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A final like no other: la Real, Athletic and the biggest Basque derby ever | Copa del Rey

They have waited a long time for this, just not for it to be like this. Saturday night’s Copa del Rey final between Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, the Basque derby staged almost 1,000km south in Seville, should have been played 12 months ago. Instead, it was postponed by the pandemic and a decision that defines these two historic representatives of a unique place, a country: together, they refused to play without their people. But it’s not that, or not only that.

It’s not just that this match, the match, will take place a season late and, with supporters still not allowed in, at an empty stadium. It is that the 60-year-old barge upon which Athletic Bilbao last celebrated in 1984 has been fixed just in case; that Luis Arconada, the most recent Real captain to lift a trophy, did so three years after that; and that this is the first time they have met in a cup final. It’s not just a year they’ve waited for this, it’s more than a hundred of them.

“On a purely footballing level, this is the most important derby ever, the most significant moment in Basque football history,” says Real Sociedad’s sporting director, Roberto Olabe. It’s not something he says lightly. The problem is, as he eloquently explains, it’s never purely about football. And now the greatest night of their lives, despite them doing everything possible to preserve it, will be missing part of who they are.

There is something about the Basque country, about its football. Officially the region accounts for 1.4% of Spain’s territory, 4.6% of its population and 20% of its first division football teams. It also accounts for 100% of this year’s Copa del Rey finalists. Well, not this year’s, exactly.

These clubs have had moments of success and symbolism. In December 1976, captains Inaxio Kortabarría and José Ángel Iribar carried the still-illegal Basque flag before the derby. In 1981 and 1982, Real Sociedad won the league and in 1983 and 1984 Athletic won it back, those successes celebrated as all of theirs. They have won 35 leagues and cups, and played more derbies than any local rivals bar Madrid’s. In recent years they have been in the Champions League, reached finals, won the Super Cup, but it is 34 years since either won a major trophy.

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The captains Inaxio Kortabarría of Real Sociedad and José Ángel Iribar carry the still-illegal Basque flag before the derby in December 1976
The captains Inaxio Kortabarría of Real Sociedad (left) and José Ángel Iribar carry the still-illegal Basque flag before the derby in December 1976. Photograph: Courtesy of Real Sociedad

This is unique – a game that can feel like it belongs to another time, another world. Maybe even an act of resistance, revealed in that decision to delay indefinitely. “It’s some feat,” Olabe says. “Why? Because it’s 2021, a social and sporting context totally different to the 1980s, and suddenly we find two clubs with a profound belief in what they’ve always been.” His counterpart at Athletic, Rafael Alkorta, says: “Fidelity is central to our philosophy, a team forged from our surroundings. There’s much we share with our neighbours.”

If Olabe thinks there may never have been a derby like this, there may never have been a final like it either. “It’s beautiful for Euskadi [the Basque country],” says the Athletic coach, Marcelino García Toral. He is a holder of the trophy, winning with Valencia in 2019, and will lead Athletic into the 2020 final on Saturday and the 2021 final against Barcelona on 17 April. “We’re used to seeing Barcelona, Atlético or [Real] Madrid there. This time, none are. That says something about the success in the Basque country.”

It is claimed that the Basques are Europe’s oldest people and there is something about society, culture and football there – something felt along the route to San Mamés and Anoeta, seen in endless photos on the walls of bars in the cities, palpable across Euskadi. Include Osasuna and Navarre, as many do – Navarre is one of seven historic Basque provinces, while Osasuna is even a Basque name – and those statistics listed earlier rise to 3.6%, 6.2% and a quarter of all top-flight teams.

“That’s the tip of the iceberg, the consequence of something deeper; we could have an entire conversation about sociology,” Olabe says, laughing an hour later as he realises, actually, that’s exactly what has happened. “It starts in our sociopolitical context, our values. It’s complex, intangible, but real: linked to the influence of the matriarchy, society, family, the group. It’s socio‑affective, collaborative.”

“Take the sociedades gastronómicas: everyone brings an ingredient, cooks together, tidies up together. In bars, you note honestly what you’ve eaten. In San Sebastián you see lots of mad people running, behavioural patterns rooted in effort, commitment. We’re the beneficiaries of a sociological system that forges us, builds patience and perseverance. There are lots of things: the concept of the cuadrilla, for example. And the cuadrilla lasts.”

The cuadrilla is an inseparable bunch of mates, lifelong friends. It is also the word the Athletic striker Iñaki Williams uses. “You’re fighting with friends you’ve grown up with,” he says.

