Saturday 16 January 2021

How Spain's Copa Del Rey Is Now Capturing the Imagination

Everyone loves a good cup upset, well everyone bar those on the receiving end at least, and when it involves a bunch of part-time minnows playing regionalised football winning at home against a top tie giant then it truly is the real deal. 

For the perfect example of this most heartwarming of events, the classic 'cupset', you don't have to look much further than last week when third tier Segunda B Group 3 side UE Cornellà defeated the might of Club Atlético de Madrid in Spain's Copa del Rey. Although, due to COVID, a lack of spectators meant the full-time whistle was not accompanied by the usual pitch invasion there would have no doubt been many celebrating locals elsewhere. There was still delight on the faces of the celebrating players and no doubt wild scenes in front television sets around the area as fans watched the action no doubt accompanied by the obligatory fast paced ramblings of a loquacious Spanish commentator.

For fans in countries such England, France, and Germany, David versus Goliath ties are very much commonplace and upsets certainly not unheard of but in Spain, however, such scenes may still seem to many a little alien. For many years, up until the end of the 2018-19 season, by the time flight sides entered the competition only 12 lower league sides remained and not only that but at this point, all ties suddenly reverted to a two legged affair. This meant that not only did amateur or semi-professional sides rarely get the chance of facing an FC Barcelona or a Real Madrid but on the rare occasions that such matchups did occur having to play two legs as opposed to a one-off tie made knocking out one of the big guns not far off impossible and very rare. 

This format also gave Spain's biggest clubs such an advantage to the point that seven of the past nine winners of the competition had been either Barcelona or Real Madrid, the country's two biggest clubs, and you had to go back ten years to find the last time neither side made it to the final. Because the format was so weighted in their favour their smaller rivals even in the top flight did not consider themselves having any chance of progressing in the competition and therefore did not take it seriously preferring to concentrate on the league, and often survival, making that advantage even greater. 

A huge adjustment to the competition's format ready for the beginning of last season, however, has now changed all this with last years final, not yet played to due to COVID, consisting of neither of Spain's top two and coming at the end of a tournament that had seen plenty of upsets along the way.

Under a new format, just 20 sides would participate in a preliminary round before 56 one-off tie first round matches that included all bar four top flight La Liga sides (the four involved in a new Supercopa de España) who would enter in round three. Seeding would remain in place meaning increased numbers lower league opposition would regularly get drawn against top flight sides whilst the lower ranked team was always given home advantage to perhaps make the seemingly mammoth task just that little bit easier. That one-off match format, with extra-time and penalties, if needed, to settle the match on the day, meanwhile, would remain in the place all the way up until the semi-finals which would be two legged affairs before reverting to a one-off tie again for the final which would still, naturally, be played a neutral venue.

126 teams in total would enter in total with 84 coming from outside the top two divisions, including amongst varying third tier sides, all winners and runners up of each group in the fourth tier Tercera División as well as all the winners of the fifth tier Divisiones Regionales groups (in all cases excluding reserve sides competing in the divisions).

Allowing fifth tier sides to enter was another massive change as under the previous format only clubs within the top four divisions could enter whilst for many years in the competitions past even fourth tier sides had not been admitted with only selected teams from the third tier allowed to participate alongside first and second division clubs.

These new changes would surely help support the little guy for once and were clearly a welcome change. However, despite the difficulties smaller clubs have faced in the past, and despite the fact that certainly in recent times the competition has not been revered in the same way other domestic cup competitions elsewhere have, it still does have a rich long history and one that does include some real moments of note. Yes, even before most recent format changes the Copa del Rey still had the odd tale of fascination. 

Such occasions include when Real Madrid's B team, then known as Castilla CF, reached the final of the competition in 1980 only to lose 6-1 to none other than their parent club, and that season's league champions, Real Madrid. That final appearance gained Castilla a place in the following season's UEFA Cup WInners' Cup where they lost to West Ham United in the first round. About ten years later rule changes meant B sides were no longer allowed to enter the Copa del Rey. 

Another interesting event in the history of the competition came in 2009 when third tier regional league side AD Alcorcón managed to break through the harshness of the two-legged system to defeat giants Real Madrid. Based in the same city they astonishingly defeated their near neighbours 4-0 at home in the first leg and qualified for the next round as their opponents only managed a 1-0 win in the second. As mentioned, this kinda shock generally did not happen in Spain at the time and that made it all the more remarkable, especially with it being a 4-1 aggregate win as opposed to say a one goal margin.

