Crash! By the end of what might just have been the most dramatic night the Copa del Rey has ever experienced, life flowing through its veins, two giants were down. They had fallen, defeated, at the feet of the men from the north, that place where football is something else, something good.
Two days earlier, holders Valencia were knocked out by a last-minute penalty from Roberto Soldado, pushing Granada into a semifinal for the first time in 51 years. One day before, tiny second division Mirandés had scored a last-minute goal to win 4-2 against Villarreal, the club with a budget twenty-seven times theirs, and reached their second ever semi-final. Now, on the third day, a day they would never forget and nor would anyone else, it happened again. Even better than before.
On Thursday, Real Madrid were defeated 4-3 by Real Sociedad and then Barcelona were defeated 1-0 by Athletic Club Bilbao. It had been heading going to extra time for the third time in a row — Athletic made it through the last two rounds on penalties — and Inaki Williams admitted that they no longer had the legs for it, exhausted now, but they had no lack of heart. And, then, with the clock on 92:32, Williams’ header flew past Marc-Andre ter Stegen and into the net, where Aritz Aduriz was now standing, gripping the rope and roaring.
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“I didn’t even know what to do, how to react, where to go,” Williams said. The answer was simple: go mad. So he did.
He was not alone, either. At the Santiago Bernabéu, they had gone madder. All of them. Real Sociedad were 3-0 and then 4-1 up, playing superbly, the ball theirs, picking Real Madrid apart piece by piece. Martin Odegaard was substituted to an ovation; so was Alexander Isak. Just 20 and 21 years old respectively, the way they had played was barely believable: between them, they had scored three goals. But still Real Sociedad weren’t safe. When Mikel Merino scored the fourth with 20 minutes remaining, some fans made their way to the exit… soon, they were trying to turn round again.
This was getting silly. Sorry, sillier. Rodrygo scored (81st minute), Nacho scored (94th minute) and a comeback seemed possible, the noise rising, Vinicius Jr. flying, players everywhere except in their positions, the nerves clawing at Real Sociedad. At goalkeeper Alex Remiro, especially. There is no place that embraces the idea of a remontada more than the Bernabéu and even if the reality is different, the stats proving that heroics remain rare, Juanito’s spirit not so easy to summon, it’s something they believe in like few others. Especially with that guy around. And in the very last second, the ball fell to Sergio Ramos.
Of course. Who else?
Score and this goes to extra time and then there’s only one outcome: Madrid do it again and Ramos does it again. When it comes to drama, there’s no one like him, maybe anywhere ever, a cartoon action man, the saviour in the final scene, at once impossible and inevitable. There’s no one Madrid fans would rather appear with the game on the line. This time, though, his header floated harmlessly into Remiro’s arms; he held on gratefully, hugging it like a baby. Madrid were out.
So, soon, were Barcelona. With just two minutes to go at San Mamés, a chance — the chance — fell to that other man that of course it falls to, the raft everyone clings to in stormy seas. But another man stood before Lionel Messi in goal, their salvation.
Unai Simon joined Athletic at the age of 14, left on loan and was called back in a hurry because it was an emergency: Athletic lost Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea, the second goalkeeper Iago Herrerín was injured and their third, Alex Remiro — yes, that one — had been banished to the stands because he was refusing to sign a new contract. They had no-one else, so they brought Simon back from Elche and stuck him straight into the side. He’s still there, two years later, and on Thursday night he certainly was right when it mattered most. Simon saved from Messi, just as he had saved from Antoine Griezmann. “Miraculous,” Williams called him.
The whole thing was. The final whistle went at the Bernabéu and at San Mamés. Madrid were out, Barcelona out too. Messi walked away silently, pulling at the captain’s armband, stretching. It has felt tight of late. He wore a face that he has worn too often in the last few years, as if he’s wondering where it all went.
At the Bernabéu, they had been close to something absurd, historic, but they also knew that they had been well beaten; after 22 games, they lost a match and their sense of invincibility. “We lost the one game we couldn’t lose,” Vinicius said.
High, high in the north end of the Bernabeu, Real Sociedad’s fans celebrated, the rest of the stadium empty now. Way below them, the players sang along. When they reached the dressing room, they were shouting and celebrating. Imanol Aguacil, the coach, embraced winger Mikel Oyarzabal, the pair of them pummelling each other with hugs that were punches, too.
