Basque rivals finally meet in delayed Copa del Rey final

Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have waited impatiently for a year to be able to play the Copa del Rey final, the first ever final between the clubs

It could only have happened during the Covid-19 pandemic: On Saturday Athletic Bilbao will play the first of two Copa del Rey finals in two weeks as their eagerly awaited meeting with Basque rivals Real Sociedad goes ahead at last in Seville.

The 2019/20 final was supposed to be played on April 18 last year, only for the health crisis to intervene.

A rescheduled date was put off in the hope it could eventually go ahead in front of fans, given how special an occasion it is for supporters of both sides.

A year on, fans are still not allowed back in stadiums in Spain but the game can wait no longer, because the final of this season's edition is set to be played on April 17, also at La Cartuja in Seville.

Remarkably, Athletic will be in that final too, against Barcelona. And so, 37 years since the last of their 23 Cup victories -- a tally bettered only by Barca -- they could win it twice in 15 days.

They could also win it only to have to hand back the trophy a fortnight later, or they could suffer the agony of losing two finals in quick succession.

In normal times a vast wave of supporters, decked out in the red and white of Athletic or the blue and white of La Real, would have embarked on the 900-kilometre journey from the far north of the Iberian peninsula to the far south to fill the 60,000-capacity La Cartuja.

Instead the ground will be empty, and even the images of several hundred Athletic fans gathering to give their team a raucous send-off on Thursday have been met with frowns from local authorities.

However, one set of fans will still celebrate on Saturday evening.

Athletic have been regulars in Cup finals recently, losing three times to Barcelona at this stage in the last 12 years and losing a Europa League final to Atletico Madrid in 2012.

They have not won the Cup since 1984, when they defeated Barca in a final immortalised by a mass brawl in which Diego Maradona featured prominently.

Their rivals from San Sebastian have only won the Cup twice, most recently under John Toshack in 1987. This is their first final since 1988.

- Marcelino's magic touch? -

Real Sociedad are enjoying the better season and lie fifth in La Liga under Imanol Alguacil. They also won the last Basque derby 1-0 on New Year's Eve.

However, Athletic have been transformed since then under Marcelino, who in early January replaced Gaizka Garitano, the man who took them to this final, beating Barcelona en route.

Marcelino won the last completed edition of the Copa del Rey as coach of Valencia in 2019.

Since he arrived at San Mames he has already won silverware, beating Barcelona to win the Spanish Super Cup.

They are in mid-table in La Liga but Marcelino has only lost to Barcelona and Atletico.

"I got a tattoo of the Super Cup and I have left a space next to it for the Copa del Rey trophy," said Athletic's Inaki Williams, the lighting-quick winger whose goal against Barcelona secured the Super Cup.

"It would be so special to win the Cup because it has been such a long time, so long that I had not even been born."

Cup final aside, this derby is always special, with Athletic still sticking to their policy of only selecting players native to the Basque region, a policy La Real abandoned to sign John Aldridge from Liverpool in 1989.

"These are the sort of games you dream about when you are little. I have seen lots of derbies ever since I was little and watching in the stands or on television. Now I am lucky enough to be playing in a historic one in a final," added Williams.

"It would be incredible to win this title with La Real," said David Silva, who moved to San Sebastian from Manchester City last year.