Little Alaves upstage Barcelona despite losing Copa del Rey final
MADRID -- The thousands of Alaves fans -- representing some significant percentage of Vitoria, their little northern town -- began filling the hot streets of Madrid well before noon. For hours, it seemed as though their alleged rivals from Barcelona wouldn't even deign to join them. The conclusion of their meeting in the Copa del Rey was that foregone.
If there is anything more universal than football, it's the desire to see its biggest underdogs succeed. So it was impossible to wade through those Basque country hopefuls in their blue and white and not join them in their happy delusions, especially given the absence of a counter.
Why couldn't they beat Barcelona? They had before.
Alaves, then freshly promoted to La Liga, had somehow upset Barcelona at Camp Nou in September, 2-1, and arguably ruined their season from the start. Lionel Messi & Co. went on to show plenty more cracks this disappointing campaign (well, not Messi; for the most part he has remained invincible), but at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday it was tiny Alaves that equalised just three minutes after Messi opened the scoring in the 30th. Maybe, just maybe, they could close the season with another remarkable victory.
In bars across Madrid, the same unlikely calculations were being made again and again: For once, why not us? Even deep into the match's first half, when reality should have been coming down like a curtain, an upset still felt possible in this sometimes fiery Copa del Rey final. Alaves nearly opened the scoring, and after Messi finally put Barcelona ahead in the 30th minute, Theo responded with a beautiful free kick to level the game. Barcelona's fans had in fact materialized, although there were hundreds of empty seats in their end of the Calderon, and for a stunning moment they were quieted. The lovable lunatics from Vitoria more than filled the silence.
Those few seconds of celebration were as good as it would get for Alaves. For all the talk of Barcelona's season being a lost one, they remain one of the most ridiculous collections of football talent on the planet. They did what they were always going to do, their relentless attack overwhelming their opponents on their way to a 3-1 victory.
For them, winning the Copa del Rey was a small act of redemption, a last chance to remind Madrid -- even though this city's eyes are more firmly set on next weekend's Champions League final -- that Real's ascent as Spain's top team might yet see resistance. It was a nice way to send off manager Luis Enrique, too, with one more trophy to put at the end of the long rows of them in their museum.
For doomed Alaves, just reaching this final, their first in the competition since their founding in 1921, combined with their surprising top-10 finish in La Liga, would have to suffice as their version of a dream come true. Of course they were going to lose. In February, Barcelona had visited Alaves and destroyed them 6-0. It was as though the calendar had done Alaves no favors by giving Barcelona too much time to plot their revenge, but between the two regular-season results, the second was more understandable than the first. The campaign's beginning was the outlier, not its end.
But a funny thing happened at the finish of this Copa del Rey. The whistle blew. Barcelona's giants celebrated their win the way a doctor celebrates a successful surgery. Their fans cheered and waved their flags and pretended to be happy.
The Alaves players, exhausted by their efforts to defy honesty's odds, fell to the grass. Some of them dissolved into tears.
Then their fans, those same fans who had started arriving so hopefully 12 hours earlier, stood on the balls of their tired feet. They sang and applauded and when they weren't applauding, they draped their arms around each other's shoulders and shook their heads in wonder. They were easily the louder half of the stadium. They looked more joyous in their defeat than Barcelona did in their victory. Together they had already decided to take their loss back to the mountains and remember it as a win.
They had done the impossible after all.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.