The Basque Country accounts for 1.4% of Spain's territory, 4.9% of its population and 20% of its first-division teams. Twenty-five percent if you count Osasuna, which you probably should. It also accounts for 100% of its Copa del Rey finalists. The best cup there has ever been has a final there has never been, a unique occasion unmatched anywhere. And, no, that really is no exaggeration. This is as good as it gets. There may be no words to fully express what it means, maybe not even for the street poets that compete as fiercely as their football teams do.
On May 18, thousands and thousands of people will head south to Seville, travelling almost a thousand kilometres (901km from San Sebastian, 837km from Bilbao), sleeping anywhere they can. Most of them won't probably sleep at all. And they will tell the story forever.
On Thursday night, Athletic Club de Bilbao joined their rivals Real Sociedad de Futbol in the final of the Copa del Rey. For the first time in 93 years the competition will close with a Basque derby; for the first time ever, it will be the Basque derby.
They'll be there together at La Cartuja and on the streets of Seville, where it smells of orange blossom. Together is the word, too. On the pitch, there will be a hell of a fight but everywhere else, there will be fraternity. Out there, they could hardly be more different -- this is a clash of styles too, deeply felt and tightly held -- but take it off the pitch and there is so much that is shared. Not least the joy unleashed by reaching the final.
Between them, these two teams won four league titles in a row at the start of the 1980s, but those days are gone. That those days ever arrived was odd and yet also somehow in step with a new era. Thing is, they were soon gone, never to return.
Their meeting in the Copa del Rey final therefore feels like being transported back to then, like something from another time that shouldn't be possible; something that has never happened before and should never have happened now. These are big clubs, make no mistake -- they have 80,000 socios between them, which will be a problem when the tickets are distributed with the disregard for real fans that's typical around major finals -- but Real Sociedad have not been in a final for 32 years. Athletic have, but they haven't won one.
Go around the centre of Bilbao, along Pozas especially -- the street that is a portal, carrying you to Athletic's stadium, San Mames -- and there is barely a bar without a black and white photo of a barge making its way up the Nervion river, so jam-packed you can't believe that its passengers have not fallen off and into the water below. It's a miracle the people squeezed in along the river banks haven't fallen in too, although they'd probably only tumble into one of the dinghies, tugboats, sailboats and row boats battling to get alongside the barge.
The picture comes from 1984 and shows celebrations when Athletic won the double. Some teams travel round in an open-topped bus; not them. It is some scene, almost mythical. Just say the word gabarra ("barge") and people immediately know what you're talking about. It is also the last time that Athletic won anything.
The photo of the gabarra hangs everywhere, and it hangs heavy too. In the post-Bosman era, Athletic were never supposed to win anything again. Yet three times this century, they reached finals. Each time, though, Barcelona stood in their way. In the UEFA cup meanwhile, it was Atletico.
This time it is la Real. Athletic should not be able to compete in (large) part because they cling to that Basque-only policy when it comes to their players. It is one, people in San Sebastian remind you, and not unjustly, that they have maintained in part through their financial strength, their dominance of the region. There is a reason that Real Sociedad abandoned the policy, signing John Aldridge from Liverpool 30 years ago now, and that the reason is at least in part Athletic Bilbao. So Real should not be able to compete either.
Here they are, though. And they too cling to that identity. They too develop players, bring them through and put them in. Even Yuri Berchiche, the man who scored Athletic's decisive goal in the semifinal against Granada, was at la Real before. When these two teams played each other earlier this season, 17 of the 22 starters were Basque. So were both managers.
It's not just there, either: at Real Sociedad, Athletic, Eibar, Alaves and Osasuna, the managers are Basque. Few places do football identity like the Basque Country. Few? Perhaps none. Every fan cares, every club matters. But even outside of the Basque country there's a recognition that this is special. For some, that socio-political dimension is not shared or liked but when it comes to the football, these are clubs that are seen as a little special.
Look at the morning's papers, even in Madrid. "Euskadi has a special colour", says the front of AS, playing on a saying about Seville. "Euskofinal" cheers Marca. This is their game, and it is unlike everyone's else's. Not least precisely because it is theirs. There's something about football in the Basque Country that stands apart: the depth of identity, the tradition and feeling in football.
Oyarzabal punches Sociedad's ticket to the Copa del Rey final
Mikel Oyarzabal sends Real Sociedad to the final with his penalty vs. Mirandes. Watch Copa del Rey on ESPN+.
It is tied up with society and politics, the idiosyncrasies of a region where some have aspirations of something more, where their identities certainly are different and their sports are too, a place of pelota and stone lifting and wood cutting. And of football. Many of the pioneers came from here, the primary entry point from England. The game grew here. Not only here, of course, but it did. As you probably know, Athletic's colours come from the Southampton kits hurriedly bought by Juan Elorduy before he boarded a boat bound for the Bay of Biscay.
That this will be the fourth all-Basque final tells you something. Likewise, the fact that the last was in 1927 and between Real Unión and Arenas de Getxo. In 1913, it was Racing Irun who played Athletic; in 1910 it was Vasconia. Now it is Athletic and Real, the two teams whose captains Jose Angel Iribar and Inaxio Kortabarria carried the Basque flag -- still banned at the time -- onto the pitch together before the derby in December 1976. In Seville, it will be different men and these are different times, but they will be Basque.
This is genuinely special. They have made the cup theirs. They knocked out Madrid and Barcelona on the same night. Real Sociedad, perhaps the best team to watch in Spain, beat Becerril 8-0, converting the entire town into la Real fans when they invited them to a game, perhaps the finest moment in Spanish football this season. After that, they continued to convince, winning games 4-0, 2-0, 3-1. In the semifinal, they beat Mirandes -- the second division team that was the competition's other great story -- 3-1 on aggregate.
Objectively, Real Sociedad are better than Athletic. But football doesn't always make sense, and some are talking destiny. Athletic were on a knife edge every step of the way. Three penalties into the shootout against Elche, they were on their way out, all over. But they got through. Against Tenerife, Yuri scored a 118th minute goal that took them to penalties and through they went again. Against Barcelona, Inaki Williams scored in the 93rd minute. Last night, Yuri burst through with eight minutes to go and with Granada -- what a season they have had -- on their way through.
"It's something more than a miracle," the president said. "In the worst moments, they stand up," said manager Gaizka Garitano.
And now here there are. Earlier in the season, Garitano -- Athletic manager, Real Sociedad shareholder, a former player at both clubs and at Eibar and Alaves too -- said that the Basque derby is always the biggest game of the season. This Basque derby is the biggest game of any season, ever.