Athletic Bilbao: Benat and Susaeta relishing special moment ahead of back-to-back Copa del Rey finals

By Sports Desk March 30, 2021

Football throws up so many twists, turns and scenarios. Thanks to COVID-19, Spanish football will dish up something truly unique in April.

Two Copa del Rey finals will take place in the space of a fortnight after the 2020 decider was postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Athletic Bilbao front and centre.

Athletic will face rivals Real Sociedad in the mouthwatering rescheduled final on April 3 before going head-to-head with Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the 2021 showpiece on April 17.

Unfortunately, fans are barred from attending 'Derbi Vasco' in Seville, one of Spain's most famous rivalries as the Basque region is split between Athletic and La Real.

But it still represents a mammoth occasion in the inter-city rivalry, with Athletic – spearheaded by captain Iker Muniain, Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia – eyeing their first Copa del Rey title since 1983-84.

Benat was part of Athletic's run to the 2020 final, scoring in the first round and featuring in the last 16, before leaving San Mames for the A-League's newest team in Australia – Macarthur FC.

"Two finals are important, but Real Sociedad one is a derby and you always want to win whether it is a cup final or not," the 34-year-old, who spent seven years at Athletic before departing in 2020 but remains in contact with his former team-mates, told Stats Perform News.

"Derbies are special. But also, the Barcelona game will be nice and they will try to win."

Benat – a four-time Spain international having initially emerged from Athletic's youth team in 2005 – added: "The city of Bilbao comes along with the team in these days. The supporters are always there with Athletic. The truth is the entire city of Bilbao and the province of Bizkaia is full of red and white and they support a lot.

"The pity is they cannot attend to the game for the pandemic of COVID."

Benat's journey to Australia has seen him reunite with former Athletic team-mate Markel Susaeta in Sydney.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The 33-year-old Spanish winger wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta is no stranger to the Basque derby – he scored a brace in Athletic's 2-0 LaLiga win over La Real in 2012.

"It's clear that now is a big moment for Basque football," Susaeta, who will watch the final alongside Benat in the early hours of Saturday morning in Australia, said.

"Two finals is not normal, the situation is not normal. Athletic have a great opportunity to win a big title.

"In these matches, the emotion and intensity are very special. The wait is very long for the matches," Susaeta – part of the Athletic sides that were Copa del Rey runners-up in 2009, 2012 and 2015, said. "Athletic have been waiting for months. They are very excited. It's very difficult to control the emotions but it's a match all players want to play."

He added: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important that final. But there are two finals. I think the derby of Real Sociedad is more important.

"For Athletic, anyone can make the difference. Now they are playing well. In attack, they are creating more chances than before. They are in good condition for the finals."

Despite a change in the dugout, Athletic have already claimed silverware in 2020-21.

Marcelino replaced Gaizka Garitano in January, and he sensationally guided Athletic to a victory over Barca in the Supercopa de Espana final later that month.

Benat said: "Athletic were okay with Garitano, but they were not able to have a positive run to jump up in the table. And Marcelino has given extra confident to the players.

"The players trust him and you can see they gained confidence.

"I think Athletic have more experience lately. They have played some finals and they can have more experience, but I do think Athletic is a balanced team. They can play with or without ball and they can do great things with or without ball."

But one-time Spain international Susaeta, who reached the Europa League final with Los Leones under Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, is aware just how tough it is for Athletic to compete for trophies.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world," Susaeta added. "To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Related items

  • Barcelona without injured forward Ansu Fati for Rayo Vallecano clash Barcelona without injured forward Ansu Fati for Rayo Vallecano clash

    Barcelona forward Ansu Fati has been ruled out of Wednesday's LaLiga clash against Rayo Vallecano with a knee injury.

    The Spain international, who signed a new long-term deal at Camp Nou last week, was substituted 16 minutes from time in Barca's Clasico defeat to Real Madrid on Sunday after sustaining a knock.

    Ronald Koeman revealed at his pre-match news conference ahead of the meeting with Vallecano that Fati was considered a doubt.

