Pros And Cons Of Postponing The Copa Del Rey Final
The ultimatum was given. Europe or the fans. That’s been the narrative over the past few days but the situation has always been far more complex. UEFA’s ruling on the Copa del Rey final backed Athletic into a corner. Essentially, the club was given the option of playing the final this season, behind closed doors, with the winner qualifying for Europe or postponing until fans can safely attend, but with the last European spot given to the team that finishes 7th in the La Liga table instead.
Fans and players immediately took a stance and the club soon followed. A final without fans isn’t a final, football is for the fans. On Monday Athletic and Real Sociedad issued a joint statement formally requesting that the final be postponed until fans can safely attend the history Basque Derby. The Spanish Football Federation quickly accepted the proposal.
For Athletic, postponing the final meant prioritizing the supporters over a better chance at qualifying for Europe. It was without question the more popular choice and, for many, the right decision. However, there are possible pros and cons to postponing the Cup final until a later date in the future.
To begin with, just because the final is postponed doesn’t mean that Athletic can’t qualify for Europe. While it’s true that not playing the final this season will eliminate that path to Europe, the Lions can still qualify by finishing in the top seven of the league table. Athletic currently sit five points off seventh with eleven games remaining on the schedule.
On the other hand, not playing the final does make it much more difficult for Athletic to qualify for Europe. Moving up the table to finish in the top seven will be challenging and missing out on Europe would have significant ramifications. For instance, a normal run in the Europa League would bring Athletic roughly €12 million in revenue which would be significant for a club with an unsustainable wage bill, especially given the financial loss from the football stoppage.
Missing out on Europe can also affect the squad. Qualifying for Europe could directly impact whether or not a player like Javi Martinez will sign with the club, or if Unai Núñez chooses to stay or leave at the end of the season. Meanwhile, current players Aritz Aduriz, Mikel San José, and Beñat are all out of contract at the end of the season.
Most worrying of all, postponing the final doesn’t necessarily guarantee that fans will be allowed to attend the match. With the uncertainty surrounding the health crisis at the moment there’s no clear idea as to when fans will be allowed back in stadiums. Spain has already determined that it’s unlikely to happen until at least early 2021 but it could be even longer.
As part of their request to postpone the final, Athletic and Real Sociedad asked the Spanish Football Federation for a guarantee that the game would be played with fans at some point in the future. Although the RFEF agreed to the demand, they also mentioned the the final must be played before the 2020/2021 final. At this point the thought of fans still being kept out of stadiums next year seems ludicrous, but it’s not impossible.
In the end, postponing the final even if it means missing out on Europe was a huge statement from Athletic. The club put the fans first and proved once again to be unique in the world of football. For a fanbase that would rather be relegated than change the Athletic philosophy, playing the Cup final without supporters would have defied the very values of the club.
Along with prioritizing the fans Athletic also want to win the Cup. This season hasn’t been the best from Gaizka Garitano’s side and pushing the final off until next year could give the team a better chance of lifting the title. With months to prepare there will be plenty of time for the team to improve and go into the match in the best position possible to bring the trophy back to Bilbao.
Winning the Cup and actually being able to celebrate the title with fans would be momentous. Instead of lifting the trophy in a silent stadium the team could do so with 20,000 Athleticzales in the seats. From there, the parade would be extraordinary and after 36 years of waiting La Gabarra would see the water of the Nervión once again. Celebrating months later just wouldn’t be the same.
As mentioned above, just because the final won’t be played this season doesn’t mean that Athletic can’t also qualify for Europe. The Zurigorri will still have that opportunity if the league campaign returns and will need to play great football to secure a top-seven finish. It won’t be easy, but there is a chance that Athletic can have it all; a final with fans and European football.
This will be the very first time that Athletic and Real Sociedad have met in the Cup final and it may never happen again. It will be the biggest match in the history of the rivalry and, perhaps, in all of Basque football. To have such a remarkable game take place in an empty stadium would be wrong. There may be repercussions, but the Athletic will put the fans above all else.