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:


By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater Philadelphia area.


    1. yes, things are looking quite bad in Ukraine (but I would say what is happening to Bradley Manning is equally appalling – just as an example). But I am of opinion that Football and politics should be kept apart… even if I don’t like that Uefa and Fifa are quite happy to take the money of any criminal or dictator.. maybe in the end is more important for football to remain open to everybody, above any conflicts…

      and there are similar worse things that are happening, Israel jailing and not permitting for a Palestinian national team… I think Guardian had a recent article on this…

  1. so, where exactly is this game playing on US TV?

    i heard GolTV isn’t carrying it, so where can i watch?

  2. Isaiah, I think this is your best preview of the season.

    Whoever wins tomorrow, don’t do a Ramos 😀

  3. Just watched press pass and Sid Lowe said the in house fighting is bad at Barca and it might affect the team in the copa tomorrow. Granted every club has internal problems but, he made it sound as though the club was on the verge of an implossion. Pep was not happy that they announced Tito’s appointment at the same time he announced his departure and there was some story written in el mundo that when Pep was asked if anything in the article were true, he didn’t deny it.
    I would not want to speculate but, if there are problems in Barca, they need to fix them quick and also stop the war of words btwn Rossell and Laporta coz surely it will affect the team. Sid also said Dani Alves is more likely to leave as well. If he does leave, this will be the worst descision since Eto’o.

    1. Pep pretty much denied all of that in his press conference yesterday. He also specifically said that he had spoken to the journalist who wrote that story and that “he (the journalist) knows it’s not true.”

      And no one has explained why Pep would even care when the club announced Tito’s appointment in the first place. It’s all rubbish and rumour-mongering.

      Sid Lowe…writes well, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, he will sometimes not let facts get in the way of the story he wants to present.

  4. Looking forward to the mister orchestrating our performance for one last time.

  5. I hope the fans boo and jeer and whistle the f*ck out of that anthem..that aguirre female can then wave her hands around and try and see if she can do anything about it..Nothing, nothing can be done to stop the relentless booing…

  6. Hope for a brilliant match of football and a safe atmosphere.

    OT: Saw a kid wearing the new home jersey ( fake, obviously. since the typeface at the back was wrong) but it looked quite good and I personally loved it.

    1. Well, I guess the ineptitude of the RFEF has some advantage. Some really good players finally get a cap. It’s gonna hurt them when they Basques and Catalans are available and they have to go home. Hope Arbeloa’s one of the guys that goes home (useless and mean) as well as Albiol (useless and nice).

    1. Not GolTV U.S. Probably just as well, given that Phil Schoen’s resignation was with immediate effect, so we wouldn’t have our Scream Team anyhow.

  7. Villa, Puyol, Dani Alves & Fontas have all traveled to Madrid for the final. If we win the cup they will change into their kits and dash onto the field. Only Abidal was not healthy enough to travel.

    1. In the climate of “Alves sale” rumors, probably not the best time to not travel with the club. Broken collarbones aren’t that bad, once they’ve been fixed.

  8. As per Guillem “the Smarmster” Ballague:

    I was at Guardiola’s pressa yesterday. He didnt say “for the next month I have to recharge my batteries and my mind”,, he said “months”!!!!

    Meaning “an indefinite period”.

    1. wasn’t some newspaper reporting that Pep will be in NY for his sabbatical year? classy …

    2. I have no idea if that’s true, but I could understand a move like that. He might want to give Tito some space, as everything he does will be held up for comparison. He wouldn’t want to go to a major European city (with a major football team) because that would spark a whole year of speculation & rumour. And he enjoys travel and new experiences. Why not? It would be a bit tough on the kids I suppose, but they would pick up English quickly enough.

      BRB, I need to check flight/bus fares from Toronto to New York…

    3. yes they were saying it is the reason why he didnt choose London.

      i would say it makes sense for the children too, with the available schools there. and besides, it allows Pep to devote to his more cultural passions 🙂

  9. there is a great BBC documentary on the Spanish Civil War. for those interested I highly recommend it, as a insight into Spanish history.

    1. i guess we talked a lot about Pep’s departure as we are kept under this feeling of a monumental loss..

      now that he said that he will coach again when an exiting project attracts him I too feel a bit betrayed … because I thought that Pep is all about Barca; that he will be our Ferguson. While he will always be out there – to be called back in an hour of need, I am sadden by the thought of Pep coaching some other team, any other team but ours.