    He was not pictured travelling to Madrid with the Barca squad on Wednesday and the LaLiga heavyweights have confirmed the youngster will play no part at Estadio de Vallecas.

    A statement on Barcelona's official website read: "Ansu Fati has pain in his right knee. He is unavailable for selection and his recovery will dictate his return".

     

    Fati only returned from a 10-month knee injury lay-off, which saw him suffer a number of setbacks along the way, in Barca's 3-0 win over Levante on September 26.

    The teenage forward scored in that match and has featured a further five times in all competitions this term, with his only other goal coming against Valencia 10 days ago.

    He has scored 15 goals in 49 appearances for the Catalan giants in all competitions, a tally that is bettered only by Luis Suarez (21), Antoine Griezmann (35) and Messi (69) – none of whom are still at the club – since his debut 26 months ago.

    Koeman is also without fellow forwards Ousmane Dembele and Martin Braithwaite for the match with Vallecano, while Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araujo are also nursing injuries.

    Barca enter the match ninth in LaLiga, with their return of 15 goals after their first nine games their lowest tally at this stage of the campaign since 2003-04 when scoring 11 times.

  • Bayern Munich and France defender Lucas Hernandez avoids jail time after successful appeal Bayern Munich and France defender Lucas Hernandez avoids jail time after successful appeal

    Bayern Munich and France defender Lucas Hernandez has avoided jail time for disobeying a restraining order in 2017 after a Madrid court accepted his appeal.

    The 25-year-old appeared in court last week and was given until October 28 to voluntarily enter a prison of his choosing, where he faced a six-month sentence.

    However, the latest appeal Hernandez lodged was upheld by the Madrid Provincial High Court on Wednesday.

    Hernandez, a World Cup winner with France in 2018, has instead been handed a suspended sentence of four years and ordered to pay a €96,000 fine.

    "We consider that the appeal must be accepted and that the execution of the sentence of deprivation of liberty imposed on Lucas Francois Bernard Hernandez must be suspended," a statement from the court read.

    The charge relates to a conviction of domestic violence against then girlfriend and now wife Amelia de la Osa Lorente from five and a half years ago.

    He was sentenced to 31 days of community service at the time and barred from approaching or communicating with his partner for the next six months.

    Four months later, Hernandez was arrested at an airport in Madrid in the company of Lorente, whom he had since married. The couple also now have a child together.

    Hernandez was sentenced to six months in prison in 2019 as a result of breaching the order, with his appeal initially rejected due to being a repeat offender, but his latest appeal has been accepted.

    "Regarding his family and social circumstances, it has been highlighted in the appeal that the convicted person lives with Mrs de la Osa and their son, without any new incidents between them being recorded," the court statement added.

  • A-League player Josh Cavallo comes out as only openly gay male top-flight footballer A-League player Josh Cavallo comes out as only openly gay male top-flight footballer

    A-League star Josh Cavallo has come out as gay, making the announcement in a video and open letter on social media.

    The 21-year-old is the only openly gay top-flight male footballer in the world.

    In his video, he said: "There's something personal that I need to share with everyone. I am a footballer and I am gay."

    His open letter stated: "It's been a journey to get to this point in my life, but I couldn't be happier with my decision to come out. I have been fighting my sexuality for six years now and I'm glad I can put that to rest.

    "Growing up, I always felt the need to hide myself because I was ashamed. Ashamed I would never be able to do what I loved and be gay. Hiding who I truly am, to pursue a dream I always wished for as a kid, to play football and be treated equally never felt like a reality."

     

    pic.twitter.com/CwrfpeWRVL

    — Josh Cavallo (@JoshuaCavallo) October 27, 2021

    The conversation around the lack of openly gay male elite footballers has been growing in recent times, and Cavallo is hopeful that his statement will help others to find the courage to follow suit.

    "I want to help change this," he said. "I want to show that everyone is welcome in the game of football and deserves the right to be their authentic self.

    "It is astonishing to know that there are currently no gay professional footballers who are out and actively playing, not only in Australia, but around the world. Hopefully this will change in the near future."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.