How Osasuna reached their first Copa del Rey semi-final since 2005

Boy, was it worth staying up?. It was below zero and 32 minutes after midnight on what might have become the best night of many of their lives when the final whistle blew and the place, noisy even at “normal” times, went wild. A late goal from Abde Ezzalzouli, a moment of genius as the clock read 99:00, had cemented that, beating Sevilla 2-1 early Thursday morning and sending Osasuna to the Copa del Rey semi-finals. The last time they had gotten this far in the competition, david garcia I was 10 years old and I was sitting in the stands; this time, at the age of 28, he was in the field.

“Incredible”, qualified the defender. He was “crazy about it.”

“I think it’s the most important game I’ve played in my life,” said the defender. Jon Moncaola, and it was hard to argue. He is four years younger than García, but he is also from here. Like García and half a dozen colleagues, Moncayola went through the academy here and is from the province of Navarra, where they talk about the quality of rasmia: a will to win, a pride, a fight that characterizes them. Those who come from abroad soon learn. “We work like nobody else. What suffering”, goalkeeper Sergio Herrera he said, parading a giant flag around the field.

– Highlights: Osasuna outlast Sevilla in Copa del Rey (US)

Forward Kike García wore a local-style beret. Forward Chimy Ávila, scorer in the first game, is Argentine, but he also wore a beret and spoke later about Osasuna’s DNA. It’s not just talk: a human wrecking ball of a footballer with thighs like thunder represents him probably better than anyone. They had hired him with the promise not so much of playing a certain way, his way, but of the setting in which he would play it. “Imagine this place chanting your name,” the sports director had told him. And now they were, full communion.

How could they not be? They had done something historic. Fuentes, Arnedo and Nastic had been defeated. Then Real Betis, last year’s winner, fell on penalties. And now, Seville. Osasuna had been in the lead, but a 95th-minute equalizer had sent them back into extra time — “a hammer blow,” Garcia called it — until Abde’s brilliant goal put them ahead.

Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic await him in the semifinals. They have 73 cup wins between them. Osasuna has only reached one final: in 2004-05, when they lost to Betis. The last trophy they lifted was the second division title, just three years ago, but make no mistake: this is no coincidence. Yes, it was close. Yes, they could have lost both games. Yeah, it’s just two games. But it’s not, not really.

Taking the league salary caps as a guide, Osasuna should be the 13th team in Spain. The team that started and won on Wednesday night cost a total of €9 million to put together. I Gomez arrived this summer for 1.8m. Chimy Ávila was expensive with 2.7 m. Oh, and all of that is balanced out by sales. Their goal at the start of the season is to survive, something they’ve done comfortably since they returned (10, 11, 10).

And yet, last season, they momentarily threatened Europe, and this season they are definitely, currently in a European spot, level with Betis, two points behind Villarreal and Atlético in a Champions League spot.

– Broadcast on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (USA)

As Carlos Cruchaga likes to joke, part of the team that reached the final in 2005, with his former teammate Patxi Punal – they are club legends, the latter now in charge of the Tajonar youth academy. This lot would put four beyond us. It is a very good team, especially here, in a very good place. That was tested again. The federation did everything possible to ruin it. Putting this game on at 10pm on a Wednesday night (and Thursday morning) in January in Pamplona was, let’s get straight here, a disgrace. These fans, this team, they made it a delight.

Only Barcelona have a better record at home. At El Sadar, remodeled without losing any of its essence and voted the best stadium in Europe, its manager says that anything is possible, and that’s no coincidence. Sadar have always been different, perhaps the closest thing to a Stoke, that stereotypical ‘tough place’ to go to. The fans are fiercely loyal and loud, rooting for their team, standing their ground on the field, flags everywhere, drums pounding, clapping hands. It is no coincidence that the redevelopment involved maintaining and developing its identity, keeping the stands close to the pitch and so steep that they introduced seats with rails. That is, foot zones.

This time, they also had special extra help. In the first game of the Osasuna Cup, they faced the tiny Fuentes of the Aragonese regional league, group III. In December, one of Fuente’s players, Luismi, tragically died in a traffic accident; Osasuna invited his family and the entire team to El Sadar for the quarterfinals, paying tribute to him on the pitch before the game and dedicating the victory to his team afterwards. It was a gesture that says a lot about the club, about the people. And in the end, it’s always about the people.

The connection there is deep, which helps, and García and Moncayola are not alone. Nearly 30% of the total minutes played by the Osasuna players this season have been played by homegrown players, products of the Tajonar youth academy, which has a long tradition of productivity and where the work done is now exceptional, even better than before. (If you look at Athletic and Real Sociedad, you will see how many more home players they could have). Their B team is pushing for promotion to Spain’s second tier, just one division away.

There is an identity there, and it is very clear and very local, even for those who are not from Navarre. For something Chimy talks about Osasuna’s DNA. “If we don’t suffer, it’s not us,” he says. “But we know what it’s like to play with 12 men.” There is a culture there, an idea, and it doesn’t get lost along the way.

Instead, it is precisely because Jagoba Arrasate, a former teacher still theoretically on leave, has built a team that fits, which is his. It’s because he was backed, because they believed in him, your idea, your identity. This was deeper than defeats, which always come. Arrasate moved to Osasuna from the first division and his success has been amazing, but it hasn’t always been easy. A 13-game winless streak left him on edge, or at least he would have elsewhere.

“Maybe [fans are cruel], but I can tell you that the Osasuna fans are the opposite,” Arrasate told ESPN. “We have gone 13 games without winning. A streak like this is synonymous with the dismissal of a coach, but the only thing I felt from the fans and the club was support. It was as if they felt that the previous two years had been worth something, they had built something; they were not going to give up because of a losing streak. The Osasuna fans are different.”

At the same time, the club’s sports director, Braulio, publicly insisted that Arrasate continue. “This ship is being navigated by the captain and that is Arrasate,” he said. “The rest of us are the crew. This ship may or may not make it to port, but the captain remains the same. If she sinks, we all sink.”

They did not sink, quite the contrary. Braulio called Arrasate “his Jurgen Klopp”, looking for rock and roll football, and although there have been modifications and tweaks, the idea stayed, rooted in the fans. Arrasate calls it a binomial; the team’s way of playing fits with the way of being of the fans. They don’t just come to look; they come to play The team is part of who they are: they are fed by the fans, they are driven by them. This is a team that is direct, that presses, that doesn’t let you breathe, that is always there: tough, strong defensively but also skilful, and loose, a team that plays as if the brakes had been cut. A team that knows it will be difficult, for sure, but keeps going.

And now they have reached the semifinal of the Copa del Rey, along with their fans: the cold doesn’t matter, the time doesn’t matter, school tomorrow or work in the morning doesn’t matter. And it was worth it. What suffering and what reward! Herrera said. “We deserve this, and the way the fans pushed us was incredible. These fans are the best.”

Which means the team is pretty good too. Which means that along the way, the opportunity for another time as good as the last. Maybe even more. After one in the morning of a cold and dark night that turned out to be the warmest and most wonderful that most remembered, Arrasate spoke to the media, trying to make sense of this moment, while the players continued to celebrate and some of the fans they hadn’t gone home yet. “It started in Fuentes and now we want this adventure to have more routes,” he said.

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