Madrid, Spain | AFP | Alvaro Romero had just scored the biggest goal of his life, against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, when he asked for a change of career.
“I’m actually a journalist so if there are any newspapers out there that want to hire me, I am available,” said Romero, the 23-year-old forward of third tier club Unionistas de Salamanca, who had briefly looked capable of knocking the 13-time European champions out of the cup.
Romero’s goal, a curved finish at the end of a slaloming run through Madrid’s multi-million-euro midfield, remains perhaps the standout moment of a reformed and revitalised Copa del Rey that has provoked a joyous response in Spain.
Unionistas hosted Real Madrid at their 4,000-capacity Las Pistas, last month, only six years after the club formed out of the ashes of UD Salamanca, who had just gone out of business.
“I was surprised,” said Unionistas coach Jabi Luaces after Madrid won 3-1. “When I saw their team, we saw they respected us and it made me feel proud.”
Romero was asked which Madrid player’s shirt he wanted. “I would take them all,” he said.
Unionistas had the chance to play at home against the most famous club in the world not because of luck but a change in the rules that says any lower division team now hosts automatically.
Second legs have been scrapped too, except in the semi-finals, and there are no replays, with matches decided on the night through extra-time and penalties.
It means the likelihood of an upset is increased, as bigger clubs with deeper squads are denied the opportunity to field youngsters before finishing the job at the second attempt.
It also ensures close contests go the distance. Mirandes, sitting 11th in Segunda, will play Villarreal at their Anduva stadium on Wednesday after beating Celta Vigo after extra-time and then Sevilla.
“It is a format in which nobody can be complacent and those that are brave enough to gamble can win the trophy,” wrote Madrid newspaper AS.
– Mirandes the outsiders –
Mirandes will be the only team outside the top flight in the last eight but those that have advanced have survived the kind of contests full of emotion and atmosphere that made the result almost feel secondary.
Barcelona needed two late goals to come from behind and beat Ibiza while Valencia were taken to penalties by Cultural Leonesa who, in the previous round, had knocked out Atletico Madrid.
“In my seven years in the first team, I have never experienced anything like this,” Atletico’s Saul Niguez said.
Sacrifices have been made. Lower teams playing at home kills the dream of walking out at Camp Nou or the Santiago Bernabeu and also denies those same clubs a larger slice of revenue.
And in this year’s tournament, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico Madrid were still able to sit out the second round, instead using the days to earn close to 10 million euros contesting the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.
Lucrative competitions, further away, featuring only the world’s wealthiest, are likely to become more common.
Next year, 24 clubs, including eight from Europe, will play in an expanded Club World Cup in China while schemes for expanded Champions League and Europa League formats would push domestic cups even further down the pecking order.
Liverpool are the reigning Club World Cup champions and their manager Jurgen Klopp has said neither he nor his first-team players will attend their FA Cup replay against third-tier opponent Shrewsbury on Tuesday.
“We have respect for the players’ welfare and they need this time off,” Klopp said.
Yet small but significant changes to the Copa del Rey have shown it is still possible for a simpler kind of drama, that all clubs can enjoy, to thrive.
“Barca have La Liga and the glamour of the Champions League but the cup is a level playing field and a chance for us to bring them down to earth,” said Ibiza coach Pablo Alfaro before their 2-1 loss last month.
“It’s one night, this is our dream and that’s what I’ve said to the boys, that it’s the most amazing competition for clubs like us.”