Restoring the Romance of the Copa del Rey
If the Copa del Rey is played, but hardly anyone cares about it, did it really happen? To say that some of the La Liga teams think of the cup as a nuisance would be quite an understatement. With the overloaded fixture list consisting of European and domestic matches, the Copa del Rey is near the bottom of the top teams’ priorities. Spain does not treat the cup with the same disdain as Italy treats their Coppa Italia, but the Copa does not get the respect it deserves from many of the Spanish top-flight clubs.
This type of domestic competition is meant for the underdogs at the bottom of the La Liga table as well as the lower division clubs who want to make a name for themselves with a historic giant killing in their eyes. Unfortunately, entry into the cup is limited. The teams eligible are as follows: the twenty teams from La Liga, the twenty-two teams from the Segunda División, twenty-four teams from Segunda División B, and eighteen teams from the Tercera División, leading to a maximum eighty-four teams. Another quirk in this system involves the reserve squads. In Spain, reserve teams are allowed to play in the official league pyramid, and a few of them are in the second and third divisions, such as Villarreal CF B, Sevilla Atlético, and Barcelona Atlètic, but they do not have permission to participate in the Copa del Rey.
The FA Cup in England and the Coupe de France in France allow the most teams to participate in their national cups. Even the overseas departments of France, such as New Caledonia, French Guyana, Guadeloupe, etc., are allowed to enter teams into the Coupe de France. While the FA Cup is not quite as open as the Coupe de France, teams all the way down to the ninth level of English football have a chance to live their football dreams.
In the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, the first round of qualifying in the FA Cup, teams from all across England played hundreds of matches, including one fixture between Cornard United and Gorleston where the official attendance was a colossal 22 people. It was a rousing match-up of two East Anglian neighbors from Suffolk and Norfolk, respectively… at least that is what the 22 who attended probably thought of the clash (if anyone cares Cornard United lost 0-4 to Gorleston). Semi-professional and amateur teams have a shot, even if their odds of winning the cup are beyond astronomical. If the Copa del Rey allowed all the teams of the Tercera División and below to participate, the locals will care much more than they do now.
As this article is currently being written, Alcorcón embarrassed Real Madrid 4-0 at the Municipal de Santo Domingo, and it could have been five or six. Even though Borja’s brace impressed the football world, he fluffed another two chances that could have sealed his place in the history of the cup. Madrid did not send out its best team, but none of the starting eleven came from the B team, and the likes of Raúl, Karim Benzema, and Guti were in the starting eleven. This famous victory, however, does not ensure Alcorcón a spot in the Round of 16, which is another one of the problems with the Copa del Rey.
Unlike most domestic cups in Europe, all rounds of the competition from the moment that the top-flight teams enter are two-legged affairs. Real Madrid will have the opportunity to reverse this mortifying result at the Santiago Bernabéu in a couple weeks, and it is not outside of the realm of possibility that they do make up the goal difference and move on to the next stage. It is a fair point to indicate that Los Blancos would have likely played differently and with much more verve had the tie been one leg, but the two-leg rounds do not favor the smaller teams. They would have a much tougher time maintaining that form over two matches than if it was one match for passage into the next round.
Maybe that is what the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF), the governing body for football in Spain, wants to happen. The RFEF runs the competition, and the way they currently organize the tournament suggests that they want to ensure that the top clubs make it to the latter stages without too much trouble. For example, the clubs presently competing in European tournaments face the six teams from Segunda División B and the Tercera División that survived to the Round of 32. The six Segunda División sides are ensured to play first division teams, and the eight La Liga clubs remaining play each other. The romance of an open draw does not exist in the Round of 32. So the hope that a Cultural Leonesa or a Marbella faces one another only occurs if they beat Champions League sides and progress further in the tournament.
Ultimately, it may be for the best that the top teams do not put forth their full effort into this competition. Athletic Club, who floundered at mid-table in La Liga last year, made the cup their first priority. The second leg of last year’s semifinal, a 3-0 thrashing of Sevilla to move on to the finals with 4-2 aggregate score, showed the cup at its best. The Bilbao players were inspired and enthralled from the very first minute, and the San Mamés literally shook with enthusiasm and fervor as they impelled sus leones to perform at a level above their maximum. Athletic would lose to FC Barcelona in the final 4-1, but since Barcelona already qualified for the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League spot then goes to the runner-up. Athletic Club has taken full advantage of this opportunity, and now they sit second in their Europa League group, poised to qualify for the knockout stages. While the Copa del Rey may never be restored to its former illustrious stature, a few tweaks will rejuvenate this eminent competition.