Copa del Rey final: What's at stake for Barcelona, Messi, Valverde and Valencia?
Spanish champions Barcelona clash with Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday in Seville (live on ESPN3, ESPN Deportes at 2:30 p.m.). Sid Lowe tells you all you need to know.
A little bit of history ... and politics
Spain's oldest competition, the "Campeonato nacional de Espana," started as a five-team tournament held at the Estadio del Hipodromo to mark the coronation of Alfonso XIII in May 1902. The 1902 trophy is not included in the official records, but the occasion was the start of the Copa del Rey. Some 2,000 people turned up, sitting on chairs rented from a trader in the Rastro market. Alfonso came, as did the mayor of Madrid, Alberto Aguilera, who donated a trophy for the occasion.
The newspaper Heraldo described the scene: "little ladies in wasp waist dresses and enormous can-can dancers' hats, with pointed gaiters. Pastel colours and flower patterns, rice flour on pretty faces. Grave, solemn gentlemen, dark colours brightened by a carnation through the buttonhole. Dandies. Sparkling uniforms. Military men, corseted into tight waistcoats and trousers like bullfighters. Playboys who have sneaked in. In the official section, grey button-up frock coats and top hats, walking sticks with marble handles." Needless to say, it looks a bit different these days.
What's in a name?
It has a different name, too: Effectively the national title until the league was formed in 1928 (and still embossed with that title), it has been the Copa del Ayuntamiento de Madrid (Madrid City Council's Cup) and has changed repeatedly with the regime. It has been the King's Cup, the President of the Republic Cup, the Cup of the Generalisimo and the Copa del Rey again. It was named the Cup of Free Spain in 1937 in the first year of the civil war, though winners Levante are yet to have that title officially recognised.
Who says politics and sport don't mix? To this day, the King goes every year and hands out the trophy. During the dictatorship, it was Franco who did so. Barcelona midfielder Charly Rexach says it felt like a political act, a mini-rebellion. "Back then, the idea of pulling out of the cup as some kind of protest was impossible. If anyone said 'let's not play the cup', he would have had serious problems, so the only thing you could do, the only option you had was not just to participate in it -- it was to win it and joderlos, really piss them off. Just as we didn't win many leagues, we did win a lot of cups. It was their cup, it was his cup, and we went there to piss them off."
The weirdest finals
Madrid losing the final in their own stadium on their 100th anniversary, the Deportivo de La Coruna packing the north end of the Santiago Bernabeu and singing "Happy birthday to you!" is probably the most famous. In 1995, a biblical storm began during Deportivo and Valencia, with hail and rain hammering down and forcing the final 11 minutes to be played three days later. In 2000, Raul Tamudo scored the opener for Espanyol when he headed the ball out of the hands of Atletico goalkeeper Toni. After the game, the keeper could not stop sobbing: His father had died days before, and he wanted to dedicate the triumph to him.
The most famous photograph in Spanish football history, meanwhile, comes from the 1936 final, the last game played before the outbreak of war. In it, Ricardo Zamora dives to make a last-minute save, securing the trophy for Real Madrid, dust flying up around him. Then there was Recreativo de Huelva versus Mallorca in 2003, with two goals scored by a very young Samuel Eto'o. League president Javier Tebas recently claimed that the one-leg format had "failed" precisely because two such modest teams had made it to the final. Which proved one thing above all: just how wrong he is.
The first winners were Club Vizcaya, a mixed Basque team, which pretty much means Athletic Bilbao, who won the next two as well before Madrid won four in a row. But it's Barcelona who have the most titles, and they're racing away now: They have 30 to Athletic's 23, Madrid's 19 and Atletico's 10. They've won the past four and six of the past 10.
Barcelona to win this one too, then? Who needs it more?
Don't be so sure. There's a difference between "needs" and "wants," and that's not always the defining factor, of course. Barcelona have dominated this competition, and they're probably favourites here, but there has been a sense of depression since their Champions League semifinal defeat to Liverpool. They're in the same situation as they were last year when, daft though it sounds, many thought a domestic double might not be enough. It certainly won't be something to get all celebratory about, which is silly, really. But then it was all about Europe this year -- even Lionel Messi said that publicly. At the same time, not getting a domestic double might be enough for many to write this season off as a disaster -- a season in which they won the league by only 11 points over Atletico and 19 over Real Madrid. It has felt like they have lacked a little motivation since Anfield, but, Valverde says, "the cup will be different."
