The End of Just the Beginning: Barcelona – Athletic Bilbao

The first time these two teams played in the Copa del Rey final was 1920, in Gijon’s El Molinó with Barça winning 2-0. They next played in 1932, match in Real Madrid’s old stadium of Chamartín which  Athletic won 1-0. I don’t know if the Basques and Catalans whistled the La Marcha Real or the king. Nor do I know if that was the “tradition” in 1942 when they repeated the encounter, but with Barça running out 4-3 winners or in 1953 when Barça won 2-1. Both matches were in that same stadium. The two teams didn’t meet again the final until 1984 at the Bernabeu.

That match, being the first final against each other since Franco’s death, was probably more likely to inspire nationalist outcries than others (though I don’t know that it did). It also ended with Athletic lifting what has turned out to be their most recent trophy. They’ve subsequently appeared in just 2 finals (1985 and 2009) and lost both. For such a storied club, that’s a long wait and something their players will be itching to end. Barça, of course, last won this particular trophy in that 2009 match and were literally inches (Pedro’s offside toes) from winning it again in 2011. That 1984 final is perhaps most famous for being La Batalla del Bernabeu, Maradona’s last game for the club.

In 2009 there were some disgruntled Spanish nationalists when both sets of fans, clad in their flags and club colors, relentlessly whistled and booed the national anthem and the king himself. This year, the king is unlikely to make an appearance, having been injured in a fall while doing what all of us doing during our winter vacations: hunting endangered species. Oh, you guys don’t go on winter vacations to Botswana? Huh. I’ll be.

Because it wouldn’t do to not mention these things, King Juan Carlos was once accused of shooting a drunken bear. I’m envisioning a scene in a bar where a bear is boisterously causing Juan Carlos to be unable to hold a conversation with someone and the two get into it, squaring up face-to-stomach (bears are large) before His Majesty decides enough is enough and challenges him to a duel. Landed gentry do that sort of thing, you know.

This year the whistling scandal is being nipped in the bud by conservative Madrid President Esperanza Aguirre (herself a Countess) when she proclaimed that if, in her city, the visiting fans whistled La Marcha Real or the Prince of Asturias who is likely to take his father’s place, she would, had she the power, immediately suspend the game and force it to be played behind closed doors somewhere else. This has naturally caused a lot of whinging and bleating from the peanut gallery that is Sport and El Mundo Deportivo along with a few choice words from Sandro Rosell about free speech and such. You can pretty much hear him trailing off into the unspoken “but go ahead and do it.”

Politics, of course, are the lifeblood of Spain and Spaniards. You cannot have the latter without the former and becausefutbol is but a humble extension of Spanish culture, it stands to reason that politics would play a major part in it. In a private email, nzm mentioned that Esparanza Aguirre is basically creating the situation she claims to abhorrer: that is, the Streisand Effect is in full flight at this moment. The thing is, the King represents a lot that Basques and Catalans have often rallied against in the past. To quote that bastion of impartial fact, Wikipedi: “The Spanish Constitution, Title II: the Crown, Article 56, Subsection 1, affirms the role of the Spanish monarch as the personification and embodiment of the Spanish nation, a symbol of Spain’s enduring unity and permanence…”

You can see, then, why separatists and even those sympathetic to autonomous communities in general would whistle at such a symbol, especially since this is also a monarch appointed by Franco himself as his successor. Juan Carlos may be a much, much more sympathetic figure than the generalissimo, but he still stands for a centralized government and, probably for some anyway, the terrible times under his predecessor.

It is somewhat interesting that these two teams, the autonomous ones, have won the King’s Cup the most times. They have combined to win nearly half of all the titles. Including this year, since one of them will take home the trophy, it’ll be 49 of the 108 available. Athletic took home the first one (though Bizcaya disputes that) and has 22 others to boast of. Barça has 25 titles, which is of course the record. During the 1950s, they basically exchanged the trophy back and forth, winning 9 of the decade’s 10 trophies (Valencia grabbed it in 1954 in a 3-0 pummeling of FCB).

It also turns out that it’s Pep Guardiola’s final match in charge of Barcelona. That’s kind of a big deal, I’m told. For all the whistling, all the politics, what’s most important for cules is giving Pep a good sendoff. That doesn’t necessarily mean another trophy, though that wouldn’t hurt. What matters is playing the “right” way—the way Pep wants the team to play. He will be happy, I imagine, that it is his old friend Marcelo Bielsa in the other dugout—or more likely, also pacing the touchline and gesticulating wildly.

Barcelona’s injury crisis is going to have quite an impact on this match, unfortunately. Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Andreu Fontas, and David Villa are all missing. Those are big injuries that any team on earth would like to get back. Fortunately, Barça is not just any team and there will be plenty of talent available. The squad is: Valdés, Piqué, Cesc, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi, Thiago, Pinto, Mascherano, Keita, Busquets, Pedro, Afellay, Adriano, Cuenca, Montoya, Bartra, Dos Santos, and Tello.

Both teams played each other to the bone earlier in the year, including an epic 2-2 draw in San Mames that everyone loved, but no one was happy with. Another encounter like that is unlikely given fatigue and end-of-the-season lack-of-focus, but it could happen again given the rest for both teams between the last Liga match and this final. Perhaps the teams are all the more focused given their recent failures on the European stage (remember, as heartbroken as cules were after the CL semis, Athletic fans were handed a 3-0 smackdown by Atleti in the Europe League final). Athletic are perhaps even more focused than Barça given their failure toward the end of the Liga season to secure a European spot at all. They ended up 10th, 6 points back of Levante in 6th and 9 points back of the final CL spot.

The question for Barça becomes what to do without Alves? Do you risk a 3-man back line of Pique, Mascherano, and Adriano fronted by a host of tiny tykes and Busi? Do you put Montoya into an intense match against a spirited and fast-tracking opponent despite having relatively little experience? Do you put Jonathan dos Santos at right back for some strange reason? Do you trust that the Catalans (and/or Pinto) will out-whistle the Basques and cause havoc amongst them? I would start with Montoya at RB, but I’m not particularly enterprising.

Lineup I predict will happen, thus ensuring it will have no shot of happening: Pinto, Montoya, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Cesc, Messi. Surrounding Montoya with experienced players while also keeping Alexis (just back from another an injury) fresh for the final 20-30 of the match will be big. Athletic are going to press for 90 minutes, so movement will be key. That’s where Cesc comes in: if he wants a trophy in his first year, he’d better have a hell of a game shuttling through midfield and making good runs. It feels weird leaving Keita out of this contest, but I think he’ll make an appearance as a sub, along with Afellay (and the aforementioned Alexis). Too bad we can’t have 4 subs so Tello or Bartra can make an appearance, but the match will be too close for comfort.

Enjoy this last one with Guardiola. He’s the man. El Puto Jefe wherever he decides to sit down and make his presence felt. He’s an articulate, interesting, erudite fellow and he’s also boss at this here game of football. The team will no doubt play their collective heart out in order to get him his final piece of hardware before it’s Tito’s turn to make a little history. Go into this one not with aggression, but with joy and determination. Not with warrior-mode on, but with conviction that style is sometimes greater than substance, but both can be had at once. It is one of the defining lessons of the Guardiola era: hold your head high when you do things to the best of your ability, with all your heart, and with every bit of energy you have. Win or lose, this should be a festival.

It is not an ending, really. It is not a wake. It is the beginning of the Tito era, with all the nervousness and hope that such things bring. Yes, Guardiola will not be standing on the touchline any more, but like Cruyff before him, he will forever be in there.

In the end, it’s all about Pep. So let’s this, one last time: