European Football

Magic of the Copa

Real Betis, Valencia, and the cup final that football fans didn’t know we needed…

It is Saturday as I write this. The day of the Copa del Rey Final, the crowning match of Spain’s biggest cup competition. It was an occasion years in the making for multiple reasons, but from an outside perspective, it just seems like one of many cup finals and big games that are on the calendar over the next month. And it is not one of the most exciting ones, the match up did not even seem exciting on paper. But it was. It so incredibly was. I recognize that I am very vulnerable to fall victim to overstating and overemphasizing an event, but why not? It did really feel like that in the post-COVID world, we had yet to have an event truly like this.

And that is what it was. An event. And there are three things that, when they come together, make you realize that you well and truly have something special on your hands, when a football match evolves from simply a match to something quite bigger.

First, you need two willing participants. Two teams going for it, with the technical quality and intense mentality combining to create a match that is tense, unpredictable, and feels in the balance throughout the 90, or in this case 120, minutes. Valencia and Real Betis gave us that.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Betis are a team I have discussed here before, and they entered the match as the favorites for valid reasons. Higher up in the table than their opponents, Los Verdiblancos are genuinely one of the best sides in LaLiga this season and feature several of the league’s best attacking players, including one of the best goal scorers in the competition in Juanmi and maybe the second best overall player in the league in Nabil Fekir. They are a dynamic and aggressive attacking side with plenty of quality throughout the team. But it is not just their season, they are a team who came into the final looking to make history. Betis have not won a major trophy since last winning the Copa in 2005, and they have only won the competition twice in their entire history prior to this season and only boast one other major non-lower divisions trophy, a first division title from the 1934/35 season. They are a team that has had their fair share of suffering, which has coincided with a golden era for their biggest rivals, Sevilla FC. But despite this, Betis have one of the largest and most passionate followings in Spain, a fanbase that has followed their club through thick and thin rallied around the motto “¡Viva er Betis manque pierda!“, or “long live Betis, even though they lose”. They are a genuinely big club that hold the respect of fanbases across the country. Well, except for Sevilla fans.

Valencia came into the final as another of Spain’s big clubs facing difficult times. Winners of the Copa in 2019, Valencia have won a trophy more recently than Betis, but they are suffering through as difficult of a stretch. The 2019 Copa, a famous 2-1 win over Barcelona ironically played in Betis’ stadium, was the first major trophy won by Los Che in 20 years. Despite this triumph paired with a fourth placed league finish and an impressive run to the Europa League semifinal in the same season, they were unable to build upon this momentum. The club has faced significant financial issues, and these issues, when paired with the rather inept governance of controversial owner Peter Lim, led to the departure of manager Marcelino and the sales/departures of 11 of the 18 players who were named in the team and substitutes for that cup final victory, including beloved club captain Dani Parejo and prodigal winger Ferran Torres. Despite the recent success, the club was a far cry from their golden run in the early 2000s. Valencia’s supporters, a large and passionate army who have also followed their club through tough times, descended upon Seville looking for their beloved team to make history.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Despite this, and despite hovering unconvincingly around mid table this season, they have rallied and made a run in the cup under new manager José Bordalás. Bordalás is very visibly a coach that takes inspiration from Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone, playing a team in a defense-and-counter set up that demands intensity on both ends of the pitch and overall commitment to the cause. He is so committed to the idea of his teams being difficult that they are usually characterized by being at or among the top of the league in fouls committed and yellow cards received, as Valencia are this season by a healthy margin. Bordalás even resembles a mini-Simeone on the touchline, gesticulating wildly in the technical area and sporting an all-black outfit (usually) and slicked back hair.

Do not think his team is just the Spanish Burnley, however, as there is also a significant amount of technical quality in the side. Club co-captains Carlos Soler and Jose Gayà are two of only four holdovers from the starting 11 that beat Barcelona three years ago, and they are certainly two of the best players in their position in Spain and two that will get plenty of transfer discussion in the summer. The team also had something that their opponents did not: a significant youth presence. Starting within the team in this final were four players aged 23 or younger, with another four players 23 or younger on the bench. This includes the immensely talented Ilaix Moriba, the former Barcelona prodigy who is on loan at Valencia from RB Leipzig, who looked to play a key role in the game.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

These were two very talented teams who were hell-bent on making history, wanting to cement their place as legends among their fervent supporters. But in order to have an occasion, you also need a fitting stadium, a grand stage on which the events will take place. And in this case, we were provided a weird but fitting solution.

The Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville played host to proceedings, the mysterious third football stadium in Seville that was never really initially intended to be a football stadium. It has never in its history been a home to either of Seville’s major football teams. It was built in 1999 to host the World Championships in athletics and would eventually be a part of two futile bids by the city of Seville to host the Olympic Games. Despite it not being the original intention, it has hosted football matches, most notably the UEFA Cup Final in 2003 but also several Spanish national team matches, several matches during Euro 2020, and, until 2023, it will host the Copa del Rey Final.

