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  • Writer's pictureMatt Clark

Imanol’s Crowning Moment In A Triumph For Basque Football

Imanol Alguacil’s viral outpouring of emotion at his post-match press conference perfectly encapsulated what this victory meant to him and to the club… everything.

Scarves hanging from balconies, flags and banners draped on to governmental buildings, even buses wrapped in the colours of the clubs. Copa ilusión was clearly present in Bilbao, San Sebastián and the surrounding areas. After a week dominated by discussion around the European super-elite and their desire to modify the Champions League, this game and everything to do with it was a welcome antidote to the ills of modern football. It represented a return to what football should always be about: purity above purse strings, egalitarianism instead of economic elitism.

Athletic Club hadn't won the Copa since 1984. Real Sociedad hadn't won the Copa (or indeed any trophy) since 1987. There was a lot riding on this game, and it arrived an entire year after it was supposed to. The participants who could have featured in the final without the Covid postponement are worthy of a mention. Gaizka Garitano led Athletic into the final, but was relieved of his duties at the turn of this year. Martin Ødegaard, instrumental in La Real’s run to the final, was playing for Arsenal in their Premier League defeat as the final unfolded simultaneously. Diego Llorente, Willian José, Rubén Pardo, Kévin Rodrigues, David Zurutuza, Kenan Kodro, Iñigo Córdoba, Beñat and Mikel San José have all moved on to pastures new or retired since last season. Of course, there is Aritz Aduriz too. The Athletic legend was supposed to retire after the game: his final curtain, his last hurrah. Cruelly, the pandemic postponement forced him to retire anyway, and he was another supporter in the stands. But loss often brings opportunities to others. David Silva, legend of Manchester City, played his part in the final. He added a second Copa to his bulging medal collection. Carlos Fernández was eliminated with Granada in the semi-finals against Athletic. But he replaced Willian José in January and ended up as a Copa champion, coming on as a late sub in the victory over the very same team that had previously eliminated him. These Covid-provoked, intricate quirks will no doubt stump many a quiz participant in years to come. Marcelino took over from Garitano and had the chance to become the first coach to win back-to-back Copas with different clubs. But instead, a bizarre paradox emerged from the result. Marcelino had won the Supercopa by beating Barcelona, an opponent he has never beaten in LaLiga. But he lost the final of the Copa to a team he has never suffered defeat against in LaLiga.

The game itself was not a footballing spectacle in all honesty. But the fact it was a Basque derby Copa final was sufficient for most observers, knowing the prize on offer. That inevitably contributed to the tense, cagey nature of the game. Often such encounters depend on the decision or indecision of one individual, and on this occasion, that fate befell Iñigo Martínez. The narrative was almost scripted. The central defender played 239 games for La Real, but moved across the Basque divide in 2018. He tripped the onrushing Portu, a clear penalty, far less subjective than the one he conceded for Spain against Greece in the same stadium nine days earlier.

Mikel Oyarzabal, whose record from the spot was perfect until January this season stepped up and dispatched it. He did it with such conviction that you wouldn’t know he had missed three of his last four penalties since the Supercopa shootout. It was his 63rd goal for the club in his 229th appearance. Oyarzabal is yet to turn 24. He almost broke down in tears on television after the game, reinforcing how much this means, and how he is fully aware of this significance.

It would be easy to label Iñigo Martínez as the villain of the piece, but it would also be grossly unfair. His sportsmanship at the end was exemplary. He congratulated the Real Sociedad delegation up in the stands, then greeted the celebrating players one by one. He didn’t have to do any of that, but he wanted to. It epitomised everything great about the Basque culture, and the friendly rivalry between the clubs.

Athletic captain Iker Muniain was also a credit to his club and his region. Desperate to be in Oyarzabal’s shoes, he stayed, watched, and applauded as the trophy was being lifted by his opponents. His solitude and solidarity in that moment will be one of the endearing memories of this final. Alex Brotherton’s viral tweet captured the moment beautifully, demonstrating class and dignity as captains always should.

The victorious captain, Asier Illarramendi, has been living an injury nightmare, and when he suffered another on the eve of this final, he must have been devastated. For him to be able to lift the trophy and celebrate with his team-mates was another special moment to add to this beautiful Basque tapestry.

Defeat meant that Athletic have lost their last five Copa finals (1985, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2020), and the only solace they have is that can make amends by beating Barcelona. In fact, doing so just two weeks after this game would be the ultimate Bilbainada. But in between times, the irony couldn’t be greater: Athletic’s next game is away to Real Sociedad in LaLiga, a mere 96 hours after the final.

Few could argue against La Real as deserving winners. Alexander Isak was the competition’s top-scorer with seven goals. They won every single game. From Becerril to the Bernabéu, from San Sebastián to Seville, scoring 25 goals and conceding just five along the way. Valencia and Marcelino were reigning Copa champions for 679 days. Real Sociedad's reign will last just a fortnight, but this will stay precious forever.

Imanol, as pure txuri-urdin as you can imagine, will be eternal in the history of the club. Youth player, B-team player, first team player, youth team coach, B-team coach, interim first-team coach, permanent first-team coach, champion. When he returned to his apartment block in Orio, Gipuzkoa, he stepped out onto his balcony and sung from his heart once again. A small crowd of supporters were there below to serenade him. Imanol returned home as a champion, a hero and a legend. This was for his people. This was for his club. Basque football was victorious, but La Real are the champions. Txapeldunak.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or want to know how to pronounce even the most obscure Basque names - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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