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Sports Authority

Yturralde: Real Sociedad vs. Athletic Bilbao Copa del Rey final postponed

| Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Copa del Rey is a tournament played among top tier Spanish soccer teams throughout the course of the regular season. Similar to the FA Cup in England, the Copa allows teams across multiple divisions of Spanish soccer to play against each other. This year, the cup kicked off in mid-November and was expected to continue through April. In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, the Copa del Rey final was indefinitely postponed.

The semi-finals for the Copa were played before the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting halt to sports around the world. The final was set to be a Basque derby, Real Sociedad vs. Athletic Bilbao. The two traditional clubs have not met in a cup final since 1927. Anticipation was at an all-time high for the game between the two fierce rivals before Spanish football was shut down.

Sociedad and Bilbao are the two biggest teams in the Basque country. Impressively, Basque soccer teams currently make up 25% of La Liga, Spain’s premier soccer league. Sharing a rivalry as old as time, these two teams have been at each other’s throats for more than 100 years.

Before the dawn of the modern game, one in which money rules, both Sociedad and Bilbao competed equally for national and international glory.

Staying true to their roots, Bilbao only fields Basque players and coaches. While this greatly limits the talent pool from which they can draw, it adds all the more prestige to their victories. Basque players take pride in representing their region when playing for Bilbao. Similarly, the fans of Los Leones (The Lions), the nickname for the team, share equally in the sense of regional patriotism.

Sociedad, on the other hand, has thrived over the years as a result of both its foreign players and its farm system. A team of low economic means, in relative terms, Sociedad has stayed true to traditions and always produced a number of high achieving players from its farm system. A breeding ground for young talent, Sociedad players can be spotted as young as 17 playing for the first team or on loan at other Basque clubs.

One of the reasons why the Basque derby is such a passionate rivalry is because most of the players on both sides of the field have grown up playing against each other. Comprising mostly farm-bred players, both Sociedad and Bilbao’s stars have been playing mini derbies since they were kids. Imagine rising the ranks of your hometown team and finally having the opportunity to play against your rival on the grandest stage.

This season’s buildup to the Copa del Rey final was thrilling, to say the least. Both Basque teams topped Spanish giants in the quarter finals of the tournament. Bilbao faced off against Barcelona at home and came away with a highly contested 1-0 victory. The fans at San Mamés, Bilbao’s stadium, roared as their team brought down one of the most storied teams in all of Spain.

Doing some giant-slaying of their own, Sociedad defeated Real Madrid on the road. The final score of the game was 3-4, and every minute of it was as exciting as the score suggests. The blue and white team went up 0-3 on their hosts before the 57th minute of play. Shocking the world, the young Sociedad side put on a spectacle.

It was nothing short of poetic to see 21-year-old Martin Odegaard, on loan at Sociedad from Real Madrid, score against his old team. In reality, the visiting team’s young players all put on a clinic at the Santiago Bernabéu. Swedish national Alexander Isak netted two for Sociedad along with one from Spanish national Mikel Merino.

Aside from fans in Spain’s two biggest cities, the entire country was ready for the final between Sociedad and Bilbao. Basque derbies are always categorized by intense, physical competition. Yellow cards are usually seen throughout the game and fans always exchange passionate cries.

With that, there is never bad blood between the teams. For most of these players, the saying blood runs thicker than water holds true. The Basque compatriots recognize each other as cousins. While on the field contention is always high, the clubs share a history of good relations.

It is unclear when or where the final of the Copa del Rey is going to be played. As the war against COVID-19 rages on, these two teams, alongside athletes everywhere, are standing idle.

If I were to guess, I would think the final will be pushed to just before the start of the regular season. This is not an ideal timeline, but it would allow for a smooth transition from the cup final to the regular season and next year’s Copa del Rey.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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