The Giant-killers Of The Copa del Rey
Written by Alex Brotherton
We’re well into December, mornings and evenings across Spain are getting that little bit nippier and the countdown to the big day is on. It can only mean one thing; the first round proper of the Copa del Rey is upon us. Between 15th and 17th December, 116 clubs ranging from the fifth tier up to LaLiga will begin their journeys with hopes and dreams of reaching the final.
Many will be looking to cause upsets along the way, a reality of any cup competition. But in this sense, Spain’s national cup is a little different from knockout competitions elsewhere. Here, giant-killings, a term synonymous with the exploits of lower-league clubs in England’s FA Cup, are actively encouraged.
Under the current format, introduced in 2019, up until the quarter-final stage lower-league sides are drawn against Primera opposition, with ties played at the home of the underdog. This increases the tantalising prospect of seeing semi-professional Davids humbling superstar Goliaths, but that isn’t to say that cup-sets haven’t happened before. Here at La Liga Lowdown, we thought we’d run through the best Copa del Rey giant-killings, to get you in that cup fever mood.
Perhaps the greatest Copa del Rey giant-killing of modern times occurred in October 2009, when Real Madrid made the short journey to south west of the Madrid Community to face AD Alcorcón. Ahead of the two-legged round-of-32 clash, the difference in fortunes of the two clubs could not have been starker.
Having finished runners up to Barcelona the previous season in LaLiga, Florentino Pérez had returned as club president and decided to give the squad a complete facelift. €254m was splashed on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaká, a group of signings dubbed Madrid’s second batch of Galácticos. Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini was brought in off the back of his impressive work at Villarreal, and would go on to lead the club to a club-record points haul of 96.
Alcorcón, on the other hand, were playing in Segunda B, Spain’s regionalised third division. The annual salaries of their squad totalled less than €1 million, compared to the €110 million paid to Real Madrid’s stars, and they played at the (since expanded) 3,000 capacity Estadio Santo Domingo, a ground roughly 27 times smaller than the Santiago Bernabéu. To put it mildly, it was a complete mismatch.
“That season, Alcorcón was a team that was playing great, that was leading the division, so when Real Madrid came we thought we could hurt them”, recalls Alcorcón supporter Álvaro Moreno. “It even crossed our minds that, playing like this, we were sure to beat them. But we didn’t think we were going to win 4-0.” Yes, you read that right. Los Alfareros stuck four goals past their illustrious visitors, and conceded none. It wasn’t even like Los Blancos were fielding a youth side – Raúl, Karim Benzema, Rafael van der Vaart and Guti all started the game, but were powerless to prevent one of the greatest cup performances of all time.
From the first whistle until the last Alcorcón took the game to Madrid, and it was in the 16th minute that Borja landed the first blow with a low, curling finish. Six minutes later experienced defender Álvaro Arbeloa diverted a dangerous cross past his own goalkeeper, before Ernesto coolly slotted home a third just before half-time.
Not surprisingly, the Alcorcón faithful could hardly believe what they were witnessing. Álvaro was 15 years old at the time, but he remembers it like it was yesterday. “That game was a party, although I started the second half a little scared as Madrid were a great team, so we expected some sort of reaction after the break.” He needn’t have worried. Borja stabbed home his second of the night shortly after the interval, and finally the celebrations could begin. “We dominated the second half, and with the fourth goal madness broke out, with the entire crowd clapping and singing. It was a joy.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that 27th October 2009 was a night that rocked Spanish football. The game was broadcast to the entire country on Canal+, and remained national news for weeks after the semi-pro outfit advanced to the round of 16, 4-1 on aggregate. Such was the gravity of the result, the match was dubbed ‘El Alcorconazo’. The result even generated mass superstition, with the date of the game (27,109) reportedly one of the best-selling lottery ticket numbers that Christmas.
For Alcorcón, the result and national attention seemed to propel the club into a golden era. They were promoted to the second division in 2010 and have been there ever since, and even reached the last eight of the Copa in 2013. “It was a boost of energy”, admits Álvaro. “The team believed they had the right to everything, and it allowed us to win promotion that year. You couldn’t ask for more.” It seemed fitting that Alcorcón’s goal scorers that day, Borja and Ernesto, were youth products of the very club they’d just humiliated. It just goes to show that when it comes to cup football, money and superstardom mean very little.
Mirandés: The kings of giant-killing
There’s no doubt about it; Mirandés are the undisputed giant-killing kings. The club from Miranda de Ebro has never in its 93-year history featured in the top division, and didn’t even debut in Segunda until 2012. But when it comes to cup football, that doesn’t mean a thing. Just ask Villarreal.
Mirandés dominated Segunda B Group 2 in 2011/12, topping the table with 82 points before earning promotion to the second tier by beating Atlético Baleares in the play-offs. Still, as a third-tier outfit, not much was expected of them in the cup. As a lower-division side their cup journey began in August in the first round. They saw off Tercera División teams Amorebieta and Linense, before breezing past league counterparts Logroñés. Then they were drawn against Villarreal. A club with a similar history of lower league football to Mirandés, El Submarino Amarillo were now facing the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Napoli every fortnight in the Champions League.