      In the end I wish to accept his decision as I am actually exited about Tito’s reign. Even if he was no major figure as a player for our club I am confident in his ability to continue these dream years. While he could have decided to follow Pep that he stayed at the club, even if in his case we talk about a promotion, earned my respect – as this is no easy challenge, following Pep…

      I don’t know much about Rosell’s plans, there were some mentions that he prefers some Brazilian coach etc, I think the last yaers have cemented a clear identity with the club – we raise most of our players (and there are signs of a new amazing generation of players) we seem to go for coaches from our system… in the end this creates a system of commitment that is hard to change even for our president, if he is sensible to the costs. Besides, club seems to be doing good financially as we can invest in a few good players that can add more quality… In the end we are so far from the times when Van Gaal was importing an entire Ajax team here! We have a great great system in place. I hope we don’t fuck it up (with our politics – too much anarchy :).

  10. We are the away team tonight. Does anyone know if we are wearing black or tequila sunrise?

    1. Ah, Xavi in black for the last time (unless we need it as a 3rd kit next year). I’m sorry, I love us in black.

      Will there be a LB?

    2. Oops, guess I need that second cup of coffee after all.

      Red and white stripes v Blue and red might be a little hard to distinguish on the crappy ESPN3 feed and the small laptop.

    1. “God save our gracious King, long live our noble King”…oh wait…wrong country.

  11. So about tactics, what do you think will happen in this match?

    Last time we met, Bielsa’s man-marking system was countered by Pep using Pique and/or Masche to start the attack from the back. Wonder what Bielsa has in mind this time? And, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pique has a dual role today (CB/CF).

    P.S. Where’s Euler? Has he been “seduced” by another blog? 😀
    P.S.P.S Will there be a liveblog? Just curious (I’ll be lurking).

    1. Yes – there will be a Liveblog with Calvin as your sultry host for the evening. 🙂

    2. Not too sure about Pique in this role tonight – bearing in mind that the back-line will be without Puyol, Alves and Abidal.

    3. He’d be first on my team list for defence. Just hope we play 4 at the back and don’t muck around with the three. Also, no Iniesta on the wing – just go back to what was successful, Pep, then we can celebrate properly.

    4. What do I think will happen?

      Football. Finally, after these last two long, painful weeks, some real football will happen. Real attacking, attractive football will finally happen to soothe our dry and brittle football souls. Both sides will attack. Both sides will press. Both sides will have their back line a little too high and the space behind it exposed leading to goals, goals, and more goals. We will score more of these goals than they will because the football gods owe us one after they capriciously allowed Chelsea to win the CL.

      I kinda suspect we’ll play four in the back because Montoya is not Alves and Adriano is not Abi and Pique is not Puyol. This game may be one of those games at which Kieta would excell IF he were to start. I also suspect that Busi could be our most important player. Pedro will be enormously motivated to shine and win his way onto the Euro squad. Messi will be messi. Pinto will make us panic one minute and impress us with a magnificent save the next. Xavi and Ini will be Xaviniestastic because they don’t know any other way to be.

      I think booing will happen, and a ton of whistles during the Royal March, more than would have been heard were it not for stupid politicians. If any US commentators were covering this, I’d expect comments like—“look at the teams, nobody is singing the Spanish National Anthem” like they so ignorantly said at the WC. Hopefully there will be no clashes between right wing extremists and the Catalans or Basques.

    5. Hopefully there will be no clashes between right wing extremists and the Catalans or Basques.

      How idiotic is it that Madrid a protest march for “Spanish Unity” (La Falange among the organising parties), when there were a few thousand autonomous provincials coming to town?

      It’s almost as if they want trouble to happen so that the focus will be on this for a few weeks, and they can point the finger at the infidel Basques and Catalunyans.

    6. immensely!!! but haven’t we seen this before, politics and football, eahh

    7. Don’t get me started on politics and politicians.

      “It’s almost as if they want trouble to happen so that the focus will be on this for a few weeks, and they can point the finger at the infidel Basques and Catalunyans.”
      Yep, I was thinking the same thing. Minorities being blamed for things when politicians need a scapegoat to draw attention away from real issues is a theme that recures too often throughout history. Potentially scary crap could go down. I pray that it won’t.

  12. This seems like kind of an aside, but this article on Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs (NBA) talks about unthinking but methodical brilliance. It seems to me like the author could easily be talking about Barca and one touch tiki-taka passing. Anyways, the similarities there led me to believe you guys might find it interesting.

    1. Thanks a lot, the SAS are my team in the NBA, I’ve been following them since the days of David Robinson.

    2. I’m a Warriors fan, but I admire the Spurs. They are a lot like Barca in some ways. Certainly their stars behave the way Barca stars do, while the rest of the NBA preens more than Ronaldo. Their current system of great ball movement, slashing from the perimeter from Ginobli and Parker, and great off the ball movement is very easy on the eyes too.

  13. ‏@barcastuff
    Barcelona line-up (official): Pinto – Montoya Pique Mascherano Adriano – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Alexis Messi Pedro #fcblive

    Alexis! 1 day after he gets the medical OK! It’s on!

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