Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad flying the Basque flag in the Copa del Rey
Both clubs from the region have ambitions to win the Spanish Cup after eliminating Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively
A rather subdued Basque derby came to San Sebastian at the weekend. Naturally, it was sold out: the visit of Athletic Bilbao to Real Sociedad always will be, but both starting XIs had been sold slightly short.
That is because La Liga, where sixth-placed Sociedad extended their lead over Athletic to six points via a 2-1 win, is no longer the priority for either club.
Dominating the horizon is the Copa del Rey, whose semi-finals begin on Wednesday evening and offer the enticing possibility of an Athletic versus Sociedad final, a Basque derby to roll back the years.
Neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid are left in the competition, after Barca lost at Bilbao on the same evening Sociedad went to Madrid and won 4-3. The region struggles to remember a single night of such concentrated pride.
Whenever Athletic upset the hierarchy, as they did by downing Barca, it endorses their unique recruitment model, which is a commitment to only take on players with a strong connection, through birth, upbringing or family ties, to the Basque region.
In the era of a global market for footballers, that imposes clear handicaps; when the catchment area for recruiting locals to the academy also has five top-division clubs - Sociedad, Alaves, Eibar and Osasuna - in it, the challenges are considerable.
Once upon a time, Sociedad had the same Basque-weighted approach to recruitment, but eased it at the end of the 1980s, the decade where Sociedad and Athletic won their last Liga titles.
So the Sociedad team whose stylish football has enriched Spain this season and will take on second division Mirandes on Wednesday, shows a mix of homegrown excellence - like the winger Mikel Oyarzabal - some repatriated experience, like the ex-Arsenal defender Nacho Monreal, and a clutch of players who were once celebrated prodigies, and have learned to thrive, on the rebound, in San Sebastian. There’s Mikel Odegaard, the Norwegian on loan from Real Madrid who signed him at 16; there’s Adnan Januzaj, once a Manchester United teenager.
But the star of the Cup run is Alexander Isak, the Sweden international whose display against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu reminded that the 20-year-old has an uncommon range of skills and poise. Isak was involved in all four goals, scoring twice, the first with a spectacular volley.
“He is showing what a great player he is,” said Imanol Alguacil, Sociedad manager, who inherited Isak as a summer signing from Borussia Dortmund, where, in two years, he had seldom featured.
The German club, never short of talented young strikers, will be glancing again at the form of the one they let go. Isak’s goal, coming off the bench, to win the weekend derby against Athletic was his eighth in six matches.
An Athletic substitute had earlier breathed life into the derby, Inaki Williams, rested from the starting XI, equalising. As with Isak for Sociedad, Williams has been the king of the Copa for Athletic, chief navigator of their rollercoaster ride to Wednesday's semi-final first leg against Granada.
Williams' goals - one against Elche, two against Tenerife - kept Athletic alive in the later rounds and his glancing header, in injury time, ousted Barcelona. All this in the space of a month where Williams had made unwanted headlines, subjected to racial abuse from the stands in a league fixture at Espanyol.
It was not the first time he has heard it. Williams has had to combine his soaring professional career with a spokesman’s role as pioneer. He is the son of West African immigrants, parents who met in Ghana, exiles from civil unrest in Liberia, and, as they planned a family, sought a life in Europe.
They travelled north overland and entered Spanish territory through the wall that separates Morocco from Melilla, the Spanish enclave in North Africa. They had settled in Bilbao by the time Inaki was born 25 years ago. From that day, he was a Basque.
Isak would recognise aspects of Williams’s journey. His parents came to Sweden as refugees from war in Eritrea. Like Williams, a home in the proud northern corner of Spain has become his launchpad.
Both chase a starring role in a showpiece Cup final. And in June, they may meet again. Isak, who became Sweden’s youngest ever goalscorer three years ago, is pressing his case to lead the line for his country.
Williams’s form is pushing his claim to add to his one cap for Spain. Sweden versus Spain will open Group E of Euro 2020, and the venue is Bilbao, right in the heart of the Basque country.
Published: February 11, 2020 07:31 PM