Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona: What you need to know about Copa del Rey final
With the Copa del Rey final taking place on Saturday, part of #massivefootball, we asked Sid Lowe to pick out five key things to know about the clash between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
1. Celebration by boat?
Most go by open-topped bus, but the late Atlético Madrid president, Jesús Gil, famously went by elephant, a pachyderm parade through the streets of the Spanish capital. Athletic Club de Bilbao, on the other hand, go by barge. Or so they hope. The last time Athletic won the Copa del Rey, they sailed a barge down the Nervión and more than a million people came out onto the streets. The barge is still there, waiting. It's been done up, it's ready. The question now is whether it will set sail.
A Basque club in a global game, still considered the classic cup team, Athletic are looking to win their 25th title and are preparing for their 38th final. It is also their third final since 2009 -- all of them against Barcelona. But it is 31 years now since Athletic won anything; 31 years since the barge made its way down the river with the team on board. Photos of those celebrations lined the walls of the old San Mamés and line the walls of the new one, too; they adorn bars all across the city, black and white slipping further into the past. Just the words la gabarra moves them somehow, almost as if it was a mythical vessel, waiting to be revived.
"You look at photos and it's frightening ... you can only imagine it," says Aritz Aduriz. He was 3 years old. Others were younger still -- "that was the year I was born," says midfielder Mikel Rico. The immense majority of the Athletic team had not been born at all. A generation of fans has heard about it, with stories passed down, but it's not quite the same. "My kids don't believe me," says the former Athletic player Patxi Salinas.
That day, 1½ million people were in the streets to watch. This time, there could be even more. Bilbao is decked out in red and white, banners and flags everywhere; few cities identify so completely with their club. And few players identify so completely with their club. Few clubs identify so closely with their history. When Athletic played the 2009 Copa del Rey final, Mikel Rico was playing for Poli Ejido. He drove 500 kilometers to watch the game at Mestalla. "We're all real Athletic fans," he says. And as Athletic fans, they know what la gabarra means.
Down on the river, the barge awaits. Athletic have already requested permission to sail from the Port Authority, just in case.
2. Messi ... and Neymar ... and Suarez
"The man-marking of Messi has begun."
So said one Athletic fan, who had turned up early in Catalonia and found Leo Messi on the beach at Castelldefells. The picture, put up on Twitter, did the rounds. Messi, man-marked? If only it were that easy, the players thought. Athletic manager Ernesto Valverde has considered a five-man defence but it is not clear how he will approach this game defensively. Sitting back and waiting is not really Athletic's style; they're more about intensity and pressure. It appears more likely that they will try to deny Barcelona time or space to build.
It's not just Messi, either. When Luis Suarez was forced out of the Champions League semifinal second leg against Bayern Munich in Germany, he told friends he was not worried. He would be fit soon enough. It had just been a precaution, manager Luis Enrique said. But time went by and some started to wonder. Since then, Suarez missed Barcelona's title-clinching match at the Vicente Calderón and the final game of the season against Deportivo de La Coruna. In total, he had missed 225 minutes. But on Thursday, he trained with his teammates for the first time.
So now the trio is reunited and with a record to chase. Despite the fact Suárez did not make his debut until October, they have already overtaken the 100 goals scored by Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry in 2009; now they are one behind the 118 that Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín scored in 2011-12, although calling them a trio doesn't entirely convince; Higuaín and Benzema were more "either/or" than "and." They complement each other perfectly; they even get on rather well, too. Gerard Pique said he had never seen a forward line like it. Few have seen a player like Messi, either.
"Leo Messi? I have no idea how to stop him," says Bilbao midfielder Ager Aketxe. "It wouldn't be bad if he was Basque."
3. Home comforts for Barcelona?
"Playing at home is a big advantage," said Jordi Alba. But is it? Well, yes, yes, it is. At least in theory. "They'll have the dimensions of the pitch in their heads and when they look at the pitch all the good things they did there will come to mind," said Rico. The familiarity should help. But will familiarity bread complacency? Or will the unfamiliarity actually prove a problem?
This is the Camp Nou, sure. But it is not their Camp Nou, not exactly. Instead of driving into the underground car park at the stadium, like they do most weeks, Barcelona's players will meet at the training ground and go by bus from there. And when they arrive, they will head to the other dressing room, because Athletic are the older club and the older club get the home dressing room. The pictures, prayers and paraphernalia in the Barcelona dressing room will not be theirs this time.
When they go out, this will not look the same, either. Instead of a few hundred away fans high up in the stand, miles from the pitch and barely audible, there will be closer to 50,000 Athletic fans. Twelve thousand have traveled without tickets; 500 buses, three trains and 11 flights have been chartered specially. A fan zone has been set up on Montjuic hill and they will be there all day, building up for it, noisy. Nosier, you would imagine, than Barcelona's fans. Probably more numerous. Barcelona's supporters will turn up by Metro. Could it be just a bit too "normal" a game for them, a bit abnormal for their players?
Javier Irureta, the Deportivo manager who took his team to a Cup win at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid on the club's 100th birthday, thinks that it might have helped his team back then.
4. In safe hands?
Jose Angel Iribar played for Athletic for 18 years from 1962 to 1989, winning the cup twice. Many consider him the best goalkeeper in Spanish football history. Later involved in politics and a supporter of Basque independence, he was famous for dressing all in black, like Lev Yashin. So much so that a few years ago, the Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz chose to play in a black training top rather than the official, green goalkeeper top. He did so in honour of Iribar.
Iraizoz will not play this final; Iago Herrerin will. Like many clubs, Athletic give the cup to their goalkeeping understudy and although it looked like an injury might rule him out, Herrerín insisted he would have played this final even if he had been "crippled." He was not going to miss out. This week Iribar gave Herrerín a special pair of gloves. On them are the names of every goalkeeper who ever played a final for Athletic.
5. Goodbye, Xavi
This will be his last game for Barcelona at the Camp Nou. And, well, there's not much more you can say.
6. A big moment for Aduriz
At the end of the semifinal, it was suggested to Rico that someone might have to build a statue in honour of Aduriz, the striker who had just taken them to the final. "Give me the spatula and I'll build it myself," he replied.
Aduriz is a curious case. He admits that he was not much of a football fan when he was a kid, or at least had not been raised on the game like many others; his parents were more into mountaineering, skiing and trekking. He was also from San Sebastian, home of Athletic's rivals Real Sociedad. But after a season at Second Division B team Aurrera Vitoria, he began his career with Bilbao Athletic, the club's second team, when he was 19. And he will end his career at Athletic, too, having just signed a contract renewal at the age of 34.
And yet Aduriz has not always been here. Three times he departed, a sense of disappointment accompanying him as he reluctantly did so, and three times he returned. He has been at Burgos, Valladolid, Mallorca and Valencia. This is his first ever Copa del Rey final: the previous two times Athletic got there, he was playing elsewhere, and three times he was part of the Athletic team that was knocked out in the semifinal by the eventual winners.
Now, at last, he has the chance. He deserves it, too. Aware of the passage of time, he looks after himself better than ever before and this has been his best season. So says Pique, adding: "he's very dangerous." He's right. Perhaps no player has been as vital for their team in Spain this year as he has. It is not just the goals, but that everything goes through him. For much of the season, they had not scored a single goal without him on the pitch.
"I've seen the gabarra," he said. "But I've never been inside. Hopefully I can set foot on board when it's truly the right time to set foot on board."
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.