Even when it's not about them it's about them. The big issue in Spain over the last week or so has been the final of the Copa del Rey: wherever you look, they're indulged in the same, familiar argument. Seeped in the same hatred and the same suspicion, it follows familiar lines -- the constant search to feel offended, to demonstrate the other side's moral inferiority. A playground argument: You started it, no you did. You're the bad guys, no you are. Everyone everywhere seems to be talking about the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona and how that will play out at the Spanish Cup final.
So what? So Real Madrid aren't in the final of the Copa del Rey, that's what. Athletic Bilbao are. And so -- and this is the killer -- are FC Barcelona. Two years ago, Athletic and Barcelona met at Mestalla, Valencia. There were 52,500 fans packed into the stadium; over 15,000 more were left outside; others were stuck at home. It was the first final that Athletic had been in since 1985 and its supporters were desperate to go. They tried anything to get hold of tickets. For thousands of them, it was not possible -- but they went to Valencia anyway, traveling in hope, determined to enjoy the atmosphere even if they could not get into the ground.
Two years later, the teams are repeated. But two years later the teams are determined that the same scene is not repeated. Both Athletic and Barcelona want to play the game in the biggest stadium, possible. With the Camp Nou (capacity: 99,000) ruled out because Barcelona are in the final, that means the Santiago Bernabéu. It is the perfect venue. It holds 85,000 -- in other words, over 15,000 tickets more for each team -- and is roughly equally reachable for both sets of supporters.
On Monday morning, there was a meeting held at the Spanish Football Federation's HQ at Las Rozas, just outside Madrid. Both clubs formally applied for the Bernabéu to be the venue for the final. "The Bernabéu is ideal, our first choice," said the Athletic president Josu Urrutía. "We have made our position clear and we represent a large number of supporters." Barcelona's director Toni Freixa added: "we want a ground that fulfills two criteria -- the biggest possible capacity and equidistant for the two clubs. The Bernabéu is the best option."
So far, so simple ... But, wait ...
There is, though, a problem: Real Madrid does not want the final to be held in its stadium. Although it had kept a discreet silence, on Sunday night club director and former player Emilio Butragueño noted that the Federation had been informed that Madrid had building works going on at the stadium at the time -- works that are penciled in for the end of the league season in mid-May, a week before the final. It has also been noted that Madrid would need the stadium in order to celebrate should it win the Champions League final on May 20. Those works presumably wouldn't happen then. Or wouldn't matter.
Frankly, the works excuse sounded like exactly that: an excuse. All of which hints at another reason: Madrid simply does not want Barcelona winning the Copa del Rey in its stadium; it does not see why it should host its rival. It certainly does not want to watch Barcelona parade a trophy round its ground. The memory of 2010 is still fresh: the blind panic felt in Madrid over the possibility of Barcelona reaching the Champions League final at its stadium. Meanwhile, in Barcelona, the venue for the final added something extra: it was like it was a guilty forbidden pleasure, something a little perverse, enjoyably dirty. What better way to really rub Madrid's noses in it?
As it turned out, Inter got there and won it. The decision on the final had been taken way before the tournament started, but as the final drew closer and Barcelona progressed, the fear was palpable. There were many at the club furious with the former president Ramón Calderón for requesting the event -- had Madrid reached the final, the response would have been the opposite. It is not just the fact that he won the European Cup or even that he knocked out Barcelona on route that made Jose Mourinho so popular in Madrid but that he spared them from that doomsday scenario.
The Copa del Rey may not be so big but still Madrid supporters do not want Barça winning at their stadium. They recall the 1997 Copa del Rey, when Barcelona did a lap of honor round the Bernabéu to the strains of their hymn. Truth be told, it was not that big a deal, but it stung. In Barcelona, they thought it was hilarious.
Last Sunday, as Real Madrid defeated Levante 4-2 to go 10 points clear in the league and virtually wrap up the title with 16 weeks to spare, supporters chanted: "the final of the cup must not be played here." After the game, Jose Mourinho claimed that he did not care where the final was played -- "they could host it in China," he said. Álvaro Arbeloa, on the other hand, insisted that if that is what the supporters want, "their voice should be heard." At any club, it would be a logical thing to say. At Madrid, more so: after all, it is a club that is owned by its members. There is something wrong about trying to force a club to host an event that they do not want to host.
Yet Madrid is also a club that makes much of its status as a club señor, a gentleman of a club, superior to the rest. Offering up its stadium for the final, as other clubs do every season, would reinforce that status. It would also earn the club 33 percentage of the profits from the final, while underlining the Santiago Bernabéu's pre-eminence as a stadium. Local business certainly wants the final: the arrival of 80,000 brings with it a demand for hotel rooms, bars and restaurants. Madrid has often talked of how it has helped to project the image and stimulate the growth of the capital nationally and internationally. The final is another opportunity to do just that.
