The final Friday night
In the end it was an enjoyable Spanish cup final, if not a spectacular game. Barcelona's first-half performance saw to that, and Athletic just didn't have the necessary artillery to turn the game around. It's as if they peaked when they defeated Manchester United, and have never really got back to that level of performance. Their league campaign finished poorly, and they lost both their finals - but of course they should be commended for having reached them. Pep Guardiola said as much, in that generous way he has with other teams, in the post-match press-conference. It's been a memorable season for them, their first under 'El Loco' Marcelo Bielsa, and maybe their last, since there is still no definitive news as to what the great enigma has decided to do next season.
Pep Guardiola himself is definitely leaving, and it seemed fitting that he should sign off with yet another trophy - his 14th, to be specific - in a game that turned out to be surprisingly comfortable for his team, 3-0 up after 24 minutes and never really looking like surrendering that advantage, equal to the last time (4-1) they met in similar circumstances, in Valencia in 2009. It hasn't been an altogether satisfying season for the Catalans, but they've finished it on the right note. It will be interesting to see now if the Barcelona factor continues to influence the national side to the same extent as in the previous two international tournaments that Spain have won.
The game itself, finally played in Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon stadium, was preceded by some of the most absurd happenings for some time in Spain's often surreal political circus. Esperanza Aguirre, president of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, declared the supporters of Barcelona and Athletic personae non grata in the city, after the various pronouncements on social networks of the intention to 'pitar' (boo or whistle) the national anthem once again. Back in 2009, a similar scene provoked a political scandal when TVE1, Spain's flagship channel, turned down the volume so that the booing could not be heard. Accused of undemocratic behaviour, the programme's editor was forced to re-run the anthem at half-time, at full volume. There were still claims that he kept the decibels lower than they should have been, and so of course, the repeat of that final this year had brought back some bad memories for those who wish to pretend, heads in red and yellow sand, that everyone in the country shares the centralist Spanish sentiments of the far-right Partido Popular (to which Aguirre belongs).
Aguirre even went so far as to suggest that the game should have been called off (and played perhaps in the Orkney Islands?), fearful as she was of any further displays of anti-patriotism. Interestingly, she had no objection to the demonstration on the Friday afternoon by the far-right thugs of the Falange, there to warmly welcome their Basque and Catalan visitors. In fact, a Madrid court ruled, without so much as a blink, that the demonstration could go ahead.
Of course, the two sets of supporters were united in their desire not to disappoint on the night. I was actually picking up a takeaway pizza for my daughter ten minutes before kick-off and was therefore forced to watch the national anthem on the pizza-pad TV. Curiously, the room went quiet for the anthem, and the gathered munchers all pointed up at the telly, to watch this long-awaited national incident. King Juan Carlos, whose cup it is, was of course absent from proceedings. His Majesty has been having a hard time of it lately, and hurt his hip and knee when trying to shoot an elephant in Botswana, as you do. Ah, sensitive chap that he is, he couldn't possibly put up with all that noise in the Calderon, deciding instead to send Prince Felipe, who is, after all, a supporter of Atlético Madrid. At least he was on home ground to be booed. The anthem lasted a remarkably short time (27 seconds), and several of the players could be seen suppressing smirks.
It beggars belief that anyone could really be bothered by all of this. It's surely what makes La Liga so wonderful. The day when the Basques and the Catalans fail to boo the national anthem will be the day when the country finally loses its 'huevos'. It would be a strange thing indeed for these communities to show affection to the national flag, because by doing so they would reduce the particular power of their own peculiar identities. That is what makes them great football teams. The corollary makes Real Madrid a great team too, in its defence of the flag. It takes all sorts to make an interesting country, as they say.
The further irony is that the game was scheduled for 10pm local time on a Friday night - hardly a propitious hour for two sets of supporters who would need to take off a working day to get there on time. Two people failed to attend a meeting on Friday morning that I'd set up - tut tut - but I knew where they'd gone. In fact, some 50,000 travelled down from Bilbao, an astonishing act of pilgrimage in a week when Spain has almost collapsed financially on two occasions. The Calderon only holds 54,000, so they just wanted to be there, to fill up the streets and feel the occasion. Fewer travelled from Barcelona (about half as many) but the ridiculous scheduling was not their fault. And of course, there was no trouble whatsoever between the two sets of fans. Madrid is itself a welcoming city, which makes Aguirre's posturing all the more contemptible. The only ones who caused trouble were the Falange, fresh from a quick meeting of their book club (standard reading tends to be Mein Kampf), holding up banners proclaiming the sanctity of the unity of Spain. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall of their book-club premises (which I presume has a television) when Puyol and Xavi walked around the Calderon after the game holding the Catalan and the Basque flag on high. Bet they loved that.
Back to the game. Barcelona were without Carles Puyol and Dani Alves, but it didn't make a great deal of difference. They could easily have scored five in the first half, with Athletic trying desperately to break up their play high in midfield, but failing in their high-risk strategy. Fernando Amorebieta is a decent centre-back, but when the protection from Javi Martinez fails to work, and Andoni Iraola is caught overlapping up front, the Athletic back-line can look a bit ponderous. They have no Javier Mascherano, immaculate all evening in his reading of the game and in his expert snuffing out of most of Athletic's attacks. When he's good, he looks the best in the world in his position. And Liverpool wonder why they're having problems now, without him and Xabi Alonso. Unimaginable luxuries, to have them in the same team!
For Athletic, the baby-faced Ander Herrera started on the bench - surely a mistake, because when he came on he looked their best player on the night, with Iker Muniain not appearing fully recovered from a cold and Javi Martinez having one of his off nights. The much-lauded Fernando Llorente is a player whose status has deservedly risen in the past two seasons, and of Europe's classic centre-forwards he still looks among the best. Nevertheless, he depends on a certain type of service, either in to feet (he turns well for a big man) or crosses whipped in from either side - his favourite food. He only got one of the latter all night, and was eventually replaced by Gaizka Toquero, an honest and effective worker who nevertheless resembles a Sunday League amateur enthusiast who somehow managed to stumble into the Athletic dressing-room and be rewarded with a first-team shirt. He's a great player in his own way, but his introduction to the game somehow summed up the riches available to the opposition.
Leo Messi scored again, but I've lost count now and I'm sure he has too. He could have had another when he tried to lob Gorka Iraizoz in the first half, but the effort seemed almost apologetic, as if he'd had enough for the season. Another interesting stat about Messi is that he's scored sixteen goals in the twelve finals that he's played in, during the Pep era. As they say, cometh the occasion, the little man never hideth. Nevertheless, Barcelona may have to consider sharing things out a little more next season, as Messi-dependency may threaten to become a little unhealthy for their general prospects.
Whatever, in La Liga's final act of the season, the night belonged to Guardiola and to Athletic's impressively loyal supporters, two of the main headline-makers of this compelling 2011-2012 season. Can't wait for the next one.