Where is the cup final going to be played?

*By Sergi Esteban Garcia

Last week, Athletic Club de Bilbao and FC Barcelona certified their qualification for the Spanish cup final, after beating CD Mirandés and Valencia CF respectively. As usually, the improvisation at Spanish Federation let no one to know where or even when the final is going to be played (on Sunday 20th May if Barcelona does not reach the Champìons League final to be played the day before, or Friday 25th May otherwise). It will be the replay of 2009 cup final, when Barcelona beat Athletic 4-1 in Valencias Mestalla stadium, being the first of Guardiolas long list of silverware for the club as a manager. That one was the first cup final for Athletic since 1985 and craziness installed in Bilbao for the two months prior to the final. About 50000-60000 Athletic supporters came to Valencia, but less than half of them were lucky enough to get a ticket for the game, as Mestalla can only host 55000 people. Only around 20000 supporters for each club could attend to the final, plus strangely Athletic supporters took most of the Spanish Federation invitation tickets.

So, this time, Athletic wanted a big stadium to be host of the final. In the last minutes of Athletics 6-2 victory against Mirandés on the semifinal 2nd leg, supporters who crowded San Mamés stadium shouted sí, sí, sí, nos vamos a Madrid! (yes, yes, yes, were going to Madrid!), expecting to play the final at Real Madrids Santiago Bernabéu, the biggest neutral venue in the Spanish state. Madrid is traditionally the venue of the cup final. Being the capital, located at the centre of the country and, no less important for the Spanish authorities, being the residence of the King of Spain, who always come to the final to give his trophy to the winner captain, was much easy for Juan Carlos and Sofía to let a gap in their usually busy duty timetable and attend to the game. Vicente Calderón stadium (home of Atlético de Madrid) and Santiago Bernabéu usually alternated as the host venue, moving the final out from the capital when one of the two big clubs from Madrid play it.

Last Monday, Barcelona and Athletic representatives had a meeting with the Federation to discuss about the matter. And both clubs pointed to Bernabéu as the desired place to play the final. But Real Madrid officially said that there are some reforms of the stadium arranged for the same dates. Directors of the club argue they arranged to change 20000 seats and improve the conditions of the 210 bathrooms of the stadium just after the end of the liga, which makes it impossible to host the final. They also explain that an eventual win of Mourinhos squad in the Champions League final on 19th May would meant they would offer the title at their stadium the next day (just the day of the cup final if Barcelona does not play the champions league one).

Moreover, Real Madrid have a couple of other reasons to avoid a cup final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao to be played there as Madrid supporters claimed in their last home game singing La final de copa no se juega aquí (the cup final is not to be played here). Barcelona won 10 times the cup final at Bernabéu, the first one on 1942. But every one remembers the celebrations of the last one, when Barcelona beat Betis 3-2 at extra time in 1997. Guardiola, then, was player of the team and Mourinho was Bobby Robsons assistant (and translator) at Barcelona. After the game, Barças anthem sounded repeatedly at Bernabéu while former Barcelonas president Joan Gaspart (by then, just vicepresident) waved his scarf and celebrated on the pitch in front of 35000 Barça supporters. Fears of a repetition of this already arrived two years ago, when Barcelona were on their way to play the Champions League final at Bernabéu, only to be denied entrance by Inter, then managed by Jose Mourinho. The second reason is the allegedly political connotation of a Spanish final between the iconic clubs of the Basque and Catalan nationalism and their attitude towards the King of Spain and the Spanish anthem. In 2009, most of the 55000 spectators of the final, whistled during the ceremonious listening of the anthem in front of the king or expressed their discomfort in other ways. Some of Madrid most Spanish-nationalist right wing press is expressing its lack of understanding on why two non-Spanish clubs jeer at the Spanish anthem but still want to play the Spanish cup final, and even proposed the clubs to play the final outside Spain. Curiously, the last time that Athletic Bilbao got the cup was in 1984 in Santiago Bernabéu against Barcelona. The Basques won 1-0 and the game finished with a battle on the pitch. It was Maradonas last game for Barcelona and the recently created Catalan and Basque television were denied accreditations to the stadium by the Spanish Federation.

The Spanish Federation has now asked for 10 days to fix a venue for the final. They may try to convince Florentino Pérez but due to the more than probably denial from Bernabéu owners, Mestalla, Sevilla Olympic Stadium or even Barcelonas Camp Nou, the biggest stadium in the state, could be the chosen one to be the host.

* Sports Journalist, Spain