The banners are still tied to the balconies, the barge still moored to the dock ready, the flag still flying over the city. Shop window displays remain in red and white, like footballing nativity scenes, Bilbao for Bethlehem. At Lezama a guard of honour formed, applauding as the buses pulled out taking Athletic Bilbao’s players to another Copa del Rey final, destiny calling once more. In Seville, the same hotel awaits, the same routine and the same shirts they wear will carry the same slogan on the sleeve: bizi ametsa (live the dream).
But two weeks on, it is different now.
In part, that’s just because Saturday’s Copa del Rey final (3:15 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) is the second of the two Athletic will play within a fortnight. In part, it’s because of the pandemic and the police. In part, it’s because it’s not a Basque final, and because it is Barcelona. Because, in short, it’s just not as big, not as likely to be won, not the same; it is special but not as special, not the occasion it was. In part it’s because they can’t help it, pessimism taking hold after defeat against Real Sociedad. It’s also partly because they can.
If the buildup to Saturday’s historic final has been low key, it is also by design.
Defeat in the first ever Copa del Rey final against their Basque rivals, which took place on April 3, hurt. Real Sociedad’s reign as holders will be the shortest in history, but it was also forever. And Athletic, defeated in the final, know that better than anyone. They knew that after the game, as Iker Muniain stood there silently applauding his opponents as as they lifted the trophy. More importantly, they knew that before the game and during it too.
Athletic are unique, everyone knows: a club that plays with only Basque footballers. Of the 25 men that have played for them this season, 18 played for them before first-team level. There can be a certain mythology that surrounds them — and Real Sociedad too have built a team from largely local talent, a club in which 18 of the 28 men who have played for them have been in the academy — but Athletic are different to most. There has probably never been a final in which more of the players on the pitch were fans of the club they represented than the one played out two weeks ago, a deep sense of what all this meant, how historic it was.
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“I have imagined this so many times,” Muniain said.
Athletic’s players have an identification with the club that few, if any, teams can match anywhere in the world. Jorge Valdano likened them to Gaul, a tiny but resilient people holding out against forces more powerful, “a team that pay homage to Basque football in the simplest way: by being themselves.” The club’s president, Aitor Elizegi, describes them as “the last artisans of this sport, surrounded by franchises and industry, a model that needs to be reinforced with triumphs.”
If their policy may deny them access to better players — although it is worth asking how much better, given the market strength of the teams around them — it gives them something extra, something intangible, but real. A depth of feeling of connection and commitment that genuinely makes a difference, that makes them stronger. The coach Marcelino describes them as a cuadrilla, a group of mates that have known each other their whole lives. That makes it easier, he insisted; it gives them power, the capacity to overachieve.
Before the first final, Inaki Williams said: “For every kid born in Bilbao, the dream is to play for Athletic,” and it was no empty cliché. “All 25 of us would run through a wall [for this team]; we’re different in that sense. It’s like going into a fight with your mates; it’s family, we have been inculcated in Athletic since we were kids, we have suckled on this.”
That helps. Or, at least, it is supposed to. But maybe there are moments when it doesn’t and maybe this was one of them. In Seville two weeks ago, maybe it did the opposite. “This is the hardest moment they have ever had,” Marcelino sad after they were defeated 1-0. It really, really mattered. Maybe it had mattered too much.
That certainly is the conclusion that many in Bilbao have reached, and watching the game inside La Cartuja, talking to people before the match and again after, it is a conclusion that convinces. The fear, the weight of occasion, was palpable. The awareness that this was never, ever going to be forgotten or repeated; a unique opportunity that was there to be grasped, but also there to be taken from them. And they had frozen, they had tied up. They had managed just two shots, barely been able to fight back — and if there’s one thing Athletic always do, it is fight.
“I’m sad above all because we weren’t ourselves,” Marcelino said afterward. “We wanted to win this game with all our might. And I think that was our great problem: the excessive responsibility. Emotionally, we didn’t have that freedom, that happiness, that ability to enjoy what we were doing, with what was at stake. We were very sluggish with the ball: we were more scared of losing than keen to use it.”