It is not exactly the nicest stadium, or the most modern, or the most visually appealing. It is not the nicest experience for the fan or for journalists, and it also features a running track, due to its intended use being athletics. Because of this, the pitch is quite far away from the stands. The one thing that it has going for it, however, is capacity, holding nearly 60,000 people and making it the sixth largest stadium in Spain. This is important because this was the first Copa Final that fans have been able to attend since the COVID Pandemic began, and those fans certainly made their presence felt, generating a raucous atmosphere and seemingly living and dying by every touch. It was like a coliseum for a gladiator fight or, to use a more Spanish and Andalusian comparison, it was the fitting ring for the bullfighters.

You have the participants, you have the stage, and now you need the story, the drama, the match that the hype has warranted. And the game certainly delivered.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Betis took the lead inside 10 minutes, with a great Héctor Bellerín cross finding Borja Iglesias, who headed the ball in from close range. With an early goal, I think some began to doubt whether Valencia would be able to hang on against the Betis attack, but they did much more than that. The pressure ratcheted up, the press went higher, and Betis were being forced into mistakes. Valencia were gathering some half chances and winning dangerous set pieces. They were beginning to knock on the door, and while Betis were not fully pinned back, Valencia were still not only very much in the game, but the momentum was swinging toward them. Their traveling fans roared on every attack and every press, their rather simple demands echoing around the stadium in a chant: “¡A por ellos!” – go get them!

That pressure eventually got a result, when a ridiculous pass from Ilaix Moriba put Hugo Duro through on goal, and the Spaniard cooly chipped the ball over the onrushing Claudio Bravo to equalize for Valencia in the 30th minute. Game on. We had a final on our hands.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

What proceeded for the next 60 minutes felt a bit like a boxing fight, with punches exchanged by both sides. Betis, on the balance of play, were probably the better side, but Valencia certainly had their moments. This is where the first of the Copa Final’s heroes came into play. Giorgi Mamardashvili certainly was not a massive name when he moved to Valencia in the summer from Georgian team Dinamo Tbilisi. The 21 year old did enough to impress the manager and earn a chance this season, which he has certainly taken. It was in this cup final, however, where the Georgian kid really showed merit for that faith. He kept Valencia in the game in the second half, namely saving very well on two Betis chances, one each from Juanmi and Fekir. It was not a hallmark game from the Valencia defense, but they had definitive security behind them.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

On the Betis side, Borja Iglesias was the least heralded of the Betis attack, but he was by far their best player on the night. After scoring the opening goal, he put on a clinic of how to be a modern center forward. He held up play well, ran off the center backs well, distributed well with the ball at his feet, and picked the right moments and right positions to be threatening. He set up the chance in the second half that Juanmi should have scored, and he was influential in setting up the chance that Fekir should have scored. He hardly put a foot wrong the whole evening. El Panda Iglesias was rightfully awarded the Man of the Match honors after the game, and even though he did not play a major factor in extra time or in penalties, he was certainly one of the Bético heroes.

Oh yeah, there were penalties. Extra time was largely drab, as both teams had basically ran themselves into the ground at that point, but the tension was still present. After 120 minutes, the game was destined for a nervous penalty shootout. 10 penalties in total were taken and, as you know by the result, five were scored by Betis and four by Valencia. As we always have in penalty shootouts, someone has to be the one to miss. This time, it was unfortunately 19 year old American international Yunus Musah who did not convert, sending his penalty over the bar. This is always an awful thing about these situations, especially for a player as young and as promising as Musah. He was visibly distraught after the miss, and it was nice to see the comfort that both teams offered him. He certainly has an incredibly bright future ahead of him, this miss will only be a footnote in his career, but it is hard to not feel for the youngster after that.

But a storybook night needed a storybook ending. For the fifth and decisive penalty for Betis, up stepped young Juan Miranda. The Spanish left back is a lifelong Betis supporter, having been born in a small town outside of Seville and raised as a fervent Bético. In 2005, the then 5 year old Miranda was at the Estadio Vicente Calderón in Madrid to watch Betis win the cup in extra time over Osasuna. In 2022, the now 22 year old Miranda stood 11 meters away from the goal at La Cartuja about to take part in one of the biggest single moments in the history of his beloved football club. He converted the penalty and collapsed to the ground in tears as his teammates rushed to him and the supporters hailed their new hero.

Real Betis had won the Copa del Rey.

And the storybook ending is rounded out by Joaquín. The current Betis captain and lifelong Betis supporter played all 120 minutes in the Copa triumph in 2005 as a bright, athletic, and incredibly talented 23 year old. The cup was even present as the guest of honor at his wedding several months later. In 2022, the now 40 year old Joaquín is certainly no longer the athlete he once was, but he is still a useful player and accepts his role, coming on for Betis in extra time and scoring his penalty. In a season that many thought would be his last, it seemed like the entirety of Spain (aside from Valencia fans) were cheering for the ever-popular Joaquín to end his career successfully. While he has confirmed that he is coming back next season, he still got his crowning moment, lifting the Copa del Rey to the heavens to cement a historic night for his beloved club and becoming the only player in Betis’ history to have won two major trophies with Los Verdiblancos.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

The emotion on both sides was palpable. Betis fans’ ecstatic celebrations were paired with the Valencia fans’ disappointed but still thankful tribute to their team. The tears of joy from Juan Miranda were paired with tears of sorrow from Jose Gayà. It was brilliant and brutal, I could not help but be hooked on both emotions.

And it showed in 120 minutes the reasons why we all love football.

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