Spain’s longest-running football competition, the Copa del Rey, is set to celebrate its 108th birthday in style, with a final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Catalans are not known as the “King of Cups” for nothing, having won the trophy on 25 occasions, while Los Blancos are multiple winners themselves, although 16 years have now gone by since they collected the cup for the 17th time.

Adding even more interest to Wednesday evening’s eagerly awaited encounter is the fact that it is the second of four meetings between the sides in just 18 days. And with no fewer than 13 members of Spain’s FIFA World Cup™-winning squad on parade, not to mention Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two dominant figures of the modern game, the match-up should be a spectacular one.

Any meeting between Spain’s big two is always an event, especially in the Copa del Rey, where the duo have met five times in the final, two of them coming at the Mestalla in Valencia, the venue for tonight’s game. Barcelona have the historical edge, having won three of those five matches, the first of which was missed by the television cameras and the second of which ended in a hail of glass bottles.  

When the referee blows his whistle to mark the start of this evening’s showpiece the likes of Iker Casillas, Messi, Xavi and Cristiano Ronaldo will all take their place a long-running drama that features a host of distinguished names. Figuring high among them are Diego Maradona, Hugo Sanchez, current Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, and the German Bernd Schuster, the only player to have featured on both sides in these games.

From Zamora to an absent Cruyff
Though much has changed in football since 21 June 1936, the date of the first final meeting between Merengues and Azulgranas, the rivalry was just as passionate then as it is now. The star of the game in those days was goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, Real Madrid’s standard bearer and the hero of his side’s 2-1 win. El Divino (The Divine One) made a series of great saves to deny the Catalans, none of them better than the legendary stop that thwarted Barça goalgetter Josep Escola in the closing minutes, and was chaired off the pitch by jubilant Madrid fans.

The two sides came together again in the final 32 years later, this time at the Santiago Bernabeu, which fell silent in the opening minutes when Fernando Zunzunegui sliced Joaquim Rife’s cross into his own net. Los Blancos, known at the time as El Madrid Ye-Yé after the chorus of The Beatles’ She Loves You, had just won the league title.

Yet, despite the best efforts of their star forward and leading goalscorer Amancio, they failed to claw back the deficit. Their efforts were hampered when the inspirational Pirri, already struggling with a temperature, picked up an injury shortly after kick-off. “I woke up with a temperature of 40ºC but I decided to play against Barcelona anyway,” he later explained. “But after ten minutes I had the misfortune to break my collarbone, and I had to play the rest of the game with that and my temperature.”

Barcelona’s narrow win did not go down well with the disgruntled Madrid fans, who showed their displeasure by throwing bottles on to the pitch at the end of the game, which has since become known as the 'final de las botellas'.

Revenge is sweet
Madrid would avenge that defeat in 1974, only a few months after Rinus Michels’ Barcelona had inflicted a 5-0 league defeat on them at the Bernabeu. At the time, however, foreigners were excluded from playing in the competition, which meant that Barça went into the game without their Dutch star Johan Cruyff, who was, in any case, on duty with the Netherlands at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Weakened by his absence, the Catalans had no answer to the rampaging Carlos Santillana and the foraging of Del Bosque and Pirri, going down to a heavy 4-0 defeat.

Spain’s big two came face to face again in the final nine years later 1983, with the pendulum swinging back in Barcelona’s favour. There were a galaxy of stars on show, with Schuster and Maradona leading the Azulgranas and Santillana and Juanito spearheading the men in white, while Barça boss Luis Cesar Menotti pitted his wits against fellow Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano on the touchline.

Despite suffering 17 fouls, Maradona was in irresistible form, though the score was still locked at 1-1 in the closing seconds when Marcos Alonso’s spectacular diving header settled the match in the Catalans’ favour, tying the all-time clásico cup final scoreline at 2-2.

A turning point
The fifth game in the series came in 1990 and marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Ably supported by the recently arrived Schuster and Mexican striker Hugo Sanchez, the scorer of 38 league goals that season, the “Quinta del Buitre” (Vulture Squad) formed by Emilio Butragueno, Michel, Manolo Sanchis, Rafael Martin Vazquez and Miguel Pardeza were in the process of winning their fifth straight league title.

In contrast, Johan Cruyff’s youthful Barcelona side had been in inconsistent form. Though the odds were against them, Los Azulgranas won the day with goals from Guillermo Amor and Julio Salinas, laying the foundations for the so-called “Dream Team”, who would go on to capture four league crowns in a row in the following seasons, while Madrid fell into decline.

Two decades on, history is repeating itself, with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona poised to win the league title and intent on repeating their 2009 treble. Jose Mourinho will be doing his utmost to prevent that and win his first title since taking over at the Bernabeu, while the Copa del Rey is the only trophy Blanco captain Casillas has yet to win. Whoever comes out on top, it is sure to be a dramatic night.