As for Valencia, a European semifinal and a Champions League place, clinched on the final day, mean that this year has been a success. Winning the cup, in their centenary season, their first trophy since they won this competition in 2008, would be huge. "The cup would make this a brilliant year after everything we have suffered and after three years when we've had a bad time of it," forward Santi Mina said. He also says he'll get the cup tattooed on him if they win it, which tells you something -- and not just that he likes drawing on his skin. At the club's training ground this week, a banner had been put up by fans. "No one beats us for desire: Let's go for this." They're gathering momentum too. In the club shop by Mestalla, they're selling T-shirts. That say "We want the cup" on the front. And they really, really do.
Barcelona do too, and yet ... is there a case of wanting to not lose it more than they want to win it?
The happiest man in Seville
One person who wins, whatever happens on Saturday, is Jeison Murillo, who is on loan at Barcelona from Valencia and is due a win bonus either way.
"After 60 games, the team is tired," Valencia midfielder Goncalo Guedes said. Barcelona have played 59 games.
Where is it anyway?
This time, at last, we didn't go through that tiresome old battle: the one over where the final was going to be played and when. There's no need for Real Madrid to claim that there is work going on at the ground as the real reason they won't let Barcelona play a final there or for everyone else to get their knickers in a twist about not playing at the Bernabeu. For the first time, the Spanish Football Federation decided the host city before it knew the finalists. The result? No arguments, no bitterness and no silliness. This year, the game is being held at Real Betis' Benito Villamarin. That made Betis' semifinal exit harder to take and momentarily raised the question of whether the site would be changed (a mercifully short-lived question for which they already knew the answer: no). It also means it will be hot. It is expected to be 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) at kickoff at 9 p.m.
Is this Ernesto Valverde's last game in charge of Barcelona?
Good question: Is it? Two leagues, a cup and another cup final later, two years after taking charge of a club he took over in a state of crisis, he has many lined up against him, doubting that he is the man for Barcelona. Or, in many cases, absolutely decided that he is not. Last year, he awoke on cup final day to the news that he would get sacked if they didn't win it -- they did, and brilliantly, 5-0 against Sevilla -- and he knows that a defeat here might doom him to the same fate. Barcelona's board have said that they're backing him, but they say a lot of things, and Valverde might well have a thing or two to say.
What about Valencia's Marcelino?
He's staying, stronger than ever. In January, with Valencia only four points off relegation, there were suggestions that he would get the sack: Valencia's director general Mateu Alemany was heading out to Singapore to see the owner, and the pressure built. But the players backed him, and so did Alemany. Now look where both stand.
Barcelona: players to watch
Yeah, obviously, but ...
But what? Leo Messi is Barcelona's everything, and one of these days, he'll finish off his own assist. This year even more so: Luis Suarez is out getting a knee operation to get him fit for the Copa America -- does that say something about the diminished status of the cup? Ousmane Dembele is out as well. There have been some suggestions that Valencia might task Francis Coquelin to do something resembling a man-marking job on him. This would make sense, as Messi has 50 goals this season, plus another 22 assists. Suarez has 25, Dembele 14 and Philippe Coutinho 11. Coutinho might not make it either, which means that Barcelona's second-highest scoring starter in Seville is likely to be ... Gerard Pique with seven goals.
There must be someone else. Is there a Barcelona X factor?
Ok, how about Malcom? For all that he is forgotten (unfairly?), for all that Valverde seems unconvinced, he has a habit of doing good things at moments that matter.
Valencia players to watch?
"You hugged me then. Now it's my turn to hug you back," Marcelino told his captain, Dani Parejo, as the team celebrated Champions League qualification last weekend. Back in January, Parejo celebrated a goal against Real Valladolid by celebrating with his manager, a public expression of the players' support at a time when it was all going wrong. Four months on, they had turned their season around, and the manager was "grateful," he said. Parejo, who insisted that he wasn't prepared to give up on the season in January, has been central to everything they have done this season, dragging them on to the verge of a wonderful year. If he plays well, Valencia will have a good chance. Alongside him, the return to fitness of Geoffrey Konddogbia, described by his manager as an "octopus," is big news. When it comes to getting goals and deciding the game, Rodrigo, who has overcome his difficult start, might be important. There's something about Kevin Gameiro too, especially in games such as this. But it might be Guedes who gives them the edge. He has scored eight times in 48 days since returning to fitness.
With Neto and Ter Stegen, there will also be two great goalkeepers.
Yeah, nice try.