Maybe it had all been built up too much; maybe the weight of history was too heavy; maybe the obligation was asphyxiating, the euphoria and excitement overwhelming. And that helps to explain why it is different this time, why the buildup has felt flatter and why that might even be a good thing. Even if it has happened partly by accident, it has also happened this way partly because they have wanted it to.
After the first final in Seville, there was a feeling that the second final had gone too; that Athletic would find it hard to recover from that blow, destiny denied. Their chance was the first final, not the second; any chance they had in the second final depended on the momentum gained from the first. It is also against Barcelona, the team that defeated them in 2009, 2012 and 2015; the team that should beat them, unlike Real Sociedad.
Athletic could beat Barcelona, sure. They had shown that in the Spanish Super Cup, and it wasn’t lost on them that the last time they had won a Copa del Rey was in 1984, against a Barcelona team led by Diego Maradona — just as it is one led by Lionel Messi now. But that dream had seemed destroyed as they departed Seville two weeks ago.
Since then, there has been a sense of trying to rebuild their self-esteem, rebuild the enthusiasm, the optimism, the sense of destiny — just not too much. To see in this a chance for redemption, to believe again; and yet not to believe too much either, not to feel like anything other than victory is a crushing failure that will mark them forever, a scar. Not to make it bigger than it needs to be. To calm everything down, normalise it.
It hasn’t all been deliberate, some things just playing out naturally: caution is a natural reaction, a basic reality. Once bitten, twice shy. Many just didn’t feel like talking, little enthusiasm for the kind of buildup that marks a cup final so soon after the last, and one that was lost. “We have to get up and carry on,” Marcelino had said, but that’s not easy to do.
Meanwhile, the fact that it was youth teamers applauding them at Lezama and that there were not thousands of fans waiting outside with flares was a reaction to the criticism over it happening the first time amid a pandemic — Bilbao’s COVID figures are the worst in mainland Spain — and the fact that local police had moved to prevent a repeat.
In part, though, it is a conscious policy too. To not fall again, not freeze again. To release the pressure, ease the weight upon them, so that defeat is easier to digest and victory easier to attain. To support them and allow them to be themselves again, which has always been Athletic’s greatest success. Dani Garcia admitted that he had worn a cap and sunglasses, hoping not to be noticed when he went out, concerned at the reaction of the fans, but found that the opposite was true: they tried to lift his spirit, encourage him. Now the club is taking a similar position.
And perhaps being Gaul again, facing the Roman empire once more, will help that. “We have to make it hard for them,” Elizegi said. “Barcelona are like a world select, with all the good and bad things that brings. Before them will be a team that’s tough, more primal. They have talent, we have commitment and togetherness.”
On Friday, Athletic’s players flew south. On Saturday, one member from each of their families will be allowed to join them — unlike last time. It is a conscious decision, an attempt to condition them, to comfort them. “Our diagnosis was an excess of responsibility; we’re now trying to build an atmosphere in which the players feel support,” the president said. “We think that could be important. We think it might help to manager their emotions before and after. That Saturday against la Real we learnt something: let’s allow these players to enjoy what they have to do, to produce a game to remember in intensity, motivation and football. We are a hard team to beat, a great opponent in any one-off game.”
On the balconies the flags remain and Barge No.1 still awaits them, ready to sail down the Nervion in celebration for the first time since 1984. They have been left there from last time, but they have not been the focus of attention in quite the same way. Mostly people have just got on with it this time, almost as if they’re trying to pretend it’s not there. This final is still huge, still historic; it would still mean everything to them. But this time it can’t be an obligation; it must instead be an opportunity, a second chance.
“Trains don’t pass by often,” Raul Garcia said before the 2020 Copa del Rey final. But, while it may not be quite the same, while it is quieter now, two weeks later they can hear another one coming rolling round the bend.