Manu Sarabia “I’m Convinced That We’re Going To Win The Cup”
As one of the greatest forwards to ever wear the Athletic shirt, Manu Sarabia knows what it takes to have success at San Mamés. Eleven seasons, 382 appearances, 118 goals, two league titles, and the 1984 Copa del Rey championship pain the picture of a storied career in Bilbao. Now, 36 years after winning the last Cup trophy, Athletic are hoping to take out La Gabarra once again.
The Lions have qualified for the final but are uncertain as to when it will be played. Athletic and Real Sociedad mutually agreed to postpone the match until fans can safely attend, which Sarabia fully supports as he told Alberto García of Mundo Deportivo during an exclusive interview.
“It was the most logical thing to do and the only possibility. I saw no other option. It’s such a special game that playing with the field has the be above anything else, even the possibility of qualifying for UEFA. For me, everything else goes into the background. Indeed, sacrificing Europe can be a sporting and economic detriment, but any Athletic fan and player would agree.”
But what if the Cup final had never been postponed. If the health crisis hadn’t happened and the game was played on 18 April as originally planned the club legend says that current form would have meant very little.
“It’s speculative. In any derby the standings at the moment aren’t a fundamental factor. If you add that it’s a final the importance of streaks and form decreases. La Real were playing very well, with attractive football, and Athletic have weapons defensive security, and played with pressure and depth. Athletic is a very supportive team with many resources to be able to create chances. It’s not an attractive game, but it’s effective.”
Real Sociedad would have likely been favorites going into the final had it been played in April, but Sarabia is certain that Athletic would have, and still will, win the title.
“Athletic’s first game of the season against Real was perhaps the best performance. Everything was open, but there are many factors. In the quarterfinals I already said that this Cup is intended for us. Someone needs to start varnishing La Gabarra.”
Athletic have won 24 Cup titles throughout the club’s history, though this one would be uniquely special. Along with the final being a Basque derby, and arguably the biggest game in the history of the rivalry, football has changed quite a bit in the last three decades.
“In addition to winning a very important title it would have more relevance, but it’s always been our favorite competition. We have always been the Kings of the Cup. Now that all teams want to win it, it has more importance. It would be wonderful, not only for the fact of winning but because of what Piru Gainza told us in Las Palmas in 83 when we won the league. He said ‘lads, you don’t know what you’ve done’. At first I didn’t understand it, but I knew what he meant when we started to cross the estuary on La Gabarra and saw the crowd celebrating. That would happen with this and we are going to win it.”
Several currently players have admitted to feeling pressure to bring a title back to Bilbao. It’s that drive that Sarabia says is needed to lift a Cup trophy.
“To win a final, in addition to talent, there has to be an ability to face great challenges with confidence and security. It’s essential to win any game, especially a final. It’s a matter of character and of personality. I think our team has it. The team has the football and the other qualities to win the final. I’m convinced that we’re going to win the Cup.”
Apart from the Copa del Rey, Sarabia is eager to see the league season return soon. At this point it’s unclear if La Liga will resume but the former forward says football will give people hope.
“Everything is uncertain. I would add that I think football is going to be a very important engine from a mental point of view so that people have more hope of things returning to normal. Football has always been above political and private interests. It helps us unite and seeing your team and players again would help society.”
Finishing the season will require games to be played without fans. Sarabia made it clear that football isn’t the same without supporters, but it would be one step closer to life returning to normal.
“Playing behind closed doors will determine something, but we all know that fans influence the performance of a team. Our fans are a fundamental part of Athletic’s success. We hope that little by little normality will return and that things will even improve, but more will change from a psychological point of view, not only for football players, but for the whole of society.”
The pandemic has changed everyday in major ways and Sarabia believes that there will be an impact. “In the short term, without a doubt it will condition everything,” he says. “It will influence the economies of the clubs and therefore it will affect building squads and team objectives. The game itself doesn’t change.”
When Manu Sarabia and the rest of the Athletic players celebrated winning the Copa del Rey title in 1984 no one would have believed that the team would go over 30 years without lifting the trophy again. The current squad now has the chance to bring the Cup back to san Mamés, to take out La Gabarra, and to bring joy to the next generation of Athleticzales.