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Athletic Bilbao beats Mallorca on penalties to win first Copa del Rey in 40 years

SEVILLE, Spain (AP) — After four decades and a half dozen finals that ended in defeat, Athletic Bilbao was able to lift a cathartic Copa del Rey trophy No. 24 after edging Mallorca 4-2 on penalties on Saturday.

The team from northern Spain was favored entering the final thanks to its up-tempo attack, but instead it had to grind out a win against the modest Mallorca to finally deliver for its long suffering fans.

Athletic goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala saved a penalty by Manuel Morlanes, while Mallorca’s Nemanja Radonjic shot high. Raul García, Iker Muniain, Mikel Vesga, and Alejandro Berenguer — all substitutes — converted their spot kicks past Mallorca goalkeeper Dominik Greif.

Extra time in the final ended 1-1 after Dani Rodríguez gave Mallorca the lead in the 21st minute and Athletic’s Oihan Sancet leveled in the 50th.

Muniain received the trophy from Spanish King Felipe VI before lifting it high for his team and fans to celebrate.

“This is incredible. Our fans have always been behind us and now it is time to enjoy this,” Athletic forward Nico Williams said. “We have been fighting for this for a long time.”

Athletic won its 23rd and last Copa in 1984. Since then it had lost six straight finals, including in 2020 and 2021. To win this one, it had to first beat both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the quarter- and semi-finals.

“Now it is time to celebrate. We sure make it hard for ourselves to hold a party, it took us 40 years, but now we are going to do just that,” said Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde.

“Considering all the finals we have lost, and what the Copa means to Athletic, nothing compares to this.”

The club is expected to celebrate the trophy by parading the team on a barge in the river that runs through Bilbao, a victory tradition that it has not carried out in four decades.

While other teams will often prioritize the Spanish league and rest starters in the cup, especially in the early rounds, Athletic prioritizes the knockout tournament despite fielding players only from or near Spain’s Basque Country region. Only Barcelona and its 31 Copas has more than Athletic.

NBA great Steve Nash, a minority owner of Mallorca, was at the game, as well as Rafael Nadal, a native of the island of Mallorca. Each club had 20,000 tickets for traveling fans at the packed 57,000-seat La Cartuja Stadium. Some 40,000 more fans, mostly for Athletic, were expected to descend on Seville without tickets.

Even though Athletic is fifth in the Spanish league and Mallorca down in 15th place, there was little difference between them in the final. Javier Aguirre, Mallorca’s journeyman coach, succeeded in nullifying the more explosive attack of Valverde’s Athletic.

“The first thing I have to do is to congratulate Athletic and its fans. They have been waiting a long time for this,” Mallorca scorer Rodríguez said. “I am moved because I am very proud of my teammates and our supporters who accompanied us. Our dream was to win this cup. We tried to, but it wasn’t to be.”

Athletic was unable to stop Mallorca from getting three consecutive shots in its area after a corner kick before Rodríguez opened the scoring. The midfielder curled a shot into the corner of the net after Antonio Raíllo controlled a rebound and laid the ball off for his open teammate.

Athletic took time to finally click in attack, and when it did most of the damage was done by Williams. The Spain winger had a goal waived off for offside before he shot into the side netting in first-half injury time. Grief also saved an early shot by Iñigo Galarreta, while Gorka Guruzeta shot wide.

Canada forward Cyle Larin had an opportunity to double Mallorca’s lead seconds after halftime, but Agirrezabala saved his effort on the break.

Williams helped produce Sancet’s equalizer when he recovered the ball and fed a throughball to the midfielder to beat Greif.

But Sancet’s goal did not fluster Mallorca’s defense, which again clamped down after Aguirre refreshed his side with substitutes.

After a long stalemate without any clear chance, Williams had a point-blank shot that grazed Mallorca defender Pablo Maffeo and hit the post.

Vedat Muriqi then had a header parried by Agirrezabala on the other end as the game finally came alive before going to the shootout.

Muriqi and Antonio Sánchez converted their kicks in the shootout for Mallorca.

“It was a wonderful Copa del Rey that did not have a happy ended,” Aguirre said. “It came down to penalties, which we know is a coin toss. We got so close before falling short.”

The final, which is one of the marquee events organized by the Spanish soccer federation, was played with the federation in crisis after Spanish police made seven arrests and raided properties including the federation headquarters in Madrid as part of a corruption and money laundering probe. Those arrests included current federation employees and former federation president Luis Rubiales.

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