Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona: What you need to know about Copa del Rey final



1. Celebration by boat?

Most go by open-topped bus, but the late Atlético Madrid president, Jesús Gil, famously went by elephant, a pachyderm parade through the streets of the Spanish capital. Athletic Club de Bilbao, on the other hand, go by barge. Or so they hope. The last time Athletic won the Copa del Rey, they sailed a barge down the Nervión and more than a million people came out onto the streets. The barge is still there, waiting. It’s been done up, it’s ready. The question now is whether it will set sail.

A Basque club in a global game, still considered the classic cup team, Athletic are looking to win their 25th title and are preparing for their 38th final. It is also their third final since 2009 — all of them against Barcelona. But it is 31 years now since Athletic won anything; 31 years since the barge made its way down the river with the team on board. Photos of those celebrations lined the walls of the old San Mamés and line the walls of the new one, too; they adorn bars all across the city, black and white slipping further into the past. Just the words la gabarra moves them somehow, almost as if it was a mythical vessel, waiting to be revived.

“You look at photos and it’s frightening … you can only imagine it,” says Aritz Aduriz. He was 3 years old. Others were younger still — “that was the year I was born,” says midfielder Mikel Rico. The immense majority of the Athletic team had not been born at all. A generation of fans has heard about it, with stories passed down, but it’s not quite the same. “My kids don’t believe me,” says the former Athletic player Patxi Salinas.

That day, 1½ million people were in the streets to watch. This time, there could be even more. Bilbao is decked out in red and white, banners and flags everywhere; few cities identify so completely with their club. And few players identify so completely with their club. Few clubs identify so closely with their history. When Athletic played the 2009 Copa del Rey final, Mikel Rico was playing for Poli Ejido. He drove 500 kilometers to watch the game at Mestalla. “We’re all real Athletic fans,” he says. And as Athletic fans, they know what la gabarra means.

Down on the river, the barge awaits. Athletic have already requested permission to sail from the Port Authority, just in case.

The Copa del Rey has been won 24 times by Athletic Bilbao. Can they make it 25 on Saturday?
2. Messi … and Neymar … and Suarez

“The man-marking of Messi has begun.”

So said one Athletic fan, who had turned up early in Catalonia and found Leo Messi on the beach at Castelldefells. The picture, put up on Twitter, did the rounds. Messi, man-marked? If only it were that easy, the players thought. Athletic manager Ernesto Valverde has considered a five-man defence but it is not clear how he will approach this game defensively. Sitting back and waiting is not really Athletic’s style; they’re more about intensity and pressure. It appears more likely that they will try to deny Barcelona time or space to build.

It’s not just Messi, either. When Luis Suarez was forced out of the Champions League semifinal second leg against Bayern Munich in Germany, he told friends he was not worried. He would be fit soon enough. It had just been a precaution, manager Luis Enrique said. But time went by and some started to wonder. Since then, Suarez missed Barcelona’s title-clinching match at the Vicente Calderón and the final game of the season against Deportivo de La Coruna. In total, he had missed 225 minutes. But on Thursday, he trained with his teammates for the first time.

So now the trio is reunited and with a record to chase. Despite the fact Suárez did not make his debut until October, they have already overtaken the 100 goals scored by Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry in 2009; now they are one behind the 118 that Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín scored in 2011-12, although calling them a trio doesn’t entirely convince; Higuaín and Benzema were more “either/or” than “and.” They complement each other perfectly; they even get on rather well, too. Gerard Pique said he had never seen a forward line like it. Few have seen a player like Messi, either.

“Leo Messi? I have no idea how to stop him,” says Bilbao midfielder Ager Aketxe. “It wouldn’t be bad if he was Basque.”


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