They’re black-and-white memories, sepia smudged, of toddling down the street to the corner shop opposite the grey-tide promenade of my home town, buying a quarter bag of sweets of my choice for the English FA Cup Final and hurrying them back home to guzzle with my dad whilst we watched the game on TV – the annual Saturday afternoon event of my childhood, and the day when I seemed closer to him – a man wary of outward displays of emotion or of wanting to spend a great deal of time with his children. But the FA Cup Final seemed a momentous event in the calendar, the feast of the BBC build-up from 11 0’clock onward an impossibly lavish treat for a young nerd such as myself – no matter the teams. When you supported a local side that occupied the nether regions of the English league, the FA Cup Final was something weighty and pivotal. I loved it, and I remember (in embarrassing detail) every one that I saw.
The decline in the romance of the FA Cup was inevitable, once the greater commercial rewards of the expanded European competitions came into play, although one senses that some tattered flags of emotion still remain, flapping in the winds of FIFA’s multi-national wilderness. Two years ago, when my own son played in the Scottish FA Cup it was a poignant entry in the pages of my own football scrapbook, although sadly my own father didn’t live to see his grandson play the game. And for the last 29 years, here in Spain, I’ve been forced to endure the two-legged tedium of the ‘Copa Del Rey’ (King’s Cup), a tournament whose royal legacy was recovered in 1975 after Franco’s death, during which time it was known modestly as the Cup of His Excellency the Generalissimo. It was tedious because the two-legged format was deliberately stacked in the big sides’ favour, especially given the fact that they would enter the tournament late due to European commitments, by which time the toiling competitors who had set off from the start were knackered.
Nevertheless, Spain has its own stories and legends to sustain its interest in the cup – the Maradona-tinted bloodbath between Athletic and Barcelona in 1984, Atlético Madrid’s win over Barça in 1996 that won them the coveted double, Deportivo’s win in the Bernabéu in 2002 to ruin Madrid’s centenary party, the following year’s final of the unfashionable between Mallorca and Recreativo de Huelva, and shocks such as the infamous ‘Alcorconazo’ that doomed Pellegrini at Real Madrid and which has haunted the club ever since, lest something similar be repeated. That 4-0 defeat away in 2009 to a side in Spain’s ‘Segunda B’ (3rd tier) was one of the most seismic results in the (then) 107 years of the competition. It is still not considered a polite topic of conversation in Madrid’s footballing circles. Barcelona also lost to Segunda B sides on three occasions over a nefarious four-year period between 2001 and 2004, defeats which, in hindsight, toughened them up for the years to follow.
But these were isolated specifics in a rather more turgid whole, a competition whose last eight editions have been won five times by Barcelona. It won’t be this year. The RFEF’s decision to do away with the two-legged format, include sides from the ‘Tercera’ Division (effectively Spain’s fourth tier) and tie them with top-flight sides almost from the outset has lit the tournament’s blue-touch paper and produced some wonderful and quirky meetings. Big names have been wobbled and toppled like skittles, with Atlético Madrid’s defeat to Cultural Leonesa a particular eye-opener. The game which pitched disco-island Ibiza against Barcelona was also a lot of fun. Second Division Mirandés, who actually reached the semis in 2012 as a Segunda ‘B’ team, finally succumbing to Athletic Bilbao over two legs, are at it again. Their 2012 adventure was one of the great cup runs, captivating the nation that year. Now they’re in the semis again, from a town of 40,000 inhabitants in the chilly province of Burgos, in northern Spain. After struggling against lesser opponents in the opening two rounds they subsequently beat Celta, Sevilla and Villarreal, and have drawn Real Sociedad in the semis, the first leg of which takes place this Thursday, in San Sebastián. The semis now return to the old two-legged format, but maybe that’s okay. The Spanish football overlords are habitual mess-makers, potentially incapable of organising a chimps’ tea-party, but this time they got it right. I managed to take advantage of the early-round draw and watched 3rd Division Tolosa lose 0-3 to Valladolid in their tiny ground. It was a lot of fun.
The wonder is, however, that they took so long to change things – though there are still further improvements they could make, for example by introducing an open format into the 4th round, so that the smaller side does not by default play at home. Always awarding the smaller side the home tie is a nice idea, and it made for some eccentric ties in the earlier rounds – Real Sociedad’s 0-8 win at Becerril, for example, in a town with a heaving population of 780 being a particular stand-out. Sociedad’s president immediately invited the entire town to a home game of their choice in San Sebastián, with free buses provided and free entrance. They haven’t taken up the offer yet, but it was one among several memorable games the newly formatted tournament produced. Nevertheless, the attraction of playing an away game at a top-flight club is also a considerable one, and the present arrangement hinders that.
On Wednesday, Athletic entertain Granada in the opening semi-final, and there is no sense of a favourite to go through. Granada are having a half-decent season and will fancy their chances if they can emerge intact from a howling San Mamés, especially after having knocked out the holders Valencia in the previous round. The obvious attraction of these Barça-Madrid-less semi-finals is that there exists a considerable possibility of an all-Basque final, an event that has moved Spanish meme-makers into a frenzy of activity, most of the jokes being made at the expense of the newish king Felipe VI. To the background of the famous post-Franco incident where the captains of Real Sociedad and Athletic walked out for the derby carrying the Basque flag, the king closes his eyes and contemplates the scene (to be played in Seville) with the phrase ‘Joder que pesadilla’ (fuck, what a nightmare!) in his thought-bubble. Poor Felipe, booed relentlessly at the five finals over which he has presided since taking the reins from his old man – (Barcelona have been in every final since his accession) might have been hoping for a rest this time around. If the two Basque sides make it to the final (the last time was 1910) then the TV will once again be obliged to turn down the volume during the booing of the Spanish anthem – a healthy sign of democracy for some, but for others an annual national embarrassment.
Then again, Felipe does like football, but was forced by his father to support Atlético Madrid, a club whose supporters have not been traditionally known as fans of secessionist causes, ahem. It remains to be seen, in the event of a Basque final, whether the Spanish FA will further embarrass themselves by putting on a pre-match entertainment spectacle consisting of dark-haired Carmen clones, wafting their fans and dancing Sevillanas to the frenzy of gypsy flamenco guitars – a bit like wheeling on Chas n’ Dave to sing a quirky God Save the Queen for Celtic v Rangers at Hampden Park.
In short, Mirandés v Granada is the one the authorities, deprived of their clásico money-fest, will be praying to the saints for. It would certainly be cool if Mirandés were to make it, but the semi-final on Thursday will be marked by the curious fact that two of the Second Division’s side’s best players are on loan from Real Sociedad, and can play, contractually-speaking. John Guridi plays in midfield and winger Martin Merquelanz, the star of their show so far, is a really sweet and funny kid who has suffered a number of personal setbacks in his journey so far, and deserves the chance to play a cup final. I watched him develop as a player with Real’s feeder team Antiguoko, and he was an obvious talent, albeit a scandalously idle one at times.
Glancing at the league, Barcelona’s midweek defeat in the quarter-final in Bilbao and Real Madrid’s startling 3-4 home defeat to Real Sociedad had the usual effect of galvanising the sides, resulting in both of them winning tricky games this weekend, Madrid 1-4 in Pamplona and Barça 2-3 at Betis. The cup is still important enough here to impact on the scene in general, and there is a lower incidence now of teams putting out reserve sides for the matches. This is entirely healthy, and this season’s competition has quite rightly earned rave notices. All it needs now is an all-Basque final and the king to put on a stoical face as the television volume is turned down to keep up patriotic appearances. You can’t help but love it. And if I’m not physically present in Seville, I’ll be buying my annual bag of e-infused sweets with enough chemicals to kill a horse, looking skywards from time to time to commemorate those sepia days on the sofa with my old man.