Remembering Athletic Club’s 1969 Copa Del Rey Title

Copa del Rey 1969

It’s been 50 years since Athletic won the 1969 Copa del Rey

The Copa del Rey has long been considered Athletic Club’s tournament. The Lions have won the title 23 times, second only to Barcelona, and were referred to as the “King of Cups” for decades. At one point in history, Athletic were expected to be in the Cup final every single season and they rarely disappointed.

Athletic lifted their 20th Cup title in 1958 with a 2-0 win over Real Madrid, but then faced an unexpected 11-year drought. The Basques were beaten in the finals by Real Zaragoza in 1966 then by Valencia in 1967 before finally winning the Cup again on 15 June, 1969. Today is the 50th anniversary of that Copa del Rey title victory which will always be remembered as one of the most important in Athletic’s history.

The 1968/1969 season had not gone well for Athletic. Manager Rafa Iriondo had led the Zurigorri to an 11th place finish in the La Liga table, just three points clear of the relegation zone and just as far away from European qualification. It was a different story in the Copa del Rey, however, as Athletic easily defeated Zaragoza, Deportivo, and Granada to reach the cup final against Elche.

One day before the final was set to take place at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Iriondo revealed that striker Antón Arieta would likely miss the game. “Arieta is doubtful because of a small infection and he has a fever”, said the manager in a press conference. Despite the potential loss Athletic were still viewed as heavy favorites to win the title, though Iriondo wasn’t a fan of the pressure. “I would prefer Elche to be the favorites”, he admitted.

In the end, Arieta would play which proved decisive. Elche dominated the first half but were unable to beat legendary Athletic goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar who made several impressive saves. The Lions then took control after the break and nearly opened the scoring in the 77th minute with an effort from Fidel Uriarte. The match would ultimately be decided in the 82nd minute when Arieta cut the ball onto his right foot and rippled the back of the net which led Athletic to a 1-0 victory.

During the reign of Francisco Franco, the Copa del Rey was known as the Copa Generalísimo. The Dictator had also forced Athletic to change their name to Atlético Bilbao and it would be Franco who handed over the Cup to Athletic captain Koldo Etxeberria in the Santiago Bernabéu press box after the Basque’s victory over Elche 50 years ago.

On Friday a special tribute was held at San Mamés to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the 1969 Cup victory. Seven players from the championship team were in attendance – José Ángel Iribar, José María Igartua, Juan María Zorriketa, José Argoitia, Txetxu Rojo, Pedro Lavín, and Javier Ormaza. Current Elche President Diego García also attended the event along with Juan Manuel Asensi and Josetxo Arakistain who played for Elche during the Cup final.

Athletic awarded Asensi and Arakistain with special pictures commemorating the match, Elche’s only appearance in the Cup final. Meanwhile, President García brought the ball used in the final to the tribute. A video was then shared recounting the 1958 Cup win followed by the 11-year buildup to the club’s 1969 Cup victory. Iribar and Argoitia, who have already been part of a previous tribute, then handed out commemorative armbands to their teammates in attendance.

Copa del Rey 1969

Athletic’s 1969 Copa del Rey final starting lineup (AC)

“Fifty years have passed and it’s a very good memory”, Iribar told AthleticTV. “At the time we had a huge illusion of being able to win the Cup again because Athletic had not won for eleven years. I had already played in two finals, one against Zaragoza and the other Valencia. We went with the feeling of, ‘this time yes, this time yes’. Luckily, with a great goal from Antón Arieta, we managed to get the Cup which, for us, felt like a duty was fulfilled because fans were demanding us to win the Cup again. That gave up a lot of peace afterward. It’s a moment to remember and, personally, the best thing that has happened to me during my sporting life.”

Iribar went on to explain that Antón Arieta’s winning goal was truly a special moment. Elche had played better in the first half, but all it took was one moment to decide the final and lift the title.

“Arieta’s goal was a crucial moment for us in the 82nd minute. We were thinking that maybe the game would to extra time. They played better than us at the beginning, but as the match progressed we were dominating more and creating chances. There was uncertainty and there had to be something great to score a goal. The truth is that Arieta’s play was of great merit. The control, dribble, and shot were perfect and came in the ideal minute.”

Txetxu Rojo then recounted the magnitude of the game for him as he was still a very young player at the time. The legendary striker says that winning the Cup was the greatest moment he had experienced since being promoted to the first team in 1965.

Koldo Etxeberria Copa del Rey 1969

Athletic captain Koldo Etxeberria lifts the Cup

“I was very young. In four years I played in three finals. I was very well mentally prepared for those things. You are there with the illusion that it’s a final. Elche had a very good team, we knew them well. It was a complete game because they also came to win and had quality. They had their phases, but we also had chances. We won and it was the happiest day since I came to the first team. It was a very important moment for Athletic and the fans. We were very excited. You are what you are, the past is the past. It may be more feasible to reach the Cup final today, but it’s very complicated. Hopefully we improve and can win more titles.”

Iribar also took a moment to praise Elche who were a fantastic team at the time as well. He recognized that they, like many other clubs in Spain, were greatly improving which made it hard for Athletic to continue winning so many titles.

“We were doing well and were in the finals, but when you play a final it’s clear that you have to win it. If not, it’s disappointing. We had that thorn in our hands that we hadn’t won it and we were very happy to win again. Elche must also be given great value. At the time they had seven internationals, many of them important foreigners too. I won the Cup again in 1973 but it was getting more complicated. The teams around us were strengthening with some foreign international players.”

Iribar Rojo Copa del Rey 1969

The representatives from the 1969 Copa del Rey final (AC)

The legendary goalkeeper then turned the attention to today’s Athletic. It’s true that the Lions have been able to make it to a handful of finals, including winning the 2015 Spanish Super Cup, and Iribar hopes that they will be able to lift even more titles in the years to come.

“In the last decade we have been in several finals. We have to win them. We have a great memory of the Supercopa, especially having won against Barcelona and Messi which was one of the best teams. Hopefully it’s a foretaste of what will come in later years because that goal of winning titles, although it’s very complicated, can be achieved. You have to get there and go for it. I don’t rule it out at all, you must have that goal. Barcelona has surpassed us, but until recently we have been the King of Cups.”

Athletic’s last Copa del Rey title came back in 1984 when the Lions defeated Barcelona 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. It’s been 35 years since the Lions last lifted the Cup and brought the Barge out to celebrate. Winning the Spanish Super Cup was special, but the club and fans are still hopeful that the next Copa del Rey victory is just around the corner. Until then, the memories of former glory continue to prove that Athletic is one of the most decorated clubs in the history of European football.

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