The first leg in Miranda de Ebro finished 1-1, a late Borja Valero goal enough to spare the visitors’ blushes. But in the return fixture, Mirandés’ legend started to unfold. They shut out their illustrious hosts with Pablo Infante, on his way to becoming the competition’s top-scorer that year, striking twice to seal a 2-0 win. Two more LaLiga sides in Racing Santander and Espanyol were disposed of, the latter by the fine margins of away goals after a 4-4 tie, largely down to Mirandés conceding three goals in the final five minutes of the first leg.
In the end it wasn’t meant to be, as Athletic Club sent them packing with an 8-3 drubbing in the semi-final. But Mirandés had made history, reaching that stage for the first time ever and becoming the first third-tier club to reach the last four in 10 years.
Eight years later, Spain’s best giant-killers returned. Back in Segunda after two years in Segunda B, their cup credentials were tested from the off, with late goals in extra time needed to squeeze past both Coruxo and UCAM Murcia in the first and second rounds. Then, just like in 2012, Los Rojillos saw off three LaLiga clubs on a march to the semi-finals. First ticked off was a struggling Celta Vigo, a 114th-minute strike from Antonio Sánchez atoning for Álvaro Rey’s penalty miss and securing a 2-1 win. Then came Sevilla. Julen Lopetegui’s side were Europa League champions come the end of the season, but that night they were shellshocked by two goals in the opening half an hour from Brazilian striker Matheus. Again the hosts spurned a spot-kick, but Rey added a late third to seal the deal.
Then came the big one; Villarreal in the quarter-final. Eight years on from humiliating the Castellón club, Mirandés put four past them in front of a raucous sell-out crowd at Anduva. A pulsating contest that saw Andoni Iraola’s side take the lead three times, the final, injury-time goal sparked jubilant celebrations as the team and coaching staff flocked to the fans behind the goal.
Unfortunately, like in 2012, the last four was a step too far. Over two legs Mirandés fell to Real Sociedad, by no means a disgrace. Now flying high in Segunda and looking good for a play-off spot, they might not have to wait long for their next moment in the spotlight.
A tale of two volleys
The fact that Sergio barely remembers the time Atlético de Madrid visited his beloved Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa says a lot about how emotionally draining the occasion was; the 2-1 win only happened in January 2020. “It was a tremendous joy, similar to qualifying for a play-off final”, the Cultural fan recalls. The Segunda B side from León had not gone further than the round-of-32 stage since the mid-1950s, when there were fewer participants and therefore fewer rounds, and were up against the might of Diego Simeone’s Atlético. Cholo didn’t hold back in his team selection, starting the likes of Saúl, Vitolo, Ángel Correa and €113-million summer acquisition João Félix. When Correa opened the scoring with under half an hour to play, the chances of an upset looked slim – but that’s exactly what Cultural wanted everyone to think.
“It was a very even game for the first 45 minutes, but in the second half Atleti dominated until they scored”, remembers Sergio. Indeed, Cultural gave as good as they got, with Sergio Benito Crujera spurning a golden headed chance at 0-0, and with Lucas Giffard making a string of fine saves to keep them in it. But as Sergio explains, the home side came into their own after they fell behind. “When they [Atleti] took the lead they fell back and gave the ball to us. That, together with the motivation that the team had and the support of the fans, made it possible to get back into the game. Then, in extra-time, Cultu did what they did well all year – going at it and getting a bit of fortune.”
In the 83rd minute the pressure finally told, when Atleti reserve goalkeeper Antonio Adán skewed what should’ve been a routine punch sideways to the corner of his six-yard box. The ball was then stood up to a lurking Julen Castañeda at the edge of the box, who struck a left-footed volley so firmly into the corner of the goal that if it wasn’t for the netting, it might have just carried on into the Bernesga river.
But if the equaliser had a hint of fortune about it, then there was nothing lucky about the second. Over halfway through extra-time and with penalties looming, La Cultu countered with urgency. The ball came out to Gabriel Gudiño on the left wing, who delivered a first-time inswinging cross towards the right side of the area. The deliciously weighted ball was met by Sergio Benito, who sent an emphatic yet beautifully cushioned volley into the bottom corner. Cue scenes of pandemonium at the Estadio Reino de León, and Cultural’s first round-of-16 berth since 1960.
Ultimately, the fairy-tale ended six days later with a penalty shootout defeat to Valencia, but it’s not a cup run that those connected with the club will forget anytime soon. “In that game, the football ideas of the coach were implemented 100%”, says Sergio. “But in the end, La Cultural basically won because Atleti behaved as if it were a league match. I think Atleti, and especially Cholo, learned from that defeat!”.
