain, even if the predominantly brown rectangle says otherwise. To be fair, enough rain has fallen for many fixtures to get called off. At least the game went ahead. 

So too did the other game in the Basque Country that night – and there’s tangible excitement in the press box as news filters through that third-tier Amorebieta defeated Logroñés 1-0 to move on to the next round, just one night after fourth-tier Portugalete shocked second-division Ponferradina 1-0.

Sestao River gave Tenerife a good fight too in another fourth-tier vs second-tier battle the night before, one of the Basque radio commentators proudly reveals. “I don’t think the Tenerife boys appreciated the cold,” he adds, almost sadistically. 

The next night, it’s time to go and see the lowest-ranked Basque side to enter the 2020/21 Copa del Rey. CD Anaitasuna only just got promoted from Spain’s fifth tier to its fourth and, given the multi-group nature of every division below the top two, you could rank Anaitasuna anywhere from around the 300th to 500th best team in Spain.

The Copa del Rey draw paired them with top-division opposition too, matched with Getafe for a one-off cup tie in which they were given odds of 23/1 to win. That was the longest shot for any match in the first round of the 2020/21 tournament.

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Anaitasuna isn’t the name of the town, it’s the Basque word for brotherhood. The team is based in Azkoitia, in the Gipuzkoa province of the Basque Country and very much into the valleys. It’s not long past Eibar and if you’re having to use the town of Eibar, of 27,000 population, as a landmark then that means Azkoitia really is small. There’s a church, a tower, a square, a Lidl and little else. 

There is a football stadium, the Campo Txerloia, with a capacity for 1,500 fans, although again this game is behind closed doors. Well, apart from the 30 or so “ball boys” and “boy girls”, almost none of whom have a ball. When there’s a big cup game on, kids will find a way. 

On the afternoon of the game, a Basque pensioner who has spent his Thursday enjoying the rare presence of the Basque sun and enjoying more than a few wines explains just how much Anaitasuna are underdogs. They’re not even doing well in their league group, he says. The pitch is in a terrible state and if there’s one LaLiga team that can handle this, then it’s Getafe.

“But, I’ve put one euro and 15 cents on Anaitasuna to beat Getafe,” he states with the confidence that makes you think you should consider it too. Why? “Well, I was going to put one euro on, but I had another 15 cents in change in my pocked,” he replies. No, why are you backing this team you’ve just explained will probably lose? “Ah, well, you know, it’s the Copa.”

More than anything, I think that sums up the Basque Country’s relationship with the Copa del Rey. They love those cold wintery nights where underdog stories are written, even more so in this new one-legged format that was implemented in 2019. 

On this Thursday December evening, Anaitasuna go out and put this mentality into action. They start really well on a pitch so terrible that sand has been poured on every blemish, enough to make it look more like a long jump event than a football match. They start so well that they actually go 1-0 up in the 55th minute against a team that just a few months previously knocked Ajax out of the Europa League. Maybe that old man was going to win his 26 euros and 45 cents … 

Sitting next to the substitutes’ bench, which in these COVID-19 times is basically the entire left-side of the stadium’s one stand, the team’s backups go absolutely wild with delight as they take the lead. Even if they’d love to make it out there onto the pitch to be able to say they personally faced off against talents like Marc Cururella, Djene Dakonam and Enes Ünal, there really is that sense of brotherhood as they hug on the sidelines as a team. 

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Even if it is a team sport, someone has to put their name on the scoresheet and the goal is scored by Markel Eskurtza, whose grandfather also played for Anaitasuna back in the day. Of course he did. “I have loved football since I was a child and, like most Azkoitian children who like football, my dream was to play for Anaitasuna,” says Eskurtza.

Right now, the dream is to claim this scalp. As the clock ticks and as Getafe’s players and their coach José Bordalás get increasingly frustrated, the subs on the sidelines rub salt – or maybe that’s sand – in the wounds. Some less-than-polite comments are shouted at Getafe’s professionals, who don’t mind answering back once it dawns on them that these insults from the stands aren’t coming from the fans. They’re coming from the reserves who could be subbed on into the action any minute. 

There’s a moment with 20 minutes to go when the journalists in the press area almost simultaneously fold over their laptops. The match reports will be written when they’re written. They can wait. But this potential moment is so special that it requires full attention, and not the usual glancing from one corner of an eye while the other three corners train on a Word document.

Everyone is leaning forward, as if mid-squat, wondering if they’re really about to witness a team of Basque kids, who stand hundreds of football clubs away from Spain’s top division, conquer last season’s eighth-placed team in the entire country.

They don’t, but you already half-guessed that. Sometimes football’s script writers have to toss out the fairytale stories that are just a little too unrealistic. An Ünal equaliser in the 73rd minute and a stoppage-time Ángel Rodríguez penalty – from a dubious call – send Getafe through to the next round and Anaitasuna’s story ends where it was supposed to. But after 90 minutes of graft, it proves just what makes Basque cup football so special. 

As we approach the eventual staging of the 2019/20 Copa del Rey final, which for the first time will be contested between the region’s biggest two clubs, Athletic and Real Sociedad, this can be viewed as a celebration of Basque football’s special relationship with this competition. Including this derby and the upcoming Barcelona-Athletic 2020/21 final, half of the past ten Copa finals will have had at least one Basque participant, featuring three different sides in Athletic, Real Sociedad and Alavés. 

But this special cup fever also goes all the way down to the very first rounds of the tournament. The Basque Country’s Copa del Rey stories are not only the tales from this final, but they’re also the Amorebietas and Portugaletes, the pensioner with extra confidence about the round’s biggest underdog, the ball boys and girls sneaking into the ground, and the bars that open up later on a cup night to cater for the fans not even able to officially attend the match. 

By Euan McTear @emctear

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