Today, in the Copa del Rey (Spain’s Cup, a knockout tournament that goes on at the same time as the league), a tiny, tiny team, Agrupación Deportiva Alcorcón, hailing from the outskirts of Madrid and competing every week in the Segunda B (the third tier of Spanish football), crushed Real Madrid, the most expensively assembled football team in the history of humankind. 4-0, in the bizarre theater that is a lower-division stadium: floodlights, bleachers, an incredulous, pipa (sunflower seed)-munching crowd. The kind of “stadium” that only draws the small-team hardcore fans. Families, locals, the sort that doesn’t want to (or can’t) shell out the cash for season tickets at one of their metro area’s more prominent clubs.
And it was quite a victory for little Alcorcón, who out-hustled, outran, and outplayed the “new” galácticos. Their gut-busting performance knocked the wind of out of the millionaire superstars. Jerzy Dudek, the hero of Liverpool’s last European Cup, looked like he was in mourning after each goal. Guti, Spanish pretty boy, completely lost his cool and was taken off at halftime. Arbeloa, Spanish international and a regular in his own Liverpool days, was a statue. Raúl and Van Nistelrooy couldn’t hit the backside of a barn. Gago gagged. Diarra, well, you could imagine as well.
The nature of the Copa del Rey is that there are two legs, meaning that in a couple weeks’ time, little Alcorcón (I like to add that diminutive to make them sound like a Dickens character) has to visit the Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s home, where they will attempt to visit revenge upon the minnows who beached them. Difficult it shall be, even for a great team, to win by 5 goals in order to advance.
Traditionally, cup competitions have always afforded such opportunities to small clubs. The Copa del Rey has always been a great example. Last year’s final pitted all-winning Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao, Spain’s all-Basque club (no foreign or non-Basque players). Though Bilbao lost, it was a compelling final in which a team like Athletic had the chance to be the “kings” for a night.
In the old days, they could have been “generalísimos,” as the cup was named for the dictator of Spain after the Civil War ended in 1939 (it was known as La Copa del Generalísimo from then until 1976). As you could imagine, the importance of the cup was so great that it had propaganda value reflecting the politics of the ruling power. Before the Spanish Civil War, it was the Trofeo Presidente de la Segunda República, named for the president of the leftist, anarchist and socialist influenced (yet democratically elected) government that was bloodily overthrown by Francisco Franco and his nationalist faction by 1939.
Technically, these cups are often all-encompassing, incorporating teams from the lowest divisions, and giving them the chance to reach later stages in the tournament where they can play bigger teams. Back in the old days, there was a European competition (now defunct) called the Cup Winner’s Cup, featuring cup-winning teams from all of Europe (in Spanish it was called the Recopa, literally the “re-cup”). By now, UEFA has made attempts to streamline their competitions for money-generating purposes. The Champions’ League has been ridiculously expanded, to the point that the first-round games are so meaningless that I feel like I am watching them through the reflection of a puddle. The UEFA Cup is now the Europa League,
Previously, the crisis of the small team has been discussed here, and I am adding to that lament. I lament the diminishing importance of the cup competition, which has always been a staging area for upsets; where teams that are poor can be lords over the wealthy, if even for a few games. It seems like today, the market-owners of football prefer for dominance to be an established and regular paradigm that guarantees cash production and glamor as the fuel for loyalty. It seems harder and harder to find fans willing to sit through thick and thin for a club. Imagine how many people pick their team for its image alone.
Watching Madrid get it handed to them this afternoon reminded me of the pleasures of unpredictability, not to mention the value of loyalty to one’s team, no matter how small, as I watched the fans and players of Alcorcón celebrate into the unforgettable night.