The 2012 Copa del Rey Final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao was a coming together of more than just the most successful teams in the competition’s history. The clubs shared much in common. Both were led by modern and thoughtful coaches in Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa who preached a similar, progressive footballing philosophy; their players responding in kind with some of the most technically adept football played on the continent.
Barcelona ultimately ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in an open and sporting contest, but Bilbao’s resurgence under Bielsa had suggested that the result was no forgone conclusion before a ball had even been kicked.
Changed days indeed since the last time Barça and Bilbao met in a cup final as anything approaching competitive equals. Rewind 30 years to a time when Bilbao had the upper hand over their Catalan rivals on the pitch, and the most poisonous relationship in Europe with them off it. The nadir came in the 1983/84 season as matches between the clubs reached unsustainable levels of sheer toxicity. It was a story played out over three unpleasant acts, by a thoroughly disagreeable cast of characters.
An Argentinian genius in their attack was about the only thing Barcelona in 1983 had in common with their modern-day counterparts. Diego Armando Maradona aside, the club was a very different beast from the serial winners we know them as today. Barca had long been going through an identity crisis and winning the Spanish title had become an obsession for them after just one solitary success over the preceding 23 seasons.
Barcelona were perceived in Spain as psychologically weak and too often in recent years they had collapsed under pressure when the title was in sight. Cup competitions had provided some salvation: they had outplayed Real Madrid to win both the Copa del Rey and the inaugural League Cup the previous season. But Athletic Bilbao were the Spanish champions and a tougher proposition still.
Weakness of any description was not a criticism that could be levelled at Bilbao, an aggressive, hard-working side who were invariably uneasy on the eye. They were the antithesis of Barcelona, their modest team of homegrown Basques culturally far removed from the glamorous Catalans and their precocious, superstar, foreign imports. Bilbao’s key players were journeymen like full-back Santiago Urquiaga, midfielder Miguel De Andres and strikers Dani and Manuel Sarabia. Only the brilliant keeper Andoni Zubizarreta stood out as a genuinely world-class individual.
The marked cultural differences extended to the managers. The bohemian, liberal Argentine César-Luis Menotti was in charge at Barcelona and his team reflected his personality: relaxed and informal. Players were not just for football; they were often his drinking partners in late-night Barcelona bars, too. Javier Clemente at Bilbao was his polar opposite, strait-laced, conservative and a strict authoritarian.
One unfortunate trait that Menotti and Clemente did share was an obstinate streak and an unwillingness to ever take the high road in a dispute. This led to a protracted and poisonous war by proxy through the Spanish press which exacerbated the already poor relations between the clubs.
Menotti was a purist alarmed at the violence in the Spanish game and he saw Bilbao as one of the worst exponents of anti-football. Rarely was he shy in saying so. Clemente was a manager quick to tap into the Basque persecution complex. Any insult against his team, perceived or real, was routinely magnified as proof of the general institutional bias against the Basque people. Exchanges between the pair were virulent: Clemente in particular was always ready to make an issue personal rather than just professional.
When Menotti questioned the morality of Bilbao’s rugged approach to the game, Clemente was quick to retort that he would not take morality lessons from a man infamous for his womanising. All this before a ball of the 1983/84 season had even been kicked in anger.
Act One of the story was played out in the September league meeting at the Nou Camp. Barcelona had started the season strongly and Diego Maradona was in sparkling form, his general performances and in particular a first-half hat-trick in the Cup Winners Cup tie against Magdeburg had the Catalan press in raptures.
Bilbao came for a draw: they were missing their main goal threat Dani through injury and their other key striker Sarabia was left on the bench. In the first-half Maradona directed play brilliantly. He set up Miguel Alonso for the Barcelona opener and six minutes later his astute ball released Victor down the flank to set up a Julio Alberto header for the second. What football there was ended with the half-time whistle.
The villain of the piece was Bilbao’s central defender Andoni Goicoechea, a familiar culprit, who was to make an indelible mark on both the game and on poor Diego. Midway through the second-half Maradona turned his marker and accelerated towards goal. Goicoechea was near the play but was never going to catch him, so instead he cynically scythed into him from the rear. It was a brutal and spiteful tackle with the Argentinian’s left ankle taking the full impact. His ligaments shredded, Maradona went down in agony and lay on the pitch screaming: “It’s broken, it’s broken.”
Goicoechea was only booked for the foul and claimed there was no malice intended, a claim he resolutely stuck to even after having the offending boot encased in Perspex and put on display in his home. He stated afterwards:
“I’m dreadfully sorry about his injury. It was just bad luck. I’ve never gone out with the intention of hurting anyone. I even tried to see Maradona after the game, but they told me he’d been taken straight to hospital.”
Few bought into his protestations of innocence as the Butcher of Bilbao had plenty of form in this fixture. Two seasons earlier another ‘mistimed’ tackle had wrecked the knee ligaments of Bernd Schuster and come close to ending the West German’s career.
It was this very incident that had sparked the turbulent relationship between the clubs in the first place. Maradona’s teammate Julio Alberto was in no doubt:
“The Bilbao players had been hacking us right from the kick off. They forgot the basic point, to play football, and just went for the man. That’s why Maradona was hurt.”
It was an incident that reflected much of what had been wrong with Spanish football for a generation. The bigger clubs had long been able to blacklist referees they did not want controlling their games. No referee with ambition could progress his career if not refereeing the biggest matches, yet bold or contentious decisions would mean incurring the wrath of these clubs and being blacklisted.