Athletic famously have an unwritten, historic policy of only fielding Basque players. Williams recalls a coach delivering a line that expresses how special playing for Athletic is: “You can; Leo Messi can’t.” Alkorta calls that policy “unique anywhere in the world”, which it is. And the nearest anyone gets is their nearest team.

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John Aldridge playing for Real Sociedad
John Aldridge became the first non-Basque player in Real Sociedad’s history when he signed in 1989. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Real Sociedad ended a similar policy when they signed John Aldridge in 1989 – partly because of the difficulty of competing with Athletic within such a small pool – but they now have as many homegrown players as their rivals, re-establishing the primacy of youth development. And Zubieta and Lezama, two training grounds built more than half a century ago, aren’t just pitches or academies; they are almost concepts, depositaries of an identity. While footballing styles differ, some ideals are shared.

If Messi can’t join Athletic, Martin Ødegaard, Nacho Monreal and David Silva can join Real, but they are few, carefully chosen and arriving into an environment where the identity is clear: Ødegaard soon became “Martinxo”. “We want to connect to that genesis,” Olabe says. “We had a bad time, which helps you learn. Since then, we’ve tried to be faithful to our origins. Who am I to say you can’t be part of la Real? I want you to have that feeling, share it: ‘made in Zubieta’ doesn’t need a barrier. But we aim at 80% from our region, 60%-40% in the first team.”

They have wondered what would have happened had they kept Xabi Alonso and Antoine Griezmann, aware of their economic disadvantages and the reality of a ferocious marketplace, yet keen to build stability and make la Real somewhere players stay. That includes those from outside; it also means competing. “The nucleus of the dressing room is the basis, but the signings bring something maybe we lack,” the defender Ander Guevara says. “They see what kind of people we are, adapt fast. And the manager [Imanol Alguacil] is someone for whom Real Sociedad is everything.”

Olabe explains: “We needed our young players to benefit from the confidence of experienced players and we’re trying to make the model more aggressive: we wanted to be passers but also explorers of space, which is where Martin came in, then David. He’s demanding: a bit ‘vinegar’, not just a beautiful player. The cuadrilla needs someone saying: ‘We’re here to compete, to win.’”

There may be no local derby so local. Of 25 Athletic players to appear in La Liga this season, 21 are Basque (plus four from Navarre) and 17 played for the club before first-team level. Of the 28 at la Real, 17 are Basque (19, including Navarre) and 18 academy graduates. Last time they faced each other, including Navarre, 19 of 22 starters were Basque. So were the coaches, both former players. Of 53 footballers, 41 began their senior careers at Athletic or Real.

That can limit but also contribute, creating what Olabe calls “a collective idea shared consciously or unconsciously”. Monreal and Mikel Merino cite the significance of a common identity, while Marcelino insists: “That makes a coach’s job easier. They’re a cuadrilla. Sometimes a coach has to build cohesion but it’s already here, a deep sense of belonging. The policy has proven plausible and it’s fantastic to have principles.”

Supporters of Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao mixing during games
Supporters of Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao regularly mix during games. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

All of which strengthens and feeds off the ties that bind them. There is something special about the Basque derby: supports mixed, a unique sense of community, occasion and liturgy. And with lockdown, la Real and Athletic did something difficult to imagine other clubs doing. Even if it meant missing out on Europe – and in Athletic’s case, it did – even if it meant risking those who had got them to the final being unable to play it (in the case of Mikel San José, Aritz Aduriz, Iñigo Córdoba, Ødegaard and Willian José, even Athletic’s manager, Gaizka Garitano, it did), they would wait for their fans. As long as it took, as long as they could.

Until this Saturday, it turned out. The federation refused to stage the 2020 final after the 2021 final, so their final – one they waited 112 years for – will be missing part of what makes them different. “It would have been a huge party,” Alkorta says. “It will be difficult, strange.”

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“The rivalry is ferocious but we watch games together. People come first: before winning, before anything,” Olabe says. “We would be hypocrites if we talked about our social dimension, identity, and then didn’t demonstrate that. We could have played back then, but it wouldn’t have been right; not playing was logical, coherent. The two presidents were clear. What’s commitment? It’s that. A year on, we didn’t expect this. Now we have no choice. If we did, we’d wait as many years as necessary, together. We took that decision and the consequence end up being this [anyway], which hurts.

“This could be the most important moment in our footballing history and we shouldn’t overlook that, the recognition both clubs deserve. Fans not being there takes something away. We waited to be with them, now we have to do it for them, find a way to make them part of it. We want to win for many reasons but basically for them. This has been a huge blow, but we’re the fortunate ones; nothing’s comparable to the people who have been ill, who’ve suffered. So now more than ever we have to represent them.”

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