Just the beginning for Alavés
Sorry Madridistas, but this one is at your expense again. It was January 1998 when Jupp Heynckes took his Real Madrid side to Vitoria-Gasteiz to face Deportivo Alavés. That same year, Los Blancos would go on to secure an elusive seventh Champions League crown, as well as a Supercopa de España. Alavés, by contrast, were recovering from decades of underachievement and decline that had seen them drop as low as the fourth tier.
But now they were on the up, flying high in Segunda under the leadership of a new coach, Mané.
Perhaps understandably, Heynckes took the first leg of the round-of-16 clash as an opportunity to rest some of his more senior stars. The decision backfired somewhat, as Manuel Serrano’s second-half strike gave Alavés a 1-0 win. There was still a second leg to play though, so no panic. A week later at the Bernabéu, Alavés’ heroes lined up alongside the likes of Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Fernando Redondo, Raúl, Davor Šuker and Fernando Morientes. Madrid had recalled the cavalry, but their Segunda counterparts did the unthinkable.
Just 10 minutes in, Pedro Riesco, himself born and bred in the capital and a product of Getafe’s youth system, scored for the visitors. 2-0 up on aggregate and with an all-important away goal, Alavés would have to concede three to be eliminated. Almost immediately, marauding left-back Carlos pulled one back for Madrid, before Šuker added another after half-time. But in the end Mané’s men held on, progressing to the quarter-finals where they would dispatch Deportivo La Coruña before falling to Mallorca in the semis.
For Alavés fan Rob Hextall, the significance of the Real Madrid tie went far beyond a cup run. “It showed the long-suffering veteran fans and the legion of uncommitted youngsters – who would have still been deciding who to support long-term – that dreams could, in fact, come true. Mané and his boys showed a whole new generation of kids in Vitoria that the city could have, and deserved, a team that could take on the big boys and compete in the top flight.”
And little did the Mendizorroza faithful know that 180 minutes against Real Madrid would kickstart the most successful period in the club’s history. “The self-belief that any opponent was beatable that the cup run instilled in the team was the seed that germinated into a gutsy first year back in Primera”, explains Rob. “That then sprouted into a ludicrous charge for a previously unimaginable European qualification spot, and finally blossomed into the mind-blowing rampage across the continent in the 2000/2001 UEFA Cup.”
Ultimately, the buoyancy that cup run brought didn’t last, and between 2003 and 2016, Los Babazorros played one season in LaLiga, eight in Segunda and four in the third tier. But in 2016/17, their first back in Primera, they finally reached their first cup final. 14 years after he’d left, Mané’s work was complete.
Men against boys (literally)
Now, cup upsets don’t always take on the template of a traditional, lower league club with a die-hard following fighting against the game’s elite. That became clear in 1979/80, when Castilla, Real Madrid’s B-team now known as Real Madrid Castilla, made it all the way to the final. While the final, regarded as the most bizarre match-up in Copa del Rey history, ended in a 6-1 win for Real Madrid (seniors), Castilla rightly earned plaudits for the host of giant-killings they executed on their way there. Their run was so remarkable we even produced a podcast special on it.
Castilla were playing in the second division, and while they could not gain promotion to the Primera due to Real Madrid’s involvement, they were allowed to enter the Copa. “They were a strong Segunda side, but they really did cause a shock by beating multiple LaLiga sides that year”, explains Sam Sharpe, admin of the @CastillaStats Twitter account. On their march to the final, Castilla showed remarkable character by overcoming 1-4, 1-2 and 0-2 first leg deficits to Hércules, Real Sociedad and Sporting Gijón respectively. It would have been some achievement for a regular squad, never mind one whose most senior player was just 23 years old.
Despite the drubbing in the final, their tournament ended in heart-warming fashion, with their senior counterparts inviting them to celebrate the trophy win. The youngsters got another taste of the big time, as their exploits earned them a place in the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup. Their giant-killing form looked set to continue as they beat West Ham United 3-1 in the first round first leg, but in London a 1-5 loss provided a brutal reality check.
While some bemoaned the damage the success of a reserve team did to the competition’s integrity (RFEF clearly agreed and prohibited the participation of ‘B’ teams 10 years later), the benefits reaped by both the players and Real Madrid were undeniable. Out of Castilla’s 23-man squad of 1979/80, nine went on to play for the first team at least once, including club heroes Ricardo Gallego and Francisco Pineda. 19 went on to play regularly in LaLiga for a variety of clubs, an unprecedented ‘graduation’ rate of 82%.
Real Madrid were quick to see the value of their younger brother, and so went about aligning their youth system under one banner. “At one point it [Castilla] was a completely separate club, with little direct association in comparison to the modern day. Only two Real Madrid first-teamers had previously played for them”, says Sam. “But by the Copa final they had similar crests and were known as the reserve side.” So began a golden decade for Castilla, one that saw the emergence of La Quinta Del Buitre, the famous five homegrown talents led by Emilio Butragueño that went on to dominate Spanish football in the 80s. Ultimately, it was the Copa del Rey exploits of 1979/80 that laid the foundations for the Real Madrid Castilla we know today.
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