'The most important moment in history of Basque football' is coming

Xabi Alonso, David Silva and ‘the most important moment in the history of Basque football’: Ahead of historic Copa del Rey final against Bilbao, Sociedad chief tells all on his big stars, why he’s not sad Martin Odegaard has left for Arsenal, and more

  • Real Sociedad take on Athletic Bilbao in an all-Basque Copa del Rey final
  • The match was due to take place last season but was postponed due to Covid-19
  • Neither side wanted to play without the prospect of fans being able to attend 
  • Sadly fans are still kept out but it remains a colossal occasion for the region 

A remarkable thing happened in Spanish football 12 months ago – in an age when fans seem to count for less and less Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao agreed to indefinitely postpone the Spanish Cup final they were due to contest until supporters were allowed back in to stadiums.

For on-form Real Sociedad it meant missing out on a great chance to put one over on their local rivals. For Athletic Club they were waving goodbye to their best chance of making it into Europe. But both decided that they would take a stand for the fans.

‘There is a ferocious rivalry between the clubs but we are also capable of looking at things from the same perspective and we both wanted our fans to be inside the stadium to watch the game,’ says Real Sociedad’s sporting director Roberto Olabe.

Real Sociedad against Athletic Bilbao remains one of Spanish football’s greatest derby games

The clubs postponed the  Copa del Rey final last year as fans were unable to attend but given the match has to be played before the final of the 2021 edition, it will now be held behind closed doors at La Cartuja in Seville on Saturday

Sadly a year later it turns out the fabulous gesture has not saved what would have been a magical day for both sets of supporters.

‘I don’t think anyone imagined the brutal impact the pandemic was going to have,’ Olabe says. ‘We know we have to play last year’s final before this year’s. There’s no choice.’

Olabe believes the clubs would have happily gone on waiting ‘as long as it takes’ were it not for the fact that the 2021 final, between Athletic and Barcelona, is due to be played on April 17.

Time marches on and yet these two Basque rivals, meeting together in Saturday’s Spanish Cup final for the first time ever, are throwbacks to an era when sport was still more a game than a business.

It’s Athletic who have the unique Basque-only player policy – Real abandoned it in 1989 with John Aldridge their first ever foreign player – but they are also bucking the trend to always look for solutions in the marketplace.

This season they started the campaign with 16 players in the first-team squad who had come through the club’s youth academy. Favourite son Xabi Alonso coaches the Real Sociedad B-team ‘Sanse‘. And the club’s very special identity helped them land David Silva.

‘We have the Sanse team with an average age of about 20 and on average those players have been at the club for seven years or so,’ says Olabe.

‘That speaks volumes for the stability here. We have a responsibility to fight for the potential of our young players.’

The man coaching the players on their last stop before they make the first team is someone who everyone at Real Sociedad hopes will coach the senior side one day.

It has been a long wait for Real Sociedad but they are now ready for a match they believe is the biggest game in the history of Basque football, with regional pride on the line against Athletic

A key part of the club ethos is flooding the first team with academy products, and that rests on the shoulders of Xabi Alonso (pictured) as he commits to managing the ‘Sanse‘ B squad

Olabe is speaking to Sportsmail on the day it’s announced that, despite considering the possibility of starting a new challenge with Borussia Monchengladbach, Alonso will stay in charge at Sociedad for another year.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if the club were to miss out on his best years as a coach as they did as a player when he joined Liverpool in 2004?

‘We had good years from Xabi the player!’ says Olabe. ‘It was short but we were able to enjoy him for three seasons.

‘He’s an intelligent guy. I don’t know when, I don’t know if I’ll [still] be here, but I think Xabi will one day coach Real Sociedad.’

It’s put to him that he could leave first and then come back to take the reins. ‘Right now he is fulfilling a role that the club needs and he is doing it extraordinarily well,’ Olabe says. ‘And maybe as you say, it could be an “out and then in again” situation. I don’t know.

‘He’s ambitious and I want ambitious people here. I want people who want to improve and aspire to better themselves.’

Throughout the chat Olabe is at pains to point out that ‘La Real’ don’t want to just be all sizzle and not steak. They want to compete and win things, not just produce great young players who go elsewhere.

