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Copa del Rey losing significance

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Yes, 24.

Not 24,000, not 2,400, not even 240. Twenty-four Two. Four. Twenty-four. Fifteen in the north stand, nine in the south. A figure so ridiculous it made you want to dust off that old joke, the one in which the stadium PA runs through the names -- not of the players, but of the fans. Tonight's attendance is: José ... Javier ... Carlos ... Oscar ...

Atlético's was a special case. The team had won its first leg 5-0 and its opponent was a Second Division B side. Second Division B is more than just Spain's third tier, too: That category is split into four regionalized 20-team groups. In other words, it is Spain's third tier but also effectively its fourth, fifth and sixth, too. In the return leg, Atlético had nothing to play for and no one to play for it. No Diego Forlán, Sergio Aguero, José Antonio Reyes or Simao Sabrossa. No wonder the game, on a cold Wednesday night, was played out in front of barely 5,000 fans in the 55,000 arena -- most of whose season tickets meant that they got in for free anyway. (The teams played a 1-1 draw.)

But it was also indicative of a wider and worrisome trend: what many have described as the slow death of the Copa del Rey.

After all, the Calderón was not alone. Even accepting the estimated figures, so often exaggerated, attendance was poor this week. Athletic Bilbao's San Mamés and Barcelona's Camp Nou were barely a third full. Sevilla had 8,000 for its 6-1 win over Real Union. Zaragoza was knocked out at a half-empty Romareda. Villarreal, the country's third-best side and playing wonderful football, attracted only 8,000 to the Madrigal. Levante-Xérez had 5,000, Santander had 6,000 and Espanyol had 10,000. Deportivo-Osasuna and Almería-Real Sociedad, two all-First Division clashes, drew fewer than 8,000 each.

The Copa del Rey is a competition in which the bigger clubs traditionally play with youth-teamers. Against Ceuta, for instance, Barcelona largely played with the B team. The rules state that every match-day squad must include at least 11 first-team members, but that's any 11 of its 25-man squad and still teams are invariably weakened -- as underscored by Real Madrid's and Barcelona's basic unwritten rule in recent years: The Copa del Rey is the competition that their sub goalkeeper does get to play.

The finals are still fantastic occasions. Athletic Bilbao-Barcelona at Valencia's Mestalla stadium two years ago was truly special -- everything that is great about the game. Deportivo's victory over Real Madrid in 2002, a 2-1 win at the Santiago Bernabéu on Madrid's birthday, is a truly historic night -- and a glorious one for anyone who is not a Madrid fan. And there will never again be a night like the Copa del Rey final in July 1980 when Real Madrid beat its own youth team, which had miraculously made it to the final. (Not least because that family affair prompted a change in the rules.)

But it is hard to avoid the feeling that few really take the competition seriously until the semifinals. Right now, at this stage of the competition, it feels like it is in the way (and even at the final stage it can on occasion feel like a problem more than a celebration). So it was that on one Spanish television channel, the presenter described the Copa as a tournament with "a drip in its arm." It is in intensive care. The trouble is there is so little care; the remedies have proved worse than the illness. It is the medicine, bitter tasting and ineffective, that has made the patient's condition deteriorate.

It is impossible to simply create a Cup tradition and the Copa del Rey does not have the history or impact of the English FA Cup (which has, nonetheless, also begun to lose some of its luster and charm). Yet the competition -- which began before the Spanish league -- did once have more of an impact, more of a place, than it currently does. Listening to former Madrid goalkeeper Mariano García Remón and Atlético defender Miguel-Ángel Ruíz reminisce, it is clear that the feeling is special; the cup left its mark.

It is also true that the influx of foreigners who do not have a built-in feeling about the Copa del Rey undermines the competition a little. Jose Mourinho said he wanted to play his Spanish players because they knew what the cup was all about. Michael Owen revealed that in 2001 Liverpool's foreign players celebrated the UEFA Cup win against Alavés as their greatest success, while the English players were far more excited about the FA Cup win over Arsenal.

But probably the biggest problem has been the handling of the competition, the chipping away at its credibility. A few years ago, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) even changed the format with the competition already under way -- and when a delegation came to Madrid to complain, it was shut out. The tinkering with the tournament -- at the behest of the bigger clubs, in whose thrall the Spanish game remains -- has removed suspense.

Since 2005-2006, Spain's First Division clubs have entered the tournament at the last 16 stage. In other words, they are just three rounds away from the final. And if that weren't easy enough, those teams playing in European competition are guaranteed to face Second Division B or Third Division teams (if there are any left; Second Division teams at worst), increasing their chances of advancing and, of course, undermining one of the Copa del Rey exciting elements -- the draw itself.

The chances of an upset are minimized even further by making every round two-legged with the second leg at the home of the bigger side. Which means big teams can afford, in theory at least, to risk fielding a weaker team in the first game or earn the chance to field one in the second game. Win the first game and the second one becomes irrelevant -- much like Atlético's. Lose it and you still have a chance to get around it. One way of looking at it is to note that last year Atlético reached the final playing just one First Division side -- relegation-threatened Racing Santander.

A solution seems so devastatingly simple that the RFEF's failure to adopt it appears even more perverse, especially when the teams that demanded two-legged ties now complain of fixture overcrowding.

Why not opt for a longer tournament in terms of rounds but only as many games (or even fewer)? A single match per round and a straightforward draw -- with all the excitement and uncertainty that brings. If Madrid and Barcelona face each other in the first round, so be it. If you get drawn away, then tough luck. It may mean Madrid and Barcelona can't reach a final together, but at least it would bring gravitas to the early stages of the competition. Even just the chance of a big clash, a do-or-die tie, would do that.

Another option would be to award a place in the Champions League to the winners -- although there is always a risk of converting a competition into a passport to another competition rather than a prize worth chasing in its own right. (Few things were more irritating than the insistence in 2005 that Liverpool, which had finished fifth in the Premier League, had to win the Champions League to make sure it qualified for the following year's Champions League. No, you fools, they have to win the Champions League because it's the Champions League!)

Or maybe the best way to make the Copa del Rey important is simply to treat it like it is important. Real Madrid was once again the team bucking the trend this week. The side, which has managed to get knocked out early year after year lately despite having the draw tilted endlessly in its favor, is determined not to fall to the same fate this year. Mourinho in particular has insisted on the importance of a competition that his own club has not taken seriously before -- club president Florentino Pérez even forbade the use of the galácticos in "nothing" Copa del Rey games.

Not so now. Now Mourinho wants to win it. And because he wants to, the country's biggest club wants to, and the media want to, and the fans want to. And so do their rivals. And suddenly, it matters.

One reader sent a letter to the editor declaring that "Mourinho's miracle" had "resuscitated the Cup." That would be pushing it, but on Wednesday night one stadium -- aided by cheap tickets; a rallying cry from a coach who actually cares; a 0-0 draw in the first leg that left the tie open; and a team that did indeed include the big stars, even its goalkeeper -- was packed. Atlético Madrid might have sold just 24 tickets, but five miles north, 80,000 packed into the Santiago Bernabéu for Madrid's 5-1 victory against Real Murcia. The first round of the Copa del Rey had not seen anything like it in years.