Copa Del Rey Final: Athletic Bilbao Out To End Four-Decade Wait, Face Mallorca Test

Athletic Bilbao will have another chance to end four decades of frustration and finally claim cup No. 24 on Saturday when it plays Mallorca in the Copa del Rey final in Seville

X | Athletic Club
Athletic Bilbao, Copa Del Rey. Photo: X | Athletic Club

If there is one club whose history runs hand-in-hand with the Copa del Rey it is Athletic Bilbao.

The team that only fields players from or near Spain's northern Basque Country has always put a priority on the knockout competition. That commitment has led to 23 cup titles in the club's history — but the last one came in 1984. Since then, it has been a series of near misses with six finals that all ended in defeat.

Athletic will have another chance to end four decades of frustration and finally claim cup No. 24 on Saturday when it plays Mallorca in the Copa del Rey final in Seville.

While other teams will often prioritize the Spanish league and rest starters in the cup, especially in the early rounds, Athletic always goes all out in the Copa.

Given the dominance of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid over the 38-round grind of the league, Athletic knows that for a club that won't sign top international players, the cup is its best shot at silverware. Only Barcelona with 31 cup titles has won more than Athletic.

Athletic's last cup title in 1984 came in the same year it conquered its eighth and last Spanish league title. Since then, Athletic has continued to compete hard in the cup, only to be denied a title, repeatedly, by Lionel Messi's Barcelona. Messi scored in all three finals Barcelona won over Athletic over the last decade and a half.

Athletic's biggest disappointment came three years ago. After the pandemic forced the 2020 final to be pushed back one year, Athletic had to endure losing two finals in just two weeks in April 2021, first to fierce regional rival Real Sociedad and then to Barcelona for Messi's last title in Spain.

“Some of our former teammates didn't have the chance to play the final, others like me did have the chance and yet came up short,” veteran Athletic defender Óscar De Marcos said this week.

“We are all extremely motivated. The mental part will be very important, above all due to responsibility and excitement that you feel as a player, especially for a player like me who has always supported Athletic.”

Athletic eliminated Barcelona and Atletico Madrid to reach its third final in five seasons. It is also having its best league campaign in years.

While Mallorca is struggling to avoid the relegation fight in the league, Athletic is in fifth place and fighting for a top-four finish that will be rewarded with a Champions League berth.

The final will feature two of the most experienced coaches in Spanish soccer.

Ernesto Valverde, who holds the record for games coaches for Athletic, led Barcelona to the 2018 Copa del Rey title during a break from his long career at the Basque club.

Under Valverde, Athletic deploys the most up-tempo attack in Spanish soccer with Spain winger Nico Williams and older brother Iñaki Williams joined by attacking midfielder Oihan Sancet and striker Gorka Guruzeta. Goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala has played the entire cup competition instead of Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón, who plays in the league.

Mallorca's Mexican coach Javier Aguirre has coached several clubs and is an expert in getting the most out of a squad with limited talent by focusing on defense and relishing the role of underdog.

Aguirre steered Mallorca past Girona and Sociedad to reach its first cup final since 2003 when it won the title thanks to two goals from a young Samuel Eto'o.

Mallorca is now under American ownership, including minority shares owned by NBA greats Steve Kerr and Steve Nash.


The final will be played after a convulsive two weeks for the Spanish soccer federation, which organizes the competition.

Spanish police have made seven arrests recently and raided properties including the federation headquarters in Madrid as part of a corruption and money laundering probe. Those arrests included current federation employees and former federation president Luis Rubiales.

Among the contacts and business deals being investigated is the decision by the federation under Rubiales to host the Copa del Rey and international games at Seville's municipal La Cartuja Stadium, the venue for Saturday's final.