It remains a grand and passionate occasion and there is overwhelming disappointment that the first ever all-Basque final must be held behind closed doors due to the ongoing pandemic

They made a major statement in that direction at the start of last season with the loan signing from Real Madrid of Martin Odegaard and then last summer with the acquisition of Silva.

‘The No 10 position is very important in our style of play,’ he says. ‘It was a time when we wanted our way of playing to become a bit more aggressive. We wanted to still be a passing team but we wanted to start exploiting space.

‘We wanted a player who could play in tight spaces but who was also able to make us a little bit more direct stretching teams not just with runs in behind but with passes.

‘And so that is why Martin arrived on a two-season loan. But [after one season] because of these things that happen in football ‘Martintxo’ [his Basque nickname] had to leave us.’

Real Sociedad consciously looked for an experienced replacement, he says. ‘Last season there were times when we had a team with an average age of less than 23.

‘The young players need support. They need experienced players around them. That’s where Nacho Monreal comes in. Or [goalkeeper] Miguel Angel Moya or David Silva.

‘He’s been extraordinary and we have suffered because he has not been able to play all the games that we would have liked him to. He gives us so much in the final third.’

Martin Odegaard (right) starred for Real Sociedad last season but has since moved on

The club managed to recruit David Silva and he will play a key role in the Copa del Rey final

Olabe’s enthusiasm for Silva is impossible to contain and he loves the dressing-room figure as much as the magician on the pitch.

‘He gives us experience. He gives us expertise that the younger players can learn from. And that is just what you see,’ he says. ‘Then there is everything you don’t see on the pitch.’

Using a brilliant Spanish phrase that translates literally ‘he’s a little bit vinegar’ he goes on: ‘David is a demanding guy. He is not all sweetness and light. He’s about more than just the lovely football that he plays, he is someone who energises the whole club for those moments when we need to remember we are here to compete.’

Real Sociedad only turned to Silva late in pre-season after they were told Odegaard would not be returning for the second year of his loan.

Does it sadden him to see Odegaard now playing at Arsenal? ‘I’m delighted to see him enjoying his football,’ he says. ‘I think we helped Martin and he helped us.

‘We knew that playing as well as he played for us, his time with us would come to an end. We are just glad he was here. He’s one of us now.’

Other players could also become Premier League targets in time. Manchester City have looked in the past at forward Mikel Oyarzabal.

‘We want to keep our best players from all generations to have the best possible team,’ Olabe says.

Mikel Oyarzabal is the star emerging from San Sebastian and will be expected to deliver 

‘And to do that you have to not just win but you also have to connect with the fans in a way that makes them feel like they are being represented – they suffer [watching us] but in a fun way, because there’s plenty of suffering in their day to day lives that isn’t fun.

‘What we try to do with the young players is make them see that this is their place.

‘Mikel Oyarzabal is 23 and he has played over 200 games already. The young players can see that we want to keep growing and that this is a good place for them.

‘Financially we cannot compete. And we haven’t played the Champions League since 2013. But we want them to see that the club has a plan and that they are not staying to be part of our project – it is their project.’

Saturday will be a day for those young players and for the supporters, albeit watching at home instead of having made the 600-mile journey to Seville for the game.

A 4-0 Europa League defeat to Manchester United might have deflated the club en-route to the historic occasion but they have bounced back with a strong league run.

‘I think we didn’t prepare the game well. Not in terms of tactically but in terms of the circumstances,’ says Olabe of the loss to United.

‘We couldn’t play in Spain. When I heard that Granada and Madrid were going to be able to play their games at home I feel we were extradited having had to play the game in Turin.

Athletic Bilbao have two finals in two weeks but the all-Basque final will mean that bit more

‘We had to prepare an event in Turin. The game became a bit secondary. But it’s not an excuse. We are young. And I’m not talking the players’ ages. I’m talking about the time we have been together.’

A trophy from the first ever all-Basque final would cap a milestone couple of years for this young group. Likewise it would be huge moment for Athletic, who have already won the Spanish Super Cup this year.

‘In purely football terms this is the most important moment in the history of Basque football because this is 2021 in a totally different situation to the eighties (when Real Sociedad and Athletic won four leagues between them) – here we have two historic clubs who want to win,’ says Olabe.

‘This is an important moment. It could have happened a year ago, it could happen again in a year’s time. Let’s hope so!

‘I don’t want to be thinking that this final is the end of something. I hope it’s the first of many.’

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