MIRANDA DEL EBRO, Spain -- The miracle continues. In the 91st minute, Ander Lambarri reached a long, hopeful ball into the penalty area and, on the turn, hit a perfect shot into the far corner. 1-2. Mirandés had got one back against Athletic Bilbao and it was no more than it deserved. Athletic had taken a 2-0 lead with two from Fernando Llorente in the first half and had three clear chances wrongly ruled out for offside too. But Mirandés had struck the bar and seen Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz make a superb save. Now, just like in the quarterfinal, it had found a stoppage time goal. Now, at last there was hope: next week, Mirandés travel to San Mamés in the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg trailing by a solitary goal.
So what? So, Mirandés is not your average team. In fact, no, that's a lie: it is your average team. Very average. And that is exactly the point. Last night, Mirandés became only the second team from Spain's Second Division B ever to play in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey, after Figueres. That's only the second team in 109 years of the competition. Late last night, the town was out celebrating. Again. Burgos is a province without a single player in the first division at any club; now it has an entire team a step from the final. Even if Mirandés does not get there, this is the greatest of achievements. It is a miracle already.
"We will tell our grandchildren," says the coach Carlos Pouso. He is not the only one.
Miranda del Ebro, population 35,000, looks like a town in the grips of a revolution. Murals have been painted on walls, red and black flags are everywhere. TV crews and radio shows took up residence. Rarely has a story captured the collective imagination quite like this one. After the semifinal, Iker Casillas declared himself "jealous" of the astonishing, barely believable experience that Mirandés was living. Yes, that's a World Cup winning captain wishing he was there. Gerard Piqué called it "incredible." The writer David Trueba lauded the fact that it had shown the world that "the revolt of the weak is possible -- even though it is an idea we had banished from our heads since we started dealing with banks."
Exaggerated? Not really. Mirandés plays in the Second Division B. It is often referred to as the third tier of Spanish soccer but that does not quite capture its essence: the Spanish league has a First Division, a Second Division (A), Second Division B and Third Division. At Second Division B level, there are four regionalized leagues, all of them with 20 teams. It would be fair to talk about the Second Division B as anything from the third tier to the seventh but even that does not quite express its status compared to the top flight.
Let's put this into context: this season, Mirandés played Athletic Bilbao in the league too -- only it was Athletic Bilbao's B team. In the quarterfinal, Mirandés defeated Espanyol: a team whose budget is 39 times the size of its own. Athletic Bilbao is even bigger. The difference between the two sides was reflected in the motivational video that Mirandés coach Carlos Pouso, a former industrial warehouse worker, showed his players. Athletic Bilbao's nickname is the lions. The video showed a boar attacking a lion. That is what his team must do. In the second half, at least it is what it did do. It is what Mirandés had done throughout the competition and what took it this far.
The man who scored for Athletic Bilbao last night was Fernando Llorente. This past weekend, he scored a hat trick against Rayo Vallecano. As is traditional, his teammates signed the match ball for him. One of them wrote: "?5M net, and [your contract renewal] is done!" That sum of ?5M would keep the whole of Mirandés going for four seasons. Compare Llorente to Mirandés's all-time top scorer (on 120 goals), captain and hero of the Copa del Rey run. When it defeated Espanyol in the quarterfinal with a 92nd-minute goal, the team went out to celebrate. Pablo Infante did not join them. He had to be at work at 8 a.m. the following morning -- opening the local savings bank in the small town of Quincoces de Yuso, 60 kilometers away.
Of the Mirandés team, only six are professionals; on average, those that are professional earn a little over ?30,000 ($39,500) a year. Like Infante, the rest are part-timers, amateurs. And yet Infante, now nicknamed the Golden Baldy, is the top scorer in the entire Copa del Rey this season. There were 7,700 people at the Anduva stadium -- and only because they had added in temporary stands to try to meet demands. It normally holds just 6000 and it doesn't always fill. Against Athletic it did: the club made ?300,000 ($395,000) -- easily the highest gate receipt in its history and enough to cover a quarter of the budget in one go. Or at least it would have been but for an agreement with the players: they share half of all the ticket office takings throughout the tournament.
Infante is not alone. Last night it was Lambarri. In the previous round the man who scored the goal was César Fernández de las Heras Caneda. These days he is known as Caneda because he wanted to recover his mother's surname after her death. Before, he was known as César -- when he played, briefly, at Athletic (he made 28 appearances between 1998 and 2005). He is proud of his time there. And he is not alone. There was something hugely fitting about Mirandés facing Athletic Bilbao. Miranda del Ebro and Bilbao are barely an hour apart and there are 11 Basques in the Mirandés team. Two started their careers at Athletic Bilbao but didn't quite make it.
Three of Mirandés' players are season ticket holders at San Mamés. They went to the final in 2009 to watch their team take on Barcelona. Last night, they faced that team. This year they will go to the final too -- either as fans or as players.
It is an extraordinary achievement and it is not even as if they have had it easy either. This has been no fluke and nor has it been the product of a lucky draw. Mirandés has deserved to progress: It has beaten three First Division sides in a row to get to the semifinal: Villarreal, Racing Santander and Espanyol. Against Espanyol, it was 2-0 up and lost 3-2 at Cornellá -- robbed blind by the referee. But a 92nd goal in the second leg dramatically, and deservedly, sent them through. As Pouso insists: "it is not chance that we have got this far." If it is to win the tournament it will have to add Athletic and Barcelona or Valencia to that list.
Mirandés has done it the hard way. The Spanish Football Federation has manipulated the Cup format in favor of the big teams for years now. For Mirandés it all started way back in August. It defeated Amorebieta, Real Linense and Logroñés in one-off games to reach the fourth round (last 32), where the First Division teams join the competition. At that point, teams playing in Europe are guaranteed a theoretically easy game in the opening round against one of the remaining Second Division B sides, all rounds thereafter are two-legged, and the bigger teams get the advantage of the second leg at home all the way through.
It is a miracle for a Second Division B team to get through one round, let alone three. The Federation's plans were designed, of course, to make shocks less likely. They were designed to protect and promote the big clubs and to protect and promote the investment. To exacerbate inequality and weaken the weak. They were designed, frankly, to destroy the very essence of a cup competition. Even from their own, product-driven perspective it is a mistake: the clásico apart, no game has generated the interest that Mirandés-Athletic did last night. Had the men organizing the competition had it their way, this would never have happened. But even the Federation hasn't been able to ruin it this time. Sometimes all the obstacles in the world are not enough.
Sometimes, soccer finds a way.