Monday, July 2, 2012

Spain had perhaps the third strongest championship in 1976-77 – lagging behind West Germany and England for sure, but in my opinion a bit better than the Italians. May be just a bit stronger. By now transfers to Spanish clubs were not he biggest news in Europe – more or less, the biggest clubs depended on foreign stars already settled in Spain. Barcelona kept Cruyff and Neeskens, but rehired Rinus Michels to coach them again. Cruyff was clearly saying who should be the coach, which was fine, but the aging team had to be rebuild and the process was not exactly smooth. Real Madrid kept Milan Miljanic, for he was so far successful, but Gunter Netzer moved out in the summer of 1976. He joined Grasshopper (Zurich). Real Madrid replaced him with another Borussia (Moenchengladbach) player – Henning Jensen, the Danish centerforward, who already became a star in Germany. He and Paul Breitner were thought to be enough for another title. The rest of the Spanish clubs seemingly did not make big changes, if any. Judging by the lack of impressive transfers, the season was kind of predictable – the usual Real-Barcelona duel, in which Madrid appeared to have the edge. The major change was the name of the national cup – with Franco dead, it was no longer to be named after him. The original name was restored – the King's Cup. But... that is the shortcut in English: the trouble of tournaments named after a royalty is the reigning monarch: with the restoration of Spanish monarchy, mere sports tournament had to take the name of the actual King. Thus, the name was practically brand new: Copa del Rey is really named Copa de S. M. Rey Don Carlos I. It was simultaneously the old traditional tournament and brand new. No matter, national cup it was and there was a crack: neither Real Madrid, nor Barcelona reached the final. Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis (Sevilla) were the contenders for the cup with new name.

Athletic Bilbao were in good shape this season, and so were Real Betis, but the Basques looked stronger, at least traditionally stronger club.

Top row, from left: Iribar, Astrain, Goicoechea, Escalza, Villar, Lasa.

Kneeling: Churruca, Irureta, Dani, Garay, Rojo I.

No foreigners, no Spaniards, the usual tough bunch of Basques. Iribar, Irureta, may be Villar provided class. Normally a gritty team, Athletic had new villain – Goicoechea. The world did not know of him yet, but it would and soon. Anyhow, Bilbao had strong season and the Cup was likely to go to them.

But the final ended 2-2 after overtime and had to be decided by penalty shoot-out. The contestants went goal for goal until finally Athletic missed, and Real Betis won by 8-7. Nothing for the Basques, Cup for the Andalusians. A final leading to heart attacks, but to a point it was good – the underdogs won, I like that.

Here they are – Cup winners without a single star. Burly guys... or determined? Or plain tired? Smiles are not their forte, but smiles alone do not win trophies. It was their first ever Cup and only second title so far. Coming after overtime and grueling 21 penalties! And how good to be back home, displaying the Cup in the faces of arch-rivals Sevilla FC!