Another rare example of lower leagues side thriving in the two legged set up, of which they aren't many, came in 2011-12 when CD Mirandés beat three top flight sides en route to an 8-3 aggregate semi-final defeat against Athletic Club of Bilbao. Villareal and Racing Santander were both defeated 3-1 on aggregate before they knocked out Espanyol on the away goals rule after a 4-4 aggregate scoreline to become the first side from outside the top flight to reach the semi-finals in ten years.

But although events such as those involving Alcorcón and Mirandés have been extremely rare in the past that is, of course, as I keep telling you, no longer the case. I've written previously on this blog about the Coupe de France and Germany's DFB-Pokal, both of which have a fascinating tradition of cupset's and I would go as far as saying that the Coupe de France is the greatest domestic knock-out competition in the world (just ahead of the FA Vase, look it up). But while the Copa del Rey has not generally been a competition that's captivated me its recent dose of fairytale excitement has piqued my interest. 

The first big shock under last season's new format came in the first round when La Liga side, and UEFA Cup finalists in 2001, Deportivo Alavés lost at fourth tier Real Jaén. Jaén were out for revenge as whilst both second tier sides some six years earlier the pair had met on the final day of the season in a relegation decider that Alavés won to stay up and send Jaén down. Since then Jaén had been relegated a second time whilst Alavés had been promoted back to the top flight meaning there was a now seemingly a massive gulf between the two sides when they met. But you would never have guessed it was Alavés who were the top flight side as they lost 3-1 to the team three divisions below them.

In the second round fellow La Liga side Getafe lost 2-0 at third tier CF Badalona whilst in the third, two more La Liga sides lost to third tier opposition with Atlético Madrid losing 2-1 at Cultural Leonesa and SD Eibar being defeated 3-1 at CD Badajoz. Meanwhile, at the same stage, Barcelona needed a 94th minute injury time winner to defeat UD Ibiza who were in their second season of third tier football after two straight promotions. Extra seats were installed in Ibiza's Estadi Can Misses home for the match with 6,445 spectators present in a ground that usually held about 4,500. Based on the party island of the same name, the club's fans were celebrating wildly when they took the lead after just nine minutes as they came close to what would have a ginormous upset against a club who had won four of the previous five finals.

Barcelona and Real Madrid both lost in the quarter-finals with Basque rivals Real Sociedad and Athletic Club set to meet in April to finally complete that 2019-20 edition of the competition after the final was postponed due to the COVID pandemic. To get to that final Sociedad had to beat second tier Mirandés 3-1 on aggregate in the semis with Mirandés becoming the first team from outside the top flight to reach the semis since they last did it themselves as a third tier side in 2012 a feat I, of course, mentioned earlier.

Although last years final has yet to take place, this year's competition is already well underway with top flight sides RC Celta de Vigo, Córdoba CF, and SD Huesca both last week losing to third tier regional league opposition alongside Atlético Madrid. It was those men who gave Barcelona run for their money last season who defeated Celta as Ibiza romped to a 5-2 victory, Córdoba, meanwhile, defeated Getafe 1-0 to see the visitors lose to third tier opposition for the second season running whilst Huesca lost 2-1 at CD Alcoyano.

That victory for Alcoyano has secured them the visit of Real Madrid to their 4,850 capacity Estadio El Collao home in the next round with seeding meaning all third tier sides still left in the competition will face to flight opposition at home. There are six clubs in total from the third tier still left with all clubs below that level having, unfortunately, now been knocked out. CDA Navalcarnero and SCR Peña Deportiva, who both beat second tier sides in the last round, face Eibar and Real Valladolid respectively whilst Ibiza welcome Athletic Club, Córdoba face Real Sociedad, and Cornellà, fresh from defeating Atlético Madrid, now face another giant in the form of Barcelona.

England, France, and Germany all have an affinity for the little guy and love a good footballing upset. In England they talk of the 'magic of the cup', the Germans use the phrase 'Der Pokal hat seine eigenen Gesetze' meaning the Cup has it's own rules, whist in France they nickname the minnows 'Petit Poucet' (Little Thumb) and 'Cendrillon' (Cinderella). Spain and the Copa del Rey seemingly does not have these traditions but this love affair must surely now be catching on. We shall have to wait and see if this revitalised competition brings us any more shocks in the next round but whatever happens with that there are bound to be plenty more shocks in the years to come. After all, the Cop del Rey is now guaranteed to give us lots of David vs Goliath match-ups every single year and they'll all be settled on the night so tey big won't be given second chance if they end up being embarrassed!

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