Real Sociedad’s reign as Copa del Rey holders will be the briefest in history but it will last for ever. Mikel Oyarzabal, the 23-year-old captain of the club he joined at 14, scored the only goal of the 2020 final, postponed a year and played just two weeks before the 2021 final. But if that trophy is set to be handed to someone else in this same stadium soon, nothing will ever take this night from them. There were tears at the end of an occasion that will always be theirs.
Not because this final was a particularly good game. In fact, it was mostly dreadful, Oyarzabal’s goal coming from the penalty spot and one of just two shots on target all night, but because of what it meant. And what it meant was everything. At the end, there was release, an explosion of joy for la Real. For Athletic there will be anther chance against Barcelona in a fortnight but that did not make it easier to take. This was their everything, too, but it belonged to Real Sociedad almost from the start.
Real Sociedad had not just waited a year to play this final, ultimately forced to do so without their fans despite doing everything they could to have them there; they had waited 34 years to win a major trophy, just the fifth in their history; and they had waited 112 years for this – a Basque final against rivals Athletic Club. There had never been a game like this and at times it showed: in the tension and the pressure.
Of the 22 starters, 18 were born in the historic Basque provinces and 15 were youth products of Athletic or Real Sociedad. Even the weather was Basque, a storm breaking in the second minute, rain lashing down the way it is supposed to back in the old country. Lightning flashed and it sounded as if the roof would cave in, momentarily hiding the silence of 60,000 empty seats. If that might have brought home comfort, there was a nervousness about the opening – a fear of what might be about to happen as much as what actually did.
Athletic’s Raul García sent the first shot across goal after 11 minutes but the man most concerning defenders was Alexander Isak at the other end. It is not just that the Real Sociedad striker moves fast, clocked at 35km/h this year, but that he moves so smartly. Repeatedly, the Swede showed, held, dropped deep, combined, spun and went for the throat. The service to him mostly came from the right – Portu delivered the first, Andoni Gorosabel the second – but it was a dash from the left that looked likeliest to open Athletic, until Yeray Álvarez and Iñigo Martínez dived in to stop him.
Pushed back, Athletic’s defensive pairing stood tall at this stage – later, it would be a different story – and then at the other end Martínez almost opened the scoring, controlling a long ball on his chest way out on the left touchline – a position so unlikely as to force a double-take – and coming inside to hit a 25-yard shot that curled and dipped and was pushed away by Álex Remiro.
That reminded la Real that Athletic were here, Iker Munian heading over at the far post and Iñaki Williams up and running now. But this was still tight, still nervy, the weight of history upon them all. And the weight of the play was still la Real’s. As the second half began, it already felt like the first goal would win this. And it could come from anywhere, any isolated moment – such as the long VAR check for a potential penalty due to a Martínez handball in the first minute.
In the end, that was given outside the area, but a penalty followed soon afterwards. Mikel Merino bent a lovely ball beyond the defence, spinning across the turf. Portu got there first and fell. If he had looked for the contact, he had found it. Falling with him, behind and slightly to the side, Martínez seemed to catch Portu’s ankle. Xavier Estrada Fernández pointed to the spot then pulled out a red card; although the card was changed to a yellow after a five-minute check, the penalty remained. Oyarzabal scored the goal. The goal.
Athletic needed to score, but first they needed the ball and that was proving hard enough. When they did get it, they gave it away again, struggling to string two passes together, let alone three. The game could be descried as stop-start, only it rarely even started. Nothing much was happening – at times it felt as if there were as many fouls blown as passes completed – and Real Sociedad seemed comfortable with that. Athletic just could not find a way.
When at the end the board went up revealing how long was left on the first Basque cup final ever, it might have been one last lifeline but it was not. Real Sociedad had waited long enough for this; their whole life, in fact. Eight more minutes would not matter.