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The Copa del Rey is Spain’s most interesting competition – so why can’t UK fans watch it?

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Saturday night brings one of the showpiece events of the Spanish football season.

In one corner, Athletic Bilbao are aiming to win their first Copa del Rey in 39 years and end their traumatic run of losing each of their most recent six finals in the competition.

Mallorca, their opponents, are looking to win just their second Copa crown and inflict on Athletic a third final defeat in five seasons.

Regardless of the result, history will be made, and one side will be celebrating long into the night (quite literally: the final gets underway at 10pm local time and should it go all the way to penalties, the decisive kick may not be struck until nearly 1am).

Spain’s culture is more conducive to later kick-off times than elsewhere but matches technically ending the day after they start remains an absurdity for families with young children, and for those in attendance relying on public transport. La Liga matches no longer end later than 11pm to make start times more fan-friendly, but the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has not yet adopted this stance.

The venue of the final is another imperfection of the Copa; the soulless Cartuja stadium was built as an athletics venue and the atmosphere suffers from supporters being far from the pitch.

But for many fans not based in Spain, watching the match at all will be very difficult. At the time of publication, one day before kick-off, the Copa del Rey final will not be broadcast in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.

This is an era when football fans in the UK are often obliged to fork out more than £100 a month across multiple TV subscription packages to watch elite leagues — yet for fans of Spanish football, access is as problematic as ever.

La Liga’s UK following flourished in the early 2000s when Sky had its broadcast rights and showed prime-time encounters immediately after the biggest Premier League games.

Many fans simply did not change channels, and this grew into something bigger. The specialist team of presenters, reporters and commentators shaped it into the closest thing UK fans of Spanish football have had to Channel 4’s coverage of the Italian game presented by James Richardson in the 1990s. The stars, the specialist knowledge, the regularity, quirks, irreverence and culture — it ticked all the boxes. The comforting familiarity of the Revista de la Liga round-up show, set in its informal Spanish-inspired surroundings, remains greatly missed.

In recent years, La Liga has been tucked far away from the main sports subscription channels in the UK. The tone has changed, too.

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The globally streamed La Liga TV, broadcast in English, has been the home of the league. It provides in-depth and specialist coverage, ideal for exiled fans to watch their clubs, yet it has flaws, many of which are an inevitability of being produced by the league and not independently.

There is a cold professionalism to the coverage, broadcast from Barcelona studios, that lacks the charming oddities of its predecessor. For lovers of tactical breakdowns and analysis, this approach is ideal but for casual fans, there is little incentive to take on yet another subscription. In this manner, the league will struggle to expand its modest UK support base.

Ten matches a season are broadcast free-to-air on ITV4, but that equates to one game per month over a season, with most fixtures only announced at short notice due to La Liga’s casual approach to confirming and occasionally switching kick-off time slots. It is arguable, too, that Sky could never be Spanish football’s long-term home, with its flagship Premier League coverage and lack of incentive to prioritise footage of a ‘rival’ competition.

La Liga can argue it is the only non-UK league which is covered 24/7 by a dedicated channel with a competitive price structure. Their free-to-air matches are a much-welcome addition to the UK market and sources at La Liga insist their viewing figures justify their approach. However, some fans believe more can be done.

Alvaro Romeo, a UK-based broadcaster and lifelong Athletic Bilbao fan, described his adopted home’s broadcasting of Spanish football as “incomplete” and lamented the fragmented nature of coverage.

“You can’t find La Liga on mainstream networks, which means you have to make the effort to pay for an extra service,” he said. “La Liga showing their product on their own channel is a failure. League president Javier Tebas would have been delighted if Sky or TNT had made a move to acquire La Liga rights.” Romeo also contrasts the situation with the coveted Premier League in Spain, which has been covered by DAZN consistently since a landmark deal in 2019.

For all these faults, at least La Liga matches are globally accessible. That is not the case with the Copa del Rey and Supercopa de Espana, competitions overseen by the RFEF.


