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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rei de Copes

I can’t seem to get away from football, not that I’ve tried very hard. It was impossible not to miss all of the people who showed up in Valencia as early as Monday wearing the red and white jerseys of Athletic Club Bilbao. The Bilbao fans were everywhere from beachside restaurants to every bar in town and every tourist attraction in between. This year’s Copa del Rey final was hosted at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium. Valencia CF won this trophy last year and I remember that it was a pretty big deal, but the game was in Madrid so I didn’t get a very good idea of just how seriously the fans take this game.

If I needed further evidence of this I found it last night when I had to pass by the stadium a couple of hours before the game last night. I used to live a block from the stadium so I have seen more than my share of crowds on game nights. Last night’s final was unlike anything that I have seen so far at Mestalla. As soon as I got on the bike path near my apartment in Ruzafa I noticed that all of the bars and restaurants were filled with people wearing either the team jerseys of Barça or Bilbao, mostly Bilbao. Oh my God were there a lot of Bilbao supporters. I can’t believe they left behind enough people at home to take care of their pets while they are visiting Valencia. “You’re on your own, Fido. I’m going to the game and I’m coming home drunk.”

In fact, there were about 40,000 Bilbao fans as opposed to half as many from Barcelona. Valencia’s response to the onslaught of outsiders from Bilbao seemed to be—at least as reported in today’s paper—a sort of “Thanks, but no thanks” attitude. The bar business was appreciated but the Bilbao fans uprooted all of the plants on the bridge of flowers which crosses over the Turia park. The paper mocked the Bilbao supporters by saying that it was no wonder so many showed up to back their team when you consider that the youngest fans who truly remembered their last victory are now sprouting their first grey hairs. Ouch! Of the Barça fans the paper reported that they came, they took the Cup, and they left.

The way was so littered with fans that I practically had to walk my bike along the entire bike path that runs down Avenida Aragón in front of the stadium. I only wish that I would have brought along my camera. This must have been the least Spanish final of La Copa in a while: the separatist Basques versus the separatist Catalans. Euskadi vs. Catalunya. You could actually here a lot of jeering whistles when they played the Spanish National Anthem before the game. I didn’t hear anyone speaking Euskara or Català in the street so I suppose that Spanish is still the lingua franca of sports fans.

I suppose they use Spanish so that others can understand the insulting football chants they sing, like when a group of Barça supporters all chanted in unison when they turned the corner and first got a glimpse of Mestalla, “This isn’t a stadium, it’s a foosball table.” Granted, Barça's home field of Camp Nou is huge, but Mestalla is pretty big. A local Valenciano told the group good-naturedly to have a bit of respect. After the game the Barça players all donned jerseys emblazoned with “Rei de Copes,” Catalán—not Spanish—for “King of the Cups” in reference to their dominance in this tournament.

All I was doing was riding past on my way across town but I have to say that the atmosphere was thrilling. I haven’t experienced anything like it since I was in Madrid when Spain won the Eurocopa. It would have been fun to attend the game but it seemed like a private party. I was relegated to watching it on television like all the other fans of teams that weren’t in the match. Bilbao scored first on a remarkable header from a corner kick. The Basques went crazy. And then Barça played like they have all season and put on a clinic of creative scoring. This was the first title to fall to Barcelona this year in which they hope to capture two more. They could clinch La Liga this weekend, on Saturday if Madrid loses to Villarreal, or if they win on Sunday against Mallorca. The last title in this year’s quest will be against Manchester United in the final of the Champions League in Rome on May 27. Futbol Club Barcelona has been a real joy to watch this season and I hope to see them win it all.