Yesterday's Copa del Rey Final was another Spanish Football Clasico that reverberated around the globe. The result, a 2-1 victory for Real Madrid, who played without Cristiano Ronaldo, against a Barcelona FC that boasted both Lionel Messi and Neymar, was unexpected. The winning goal, followed by the winning save were feats in and of themselves, as was the referee's performance. But as opposed to the greater, high scoring Clasico that preceded it, this one also entailed a series of games-within-the-game. For some the game's real pursuit was not the trophy Iker Casillas lifted at game's end. Many participants were pursuing more personal agendas.
The previous clash of Spanish Football's giants produced a 4-3 score with the greatest player on the planet scoring a hat trick. This time around Messi was a shadow of himself and the Real defense seemed only half the reason. It looked at times as if the diminutive Argentine was playing possum on a global stage, trying to give the impression that his best was not good enough that night or that he might be somehow diminished lately. Maybe he was hoping opponents might just think: the magic isn't in him anymore. Wouldn't Argentina just love to have folks underestimate their star this summer? What a cagey angle to play!
Similarly, being fouled out of his comfort zone, and unable to make his regular case with the ref, Neymar only had moments of brilliance and no consistency in his work. But ultimately, after he realized the ref would protect him, Neymar too did not seem to lift his play into overdrive. Some in Spain think the two South Americans are already in Brazil, in their respective minds, rather than competing in the last days of their club's domestic fixtures. This may well be the case for Barca's major stars since they have little to play for now.
Gareth Bale, who will not play in Brazil, and who has yet to do anything that might justify his high transfer fee, needed to seize this Ronaldo-less stage, and he did so in a big way. His winning goal was the deciding act, but his contributions throughout the game were noteworthy. There is no doubt he knew what size stage he was performing on. There is only one other step he can now take to showcase his wares and the curtain comes up on that stage this Wednesday.
Casillas, the forgotten goalkeeper of Real, has had two spectacular back-to-back performances in his few appearances--the second leg against Borussia Dortmund, and this Copa del Rey match where he allowed his only goal of the competition. Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque, may not feel there is anything to decide when it comes to his starting goalkeeper, but that chosen keeper is making sure all who watch know it is not the sharpness of his relative skill set that is keeping him on the bench, watching Diego Lopez start in La Liga matches. Casillas may decide on a transfer later this summer but for now he is giving Real Madrid President, Florentino Perez, and his coaching staff, reasons to reassess their treatment of him.
Tata Martino may not have lost La Liga yet, but he has definitely lost the Copa and the Champions League. His job is on the line and his run of losses is pushing him closer to that exit door. This loss was not balanced out by the previous win. He could be seen on the sidelines suffering his every misstep as he used every weapon and tried every trick he had, but always ended up coming up short. His failure in this game may well be his death knell at the Camp Nou.
Croatian Luka Modric, Frenchman Karim Benzema, Argentine Angel di Maria, Portuguese Pepe and Favio Coentrao, Brazilians Adriano, Marcelo, and Dani Alves, among many others, had their moments, short-lived as they might have been in some cases. But each was doing their thing for another global audience, a select one comprised of the coaches who will decide their national team line-ups for next summer. Each player made a good case for consideration.
Carlo Ancelotti is still hamstrung by the politics of the moment at the Bernabeu, but he is benefiting by the fact that his mentioned players are auditioning for roles on higher platforms by performing at their peak in club play. Ancelotti has begun to put some of the puzzle pieces together, and if he can win without Ronnie he might well have found a formula. Ironically a non-World Cup participant is his major hope against Bayern. Carlo is counting on Gareth's gale to propel the Merengues on Wednesday. The Decima is his primary objective, and winning the Copa allows him to pursue that coveted trophy his way.
Perez himself won an important victory yesterday. The odds are good that Bayern Munich will eliminate Real in the Champions League semifinals. Ronaldo may well miss the first leg and without him or with him in a diminished capacity Real is hard put to match up against Pep Guardiola's troops. But having the Copa under his belt and a shot at the La Liga trophy--while Ronaldo still holds the lead on the league scoring champion's Pichichi trophy--might just make the Madridistas accept the semis, a step further down the road than their archrivals achieved, as consolation enough if the Decima does not come home this year either.
In short, the game was a good football match, with some outstanding moments, but it was also a global stage where the featured performance entailed the interplay of club politics, coaching, transfer market, and national team auditions, and a sprinkling of the personal agendas of top players who know what stage is more apt to provide their careers the bigger long-term boost.