Saturday, February 4, 2012

La Magia de la Copa. The Magic of the Cup.

I've never been to an FA Cup final. Not even a semi-final. I've been to Wembley (the 'old' one), but usually to see England play. I was there with my dad in October 1973 when England drew with Poland and so failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals in (West) Germany. That was the night that the Polish keeper, Jan Tomaszewski (dubbed a 'clown' by Brian Clough) saved everything (except Allan Clarke's equalising penalty). It's hard to describe the shock that descended over the crowd at the final whistle. I remember seeing men crying on the terraces. Nobody, nobody had contemplated such a result. England? World Cup winners in 1966. Quarter finalists in the heat of Mexico in 1970. Failing to qualify for the 1974 finals? England?!

I loved everything about Wembley Stadium (before that night). If I stood on tip-toe and looked out of my bedroom-window in our house in West-Hampstead, I could just see the twin towers. In later years, when Queen or The Who played there (Wembley Stadium), I could sing along to the songs from our front garden. I loved the tube-ride from Kilburn to Wembley Park, the walk up Wembley Way, the sight of the twin towers, and then the perfect green turf under the floodlights. We usually stood at the tunnel end. We usually stood in the upper tier (it was cheaper).

I didn't know at the time but the 'old' Wembley was (in)famous for its shallow 'rake' (the angle at which the terraces slope up, away from the pitch). If we were slightly late arriving, especially for a 'full-house' (100,000 in 1973, with 55,000 of those standing behind the goals) then the view you got from the back wasn't much of an improvement on the one I got on tip-toe from my bedroom window. The dog/speedway track surrounding the pitch added yet more distance between the crowd and the action. I was rarely certain who'd scored at the far end at Wembley. Sometimes, I wasn't that sure who'd scored at the near end...

All this is by way of introduction to the Copa del Rey, the King's Cup. (The Spanish equivalent of the FA Cup). When Valencia and Barcelona were paired for a semi-final at 9p.m. on a Wednesday night, I wondered if this might just be my chance to make it to a (Spanish) FA Cup semi-final. I've used Valencia's website numerous times so I gave it a go at 8.44 on the Monday morning (as instructed). Within ten minutes I'd bagged a couple of seats in the back row of the upper tier of the main stand, at 60 euros a go. At lunchtime I popped out to an ATM and printed them out. So, here I am again, in the back row. And while there are some similarities between Valencia's Mestalla (pr. Mess-tie-yah) stadium and the 'old' Wembley, there is one crucial difference...

The Mestalla is a 'city-centre' ground, although when it was first built (1923) it was on the outskirts, even taking its name from the irrigation channels that took water to the orange trees and the tiger nut plants in the vicinity. After much damage during the civil war (when it was used as a concentration camp) the ground was rebuilt and improved a number of times as the city grew around it. Today it has a 55,000 capacity and (the crucial difference from Wembley) one of the steepest rakes I've ever experienced.



The rake of the top tier is so steep that each seat has its own guard-rail. There's a 'fairground-ride' feel to sitting there, especially if it's a night-game and there's a stiff wind blowing in from the north.

The similarities with the old Wembley are quite surprising as well. The first is something I remember fondly from my visits with my dad, but also from watching Cup Final Grandstand year after year during the 1970s. A marching band. The marching band at the Mestalla doesn't quite live up to my recollections of Cup Final day in England. It doesn't have the 'inch-perfect' precision and 'spit 'n' polish' poise of the military bands which always graced Wembley. The Mestalla's band, which toured the pitch before kick-off and at half-time, is a much more relaxed affair. The marching lacked a certain co-ordination, it's probably over-egging it to call it marching at all. But I did enjoy the way they stopped every twenty metres or so, faced the crowd, and took some fairly generous applause. It was wonderful. A trip down memory lane on the one hand, but a touching glimpse of a rather 'gallant' Spain as well.


video


One of the other similarities with the old Wembley isn't quite so gallant. My Spanish isn't great, I wasn't able to make a lot of sense of what Valencia's 'ultra' supporters were chanting most of the night, but I did manage to catch a couple of ditties. Gerard Piqué, Barcelona's centre-back took a lot of stick, or rather, his girlfriend Shakira did. "Shakira es una puta," sung to the tune of Guantanamera really isn't very gallant. (Translation? "Shakira is a whore"). No, not very gallant at all. Trouble is, Guantanamera is a particularly catchy tune, and the Valencian ultras were singing it so often, I knew I'd have to be on guard for the rest of the week that I didn't start singing it in class! 