There is an argument -- one that many Madrid fans to not want to contemplate -- that suggests that Madrid should feel honored to host the final. It is a symbol of its status. It might also serve to improve strained relations with Barcelona.
Besides, when it comes to the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona, there have always been contrasting narratives. In Madrid, they invariably scoff at Barcelona's obsession with them. Barcelona suffer, Madrid fans like to note, from Madriditis -- an obsession with their opponents that reveals their small-mindedness and paranoia. They note how Madriditis is, above all, the living expression of Barça's inferiority.
To put it in simple terms: Barcelona obsessed itself with Madrid, clinging to a victim complex, while Madrid simply did not worry about Barcelona -- it just added to their legend. That was what made Madrid great and Barcelona bitter. Being aloof was being better. Why worry about what Barcelona did? Let them act the way they want; we're not interested. We are above all that.
So now what? The president Florentino Pérez's first duty is, of course, to his fans. And if they do not want Barcelona to play the final at the Bernabéu, that opinion must be taken into account. Refusing to host the final does, though, rather undermine that gentlemanly discourse of greatness.
Some have alleged that this is simply payback for 2004 when Barcelona refused to host the Copa del Rey final between Real Madrid and Real Zaragoza, forcing the game to be held at Montjuic, the city's 55,00-capacity Olympic stadium. Reticence is justified by that final, even for those who do not see a 'no' now as revenge for a 'no' then: if Barcelona wouldn't help us, how can they ask us to help them? (Helping Athletic is rarely contemplated; that is not the issue). As the former Real Madrid player Guti put it as he argued against handing over the keys to the Bernabéu: "why couldn't we play at the Camp Nou in 2004?".
The problem with that argument is that it is not true: sources at both clubs and the RFEF have confirmed that there was no Camp Nou veto in 2004, from Barcelona or anyone else. In the future it may be true, though: by refusing now, Madrid could find Barcelona or Athletic refusing in the future.
Others have insisted that Real Madrid does not wish to see Athletic and Barcelona fans -- Basques and Catalans, respectively -- come to the final and whistle the Spanish national anthem or boo the King of Spain, the patron of the competition, as happened at Mestalla in 2009. (And as is likely to happen, no matter which stadium hosts the final: the argument that it is somehow more offensive to Madrid fans is a curious and revealing one. No one has asked fans in Valencia or Seville how they would feel if the national anthem was booed in their stadiums). They also claim to fear the stadium being damaged.
In a nutshell, the argument is: why would I invite someone I don't like and someone who does not like me to come to my stadium and behave in a way that is detrimental to me? It is my house and I invite who I like.
Theoretically, the Spanish Football Federation can oblige a team to host the final but it will not do so. On Monday, it announced that it would take a decision in 10 days' time. Quite why was not clear. Perhaps it thought that it could bring some pressure to bear on Madrid. Perhaps it can, but it is unlikely.
The alternatives ...
Now it must look elsewhere. Madrid's other stadium, the Vicente Calderón, cannot host the final because there is a Coldplay concert that day. Seville's La Cartuja stadium holds 57,600 but is 10 hours from Barcelona by train and a similar journey from Bilbao by road. Mestalla is an option. Just as it was two years ago, and that is the point -- too many fans were left out then. Athletic Bilbao want as many supporters as possible to go. And that is why this is such a pity: ultimately, it is about soccer fans enjoying the final.
Spain does not have a national stadium. There are only two grounds in the country that hold over 60,000 -- Barcelona's Camp Nou and Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu. So why not take out of Spain altogether? To Wembley or to Sant Denis, for example?
The final decision is 10 days away. Meanwhile, the fans wait. And wonder. And worry. Unable to book a hotel, unable to book a train or a flight. That lays bare the real problem in this whole sorry mess, and it is a depressingly familiar one too: the rank incompetence of Spain's footballing authorities. Rather than decide on the venue at the start of the season as the Champions League does -- and as the Copa del Rey did in 2002 when the final was set in Madrid's stadium and specially brought forward to coincide with its 100th birthday -- a decision is not made until the finalists are known.
By fixing the venue in advance, the RFEF cannot avoid a team playing in its rivals' stadium, but it can prepare everyone for it, removing rancor and suspicion. Better still, it can prepare fans for it. But then when has that ever been the concern? After all, it is not just the venue that is in doubt it is the date: if Barcelona reach the Champions League final, the Cup final will be played on May 25; if not, it will be played on the 20th. Apparently, it was just too complicated to chose a date and stick to it.
The Copa del Rey is biggest single game of the season, the showpiece fixture of the domestic calendar. We know which two teams are playing. We just don't know when. And we don't know where. Worse still, deep down we do know that this will happen again.