“Incredible,” said Isak, which was a pretty good description of him. “I’m trying to bring them joy by doing my job,” he told Bombazo and, boy, did he do it. He missed two more scoring chances, had another goal taken off him by the VAR and still produced two finishes of rare quality, the second absolutely smashed into the net. Oh, and an assist too. They were enjoying this down there.
They were enjoying it up there, too. In Bilbao, the whole place was still packed, chanting and singing, players raising their arms in praise. They call it the Cathedral and here was real worship. “San Mamés and the whole of Bilbao will be a party”, Williams said. “Time for a wine and then bed,” claimed Inigo Martínez. “It makes me immensely happy to see San Mamés like this.”
For those that were beaten, the giants with feet of clay, defeat hurts and both games will be dissected. In terms of performance, Barcelona had been better than Madrid — Barca manager Quique Setien said he was satisfied, which might have been a step too far, in truth — but while at times they played well, context conditions everything and the damage will probably be greater there after the week they have had. “We get enough s— thrown at us from the outside to throw s— at each other,” Jordi Alba said. He can expect more.
“Talk to me about the football,” Setién had pleaded before the game, but there was no refuge on the pitch this time; the team could no longer prop up the club. Even Messi had misfired. The lid is off and while some saw positives, it will be hard to get back on again.
Barca won’t be getting that title back again, that’s for sure. “We made history,” Isak said and he was right.
Barcelona have been in six consecutive finals, and nine of the last 11. This time, they’re not even in the semifinals. You have to go back 10 years for the last time neither they nor Madrid made a final. This is the first time in 17 years that neither Madrid nor Barcelona nor Atlético are in the semifinals, either. There have only ever been seven semifinals in Copa del Rey history without at least one of Barcelona, Madrid, Atlético and Valencia.
Some complained, the kind of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Sometimes football finds a way and that is to be celebrated. Not least because it won’t happen every year, and this year, this cup will be remembered long beyond most of those others. The big boys are gone, the giants beaten? Good. Mostly, it has been celebrated: the competition has been revived, more exciting than ever before. It’s not just about Madrid and Barcelona, even when it always seems to be just about Madrid and Barcelona. There are other histories, beyond theirs. And this year’s edition confirms it.
This is the first time Athletic and Real Sociedad have reached the semifinals together since 1987. (They could meet in the final, too: Athletic host Granada and Sociedad face Mirandes in the final four, on ESPN+ next week.) Forget the fallen this time and embrace the men standing, the men who had defeated them.
Look at Real Sociedad, stare up at San Mamés; the mass, the meaning. Look at the build-up to the game, the fireworks engulfing the bus as it arrived. Look at Pozas, packed: the street that is like a portal, carrying everyone to San Mamés, every doorway a bar, the Cathedral lit up at the end. Look at how they reacted in San Sebastián, too. Identity, community. Football. It was wild and it was wonderful. and Inaki Williams said it best: “Hshsjdlwlejsusbdndlqusgzbaksjjdvsjsk.” How else do you describe this?
And what about what comes next?
“This is not any game; it’s special, the most important night of the entire year,” Athletic manager Gaizka Garitano had said after the Basque derby earlier this year and this Sunday there is another, where they will sit together, a unique match. They have never met in a cup final but now there may be more: the most important game of this year or any year. When they last met, of the 22 starters, 15 were Basque and both managers were Basque. Just like the manager of Mirandés, by the way.
Every club is special and every fans cares, but that adds something. There’s something about the Basque Country, which accounts for 1.4 percent of Spain’s territory, 4.9 percent of its population and 20 percent of its first-division teams. And now, 50 percent of its cup semifinalists.
“I am happy as a partridge. I dreamed of this ever since I was little,” Williams said, tears fighting their way through, his voice breaking slightly. “This is the greatest night I have lived here. It is what we all dream of.”
In the Athletic club shop, they sell t-shirts bearing a quote from Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier on the front. “To play for the best clubs is a nice challenge but there is a more difficult challenge: to play against them and beat them,” it says. “I dedicate myself to this task.” On Thursdaynight, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad did exactly that. And that’s what a cup is, the very essence of sport, of competition.
That’s what football is.