Still, the crowd did redeem itself somewhat when Pinto, the Barca keeper, raced out of his penalty area and clearly handled the ball. The árbitro failed to spot any offence at all and the Mestalla erupted in fury. "The referee's a w@ñ%ǝᴚ!" would've been the automatic response at Wembley from at least half the crowd. Not at the Mestalla. Everyone (there's very little travelling support in Spain) joined in a resounding, braying chorus of "Burro, Burro!"  ("Donkey, donkey"). In all my years there with my dad, I've never heard a Wembley crowd singing, "The referee's a donkey." 



video


The game ended in a 1-1 draw, or empate a uno as they say around here. The second leg at the Camp Nou next week will settle things. (See Messi's penalty attempt, video, above). 

In the car on the way home, Linda and I considered one final similarity on the route to cup glory. Giant-killing. The other semi-final is between Athletic Bilbao and Mirandés del Ebro. That's Mirandés del Ebro, top of the Spanish Segunda B division. The name Segunda B might give you the mistaken impression that it's the Spanish second division, but beware. As in England, where the first division is called the Premiership, the second division is the Championship, the third division is the first division and the fourth division is the second division, Spain also has a crazy way of naming its football divisions. The Spanish first division is called La Liga. The second division is called Segunda. The third division is where sense leaves the system as this is the Segunda B and is actually four regional divisions. (Just to complete the madness, the Spanish fourth (regional) divisions are called Tercera, which means third).

So, Mirandes del Ebro are from the third division of any sensibly named league system. The equivalent of Charlton (top of the English third (first) division) playing Manchester United (second in the first (Premiership) division). "Yes, but that's the magic of the cup, isn't it?" you might say, until you hear that Mirandes del Ebro have already beaten Vila-Real (currently 18th in La Liga), Racing Santander (17th) and Espanyol (5th). That's the equivalent (in league positioning) of Charlton beating Blackburn, Bolton and Newcastle (all over two legs) on their way to a cup semi-final. That's not magic. It's miraculous.

So, what are the chances of Mirandes del Ebro making it to the King's Cup final? Well, on Tuesday night they trailed Athletic 0-2, until the last minute, when they pulled a goal back. All now rests on next Tuesday's second leg at Athletic's intimidating San Mamés stadium. Unlikely that Mirandes will be able to turn it around. Almost impossible.

But then I do remember one night, October 1973, Wembley stadium. (The 'old' one).

A post script. Like the 'old' Wembley, the Mestalla is soon (or not so soon) to be the 'old' Mestalla. Work began on a new, 75,000 Mestalla on the western outskirts of Valencia in August 2007. Less than two years later, in January 2009, work was suspended when the failure to agree the sale of the old Mestalla before property prices crashed in Spain left the economics of the move untenable. The planned opening of the stadium at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season came and went with work still paralysed. After nearly three years of inactivity, an agreement has finally been reached and the new opening date is now set for the start of 2014. 

Another one. One week later, Mirandes del Ebro's King's Cup dream ended, beaten 6-2 in the second leg in Bilbao. Valencia also bowed out of this year's competition, losing 2-0 in the Camp Nou. So a repeat of the 2009 final where, controversially, the Catalans and the Basques booed the Spanish national anthem (in the King's Cup), and Barca took the trophy, 4-1. As Spain has no 'national' stadium, the final was played on neutral ground...

And where else, but the Mestalla.

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3 comments:

  1. Great opening image. I laughed at the "Burro burro" line. I think southern europeans have a good sense of humor, although I doubt the ref fet that way. Thanks for letting us see it through your eyes.
    If you want to check out some of my stuff, feel free to ket me know if you enjoy :)
    www.RichTrek.com-- Rich Trek - Funny Travel Adventures

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  2. When you call someone burro, you're actually calling them "unintelligent" or "stupid", not donkey. Although burro is also donkey..., but not in that context.

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    1. Thanks, you miss so much as a foreigner with a less than perfect grasp of the lingo. Back home, crowds usually bray a donkey noise, 'Eee-or! Eee-or!' at players they want to ridicule. It suggests clumsiness and a distinct lack of skill, but also a lack of intelligence.
      They shout lots of other things too, but I won't infect your vocabulary with any of them!

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