This weekend sees the Copa del Rey take centre stage in Spanish football, as the clubs enter the last 32 phase of the historic competition. However, there is growing discontent regarding the knockout tournament and its format, with many having become disinterested with the whole thing. Such a historic competition should be treasured but it's just not the case in Spain. Here in England we cherish our beloved FA Cup, and are lucky to have the League Cup too. In Spain the only Cup competition is the Copa del Rey and it's a sad reflection on how it has deteriorated that no-one really cares about it.
First of all, ever since 2005-06, Spain's top teams do not enter the competition until the last 32, the fixtures being played this weekend, which means they are only three rounds from a final. To add to that, in this round, teams playing in Europe are guaranteed to face a team in a lower division, which takes away any kind of magic to the draw, which is supposed to be full of excitement, anticipation and unpredictability. To further aid the big boys’ progress, the ties are played over two legs, meaning should there be an massive upset caused, then the bigger team have a chance to turn it around in the second leg.
Having two legs almost certainly makes one of the games irrelevant too. Should a team win comfortably in the first leg, then the second leg becomes a chance to play a youth team. The competition is generally known for being that to play your reserves in, much like the League Cup in England. So why not make the competition a straight knockout draw like the FA Cup? It would reduce the number of games, teams would take it more seriously and why not have a draw after each round, make it exciting, anyone can play anyone, instead of a planned out draw all the way until the final which usually leaves the path clear for the big boys to progress all the way.
That's not to say that the big teams do not take it seriously – a quick glance at the previous winners and you will see that it's a list dominated by the so called 'bigger' teams in recent years. However, it doesn't get serious until the semi-finals. The current rounds, such as will be played this weekend, feel a nuisance, and are just getting in the way of League and European fixtures. The Cup started before La Liga in 1903 and used to have great importance for Spaniards playing the game but gradually with the RFEF tinkering with its format to make it most suitable for its top clubs, including halfway through the competition one year, it's become boring and predictable.
The Spanish Football Federation are certainly to blame in part for the competition not being taken seriously. In 2012 they hadn't even set a date for the final, and eventually decided to put it on a Friday night, a day before the national team had a warm up game for Euro 2012, which meant Spain were without players from Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona. The venue wasn't even decided until near the time of the game and was on a pitch that held a concert just days before the game. How can you expect the clubs and fans to take it seriously with organisation like that?
The competition could carry as much importance as the FA Cup if it was organised and formatted better, that's for sure. The big indicator that the Copa del Rey isn't cared for much nowadays is the attendances. Attendances for the Cup games are far lower than clubs get for League games. Only two clubs in Spain averaged over 28,000 in the Cup last season, and I'm sure you can guess the two. The rest barely manage to fill a third of their grounds for such ties.
So being at the stage of the season where the big teams enter the fray, what's changed this year? Not a lot. At least the games are being played at a weekend, which the RFEF will hope will draw more of the general public to stadiums, and gives it an important date in the calendar rather than being shoved in a midweek slot. Other than that though we have the same old planned draw right up until the final. Barcelona face Segunda B side Cartagena whilst Madrid play Olimpic de Xativa, both legs away first of course, just in case the two need a result at home in the second. Atletico as current holders take on Sant Andreu.
Elsewhere there are some all Primera Division clashes including Malaga-Osasuna, Celta Vigo-Athletic and Rayo-Real Valladolid with all of those teams probably more preoccupied with their current La Liga positions than progressing in a tournament which takes a lot of energy out of a squad before culminating in a more than likely defeat to one of the big boys as you progress towards the final.
Maybe this year could be the year the tournament sparks to life and the magic of football reappears but it looks more than likely that we will see a Barcelona-Real Madrid final come the end of the season, having got themselves there via their reserve teams. You can't really blame the rest for not really being bothered about it, can you?