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 share much in common these days. On the pitch both have dazzled with some of the most technically progressive football played on the continent this season, in the technical areas both have been inspired by visionary coaches in Guardiola and Bielsa who formed a very public mutual appreciation of each other's abilities
Bilbao might always have been underdogs going into this game, but such has been their resurgence this year, many people thought it would be a close contest. As it was, Barcelona ultimately ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in an open and sporting contest.
Changed days indeed since the last time Barça and Bilbao met in a Cup Final as anything approaching competitively matched. Rewind nearly 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 was the 1983/84 season with the matches between the clubs reaching unsustainable levels of sheer toxicity. It was a story to be played out over three unpleasant acts, by a thoroughly disagreeable cast of lead characters.
An Argentinean genius in their front line was about the only thing Barcelona in 1983 had in common with their modern day counterparts. Diego Armando Maradona aside, they were a very different beast from the serial winners we know them as today. The club had long been going through an identity crisis and winning the Spanish title had become an obsession for them after one, single, meagre success in the preceding 23 years. Barcelona were perceived in Spain as psychologically weak, 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 had won the all important championship.
Weakness of any description was not a criticism that could be levelled at Bilbao, an aggressive, hard working side who were often uneasy on the eye. They were the antithesis of Barcelona, their modest team of home grown Basques culturally far removed from the glamorous Catalans and their precocious superstar foreign imports. Bilbao's key players were workmanlike names like full back Santiago Urquiaga, midfielder Miguel De Andres and strikers Dani and Manuel Sarabia. Only their brilliant keeper Andoni Zubizarreta was a name that stood out.
The marked cultural differences extended to the managers too. The bohemian, liberal Argentine César- Luis Menotti was in charge at Barcelona and his team was a reflection of his personality, relaxed and informal. Players were not just for football, they were often his drinking partners in the 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 acerbated the already poor relations between their clubs. Menotti was a purist who was alarmed at the violence in the Spanish game, he saw Bilbao as one of the worst exponents of anti-football and was rarely 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 between the pair at the Nou Camp. Barcelona had started the season strongly and Diego Maradona was in sparking 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 stopped with the half-time whistle though.
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 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, instead he cynically scythed into him from the rear. It was a brutal and spiteful tackle with the Argentinean’s left ankle taking the full impact. Maradona went down in agony and lay on the pitch screaming "It's broken, it's broken". His ankle ligaments were shredded.
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 though, the Butcher of Bilbao had plenty of previous 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 games, 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 went on 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," he declared. 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 be even necessary when your actions were as much lauded as vilified? The following Wednesday at Bilbao's San Mames stadium, Goicoechea was acclaimed a hero and carried off the pitch by home fans after their European Cup tie with 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 considerable surprise, Goicoechea was handed an 18 match ban. To considerably less surprise it was halved on appeal, then reduced again in a typical Federation show of spinelessness.
Maradona needed a pin inserted into his shattered ankle and missed the next three months. 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 late winner from sub Dani that had given Bilbao a crucial 2-1 home win over Madrid in March was the telling factor. It gave Bilbao a better head to head record and meant they were champions again. Barcelona fell short once more, a single point adrift in third place.
The minor compensation for Barcelona of another Copa del Rey Final appearance was comprehensibly offset by the prospect of yet another meeting with Athletic Bilbao. 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 earlier in Barcelona's 5-2 League win against Español, yet was only banned for a single game which freed him up 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, Clemente retorting: "It's a shame that a player like him who earns so much money has no human qualities whatsoever." Cool heads were badly 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 onto 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 with 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 following 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. Menotti left in disgust at the violence and was replaced by Terry Venables, Maradona was deemed an unstable liability and moved on to Napoli. A new coach unencumbered with the baggage that surrounded this noxious rivalry and the gradual decline of Bilbao as a competitive force, these were elements in tandem that helped dissipate much of the snarling animosity between the clubs.
We have come full circle now; the worst of enemies became the best of friends. Bilbao and Barcelona in 2012 represent the best of the modern, expansive and cosmopolitan Spanish game, just as the same clubs in 1984 represented the very worst of its violence, cynicism and insularity.