Athletic’s semi-final victory over Atletico Madrid was another exciting match (David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

From January 10-18, Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid 5-3 and Barcelona 4-1 in the Supercopa before losing 4-2 to Atletico in the Copa del Rey. There were 19 goals across three classic matches between three of European football’s strongest teams. The action was thrilling and engrossing but, in the UK at least, unavailable to watch on TV.

When I highlighted the absurdity of this situation on social media, my feed was inundated with responses from around the globe — from Australia to Pakistan — sharing similar frustrations.

The Supercopa is now played in Saudi Arabia, following a deal struck by the RFEF’s former president Luis Rubiales and retired footballer Gerard Pique (who was still at Barca when the arrangement was made). For this year’s edition, Real Madrid and Barcelona were guaranteed €6million each (£5.1m; $6.5m at current rates), with Atletico Madrid’s sum set at €2.8m and Osasuna given €900,000.

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“This imbalance is typical of Spanish football,” said Alejandro, a UK-based Mallorca fan who spoke to The Athletic before Saturday’s final. “For clubs like mine, it feels like these competitions are set up against us. That makes our cup run extra special, because this is not normal for us.”

Romeo believes neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona being involved in the Copa del Rey’s latter stages helps explain why the rights to the competition remain unsold in the UK and Ireland.

“These were historic moments for my club and I was among those not fortunate enough to be in the stadium,” Alejandro added. “We just want to watch our team play. This situation is a failure from the authorities.”

Romeo, a regular guest on The Totally Football Show podcast, agrees.

“The Spanish FA hasn’t been able to promote their tournament and sell it,” he said. “This shouldn’t be difficult; Spanish football is arguably Europe’s second or third best.”

Romeo also highlights that Italian and German equivalents of the Copa del Rey and Supercopa have been available on mainstream UK channels this season, and suggested La Liga and the RFEF should work together to sell combined rights packages.

“The Spanish situation is upsetting,” he added. “We all know there’s an appetite for football in England but the more difficult you make it for an average fan to find, the quicker they give up.”

An RFEF source told The Athletic the UK and Ireland were “the only European markets” where a deal had not been reached because “no broadcaster made a decent offer”. They pointed out that last season TNT (formerly BT Sport) showed the semi-finals and final of the Copa del Rey, but said the RFEF had more interest in agreeing packages to cover the whole tournament. It was their opinion that local interest in the FA Cup played a part in their own competition not being so highly valued in the UK.


Mallorca celebrate beating Real Sociedad on penalties in this year’s semi-finals (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

The Copa del Rey has provided an antidote to the Barca-Madrid duopoly in La Liga, which has only been briefly interrupted by Atletico Madrid in the past two decades. Yes, Girona — who enjoy an advantage over domestic rivals through the resources and infrastructure of the City Football Group — were still in contention at the halfway stage this season, but it was never likely such overachievement could be maintained for a full campaign.

This year’s Spanish cup winners meanwhile will be the sixth different team to lift the trophy in the past six seasons. Atletico have not featured in a Copa final for over a decade. Osasuna and Deportivo Alaves have been finalists in recent years.

Real Madrid won it last year, but it was only their third success in the past three decades, as many as Real Zaragoza and just one more than Espanyol and Deportivo La Coruna — all three of whom are now outside Spain’s top flight.

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The competition’s format was changed in 2019 to abandon two-legged ties — now only used at the semi-final stage — which increased the opportunities for upsets. All rounds before the quarter-final stage are seeded, with lower division teams automatically holding home advantage, and remaining non-top-flight sides drawn against top-ranked sides such as Madrid and Barca.

This forced nature of the draw is imperfect; one theory is the top sides are afforded a theoretically ‘easier’ path while lower top-level sides eliminate themselves. However, the competition has become increasingly captivating and refreshing as ‘the others’ have thrived.

The Copa del Rey is Spanish football’s most interesting competition and showcases the strength in depth throughout its divisions. Unionistas de Salamanca will never forget taking the lead against Barcelona in the last 16, nor their victory over Villarreal in the previous round. Fourth-tier Arandina will never forget scoring at home against Real Madrid. Barbastro, another semi-professional team, will never forget scoring at home against Barca, twice.

The Spanish FA has a remarkable tournament. It is about time it was showcased properly.

(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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