So referees tended to make as few dramatic decisions as possible and a culture of tolerance for violent play had developed. Limited players like Goicoechea were both products and beneficiaries of these prevailing attitudes where brute strength and intimidation trumped skill and flair.
Self-awareness and contrition was not really part of Goicoechea’s make-up either and the following day he embarked upon a concerted propaganda campaign in an attempt to pre-empt sanctions.
“My conscience is clear, if they suspend me it will be unjust because even the referee in booking me showed that in his opinion the tackle was mistimed rather than vicious. And he was influenced by 120,000 home fans.”
This campaign extended to historical revisionism about his past transgressions:
“I don’t really count the Schuster injury, he was having knee trouble before I tackled him”.
But then why would contrition even be necessary when your actions were as much lauded as vilified? The following week, at Bilbao’s San Mames stadium, Goicoechea was acclaimed a hero and carried off the pitch by home fans after their European Cup tie against Lech Poznan.
The following day, national coach Miguel Muñoz had no qualms about calling him up for Spain’s forthcoming international friendly with France. Yet, as the incident was replayed extensively around Europe, the Spanish Federation felt compelled to be seen to act. To great surprise Goicoechea was handed an 18-match ban. To considerably less surprise, it was halved on appeal, then reduced again in a typical show of officialdom spinelessness.
Maradona needed a pin inserted into his shattered ankle and would miss the next three months of the season. He returned early in the New Year and hit form again just in time for Act Two, the league rematch in Bilbao at the end of January.
Barcelona had plenty of motivation going into the game, not least because Bilbao led the table and Barça needed a positive result to remain in contention. Once again it was a brutal match with over fifty stoppages for fouls, although at least no serious injuries this time.
Maradona had his own, personal, point to prove and played like a man possessed. It was a brave performance, he knew that dribbling with the ball would be like running through a minefield of kicks and hacks, but he would not be cowed and scored both goals in a 2-1 win.
His inspired performance proved illusory, though. In truth he had been brought back too early and his operation had been botched, the pin in his ankle was slipping and causing him constant pain. With their creative force hobbling through games, Barcelona could not quite haul themselves level with Bilbao and Real Madrid at the top of the table. Both Bilbao and Madrid won their last three league games of the season to finish level on points, but the Basques had a better head-to-head record that meant they were champions again. Barcelona fell short once again, a single point adrift in third place.
The minor compensation for Barcelona of another Copa del Rey Final appearance was comprehensively offset by the prospect of Athletic Bilbao as their opponents. Act Three of this quarrelsome contest was to prove a suitably bitter postscript to the longstanding feud, the swelling frustration and antagonism from recent encounters coming to an explosive climax.
As ever the pre-match sniping set a sour tone for what was to come. Maradona had been sent-off two weeks before in Barcelona’s 5-2 league win against Español, yet picked up only a single game ban that meant he was available for the final. Federation rules suggested that a two-match ban should have been forthcoming.
This played perfectly to Clemente’s persecution narrative. With some justification he smelled a rat and was quick to go on the offensive, claiming bias in favour of the Catalans. Maradona waded into the fray and set in motion another series of abusive exchanges. By the time of the match the insults had become highly gratuitous: “Clemente hasn’t the balls to look me in the eye and call me stupid.” said Maradona; the Bilbao manager retorting: “It’s a shame that a player like him who earns so much money has no human qualities whatsoever.” Cool heads were sorely lacking on both sides.
Whether motivated by the prospect of a rare domestic double, a grievance over Maradona’s participation or just the noisy support of the bulk of the crowd in the Bernebau, Bilbao deserved their tetchy 1-0 win, arriving via a 13th-minute Endika goal.
The final whistle brought the game and the season to a close, but not yet this angry rivalry. Maradona cut a frustrated figure at the end; beaten by Bilbao to another trophy and bleeding from a leg wound he claimed had been inflicted on him by, who else, Andoni Goicoechea.
When Bilbao defender Sola gestured mockingly at him, this proved a provocation too far in a season full of them. He head-butted Sola and elbowed another Bilbao player in the face. As a group of Bilbao players – led by Goicoechea – surrounded him to exact some primal retribution, Maradona’s teammates joined in the fray with gusto. Migueli and Clos literally flew on to the scene with wild kung-fu kicks and the resultant pitched battle played out like a surreal, Hispanic martial-arts movie.
Crowds trampled down fencing and joined in a free-for-all leaving 60 people needing treatment for injuries. King Juan Carlos, Prime Minister Felipe González and visiting politicians from Argentina could do little but look on with embarrassment. The referee had long since fled the pitch, an apt indictment of the abject surrender of responsibility for trying to control the excesses of this particular club vendetta. Contrition was predictably absent after the appalling scenes. Maradona railed wildly against Clemente, Bilbao and especially Goicoechea, while Javier Clemente was smug in triumph:
“We’ve shown two things. First that we are better than they are and secondly that Barcelona still don’t know how to lose.”
It was Barcelona who would exact the major changes to repair the club’s damaged reputation: firstly Menotti left in disgust at the violence and was replaced by Terry Venables, then Maradona was moved on to Napoli after being deemed too unstable. A new coach unencumbered with the baggage that surrounded this noxious rivalry and the gradual decline of Bilbao as a competitive force – these elements in tandem helped dissipate much of the snarling animosity between the clubs.