The 'Battle of the Bernabeu', 37 years later: "We blew it"

Athletic's last Copa del Rey final win over Barça ended in fisticuffs

Arnau Segura
4 min
Maradona confronts an Athletic Club player at the 1984 Cup final.

TorelloThis Saturday will be the ninth Copa del Rey final between Barça and Athletic Club, the two great historical dominators of the trophy, with 30 and 23 titles respectively. And it will be, at the same time, the penultimate chapter of a rivalry that reached the maximum temperature on May 5, 1984, with the last Copa won by Athletic: that of the so-called Battle of the Bernabeu, Maradona's last official match with Barça.

The duels between the two were then played out at high levels of tension. And even more so since on 24 September 1983, Maradona broke his ankle in a chilling tackle with Andoni Goikoetxea, who the fans blamed, also, for having injured Schuster. The German went so far as to say that it was easier to return from the Korean War than from Bilbao. "Nobody was proud of the images of the end of the match. It was very sad, even though for us it was the culmination of the best season in history. The only regret is what happened at the end. We got into the fight, and I still blush when I see the images. Now, if we talk about the incidents, the only one who can come off badly is Barça. The one who does the fighting is the loser, and he comes with a name and a surname: Diego Armando Maradona", said Goikoetxea, who was the Camp Nou's number one enemy along with his coach, Javier Clemente.

The pitched battle after the match, which ended 1-0.

The back-and-forth between Clemente and Menotti was as commonplace as it is unbelievable from today's perspective. "We will know how to respond to violence", the Argentinian warned ahead of the final. "As if we were always the ones to start it", said the Barakaldo coach, who added emphatically: "There is no war, but if they throw bombs at me I throw them back". "I don't have any prejudice. We will drink Catalan champagne whether we win or lose. If we were to boycott Catalan products we'd be wearing espadrilles, just as they couldn't build houses because they wouldn't have iron. I called Maradona an imbecile because I thought it was imbecilic that he insulted Goikoetxea, and as for Menotti I just replied when he told me he was a Nazi", Clemente said at the time. "I am surprised by the racism that comes out of Clemente's statements. It reminds me of the Nazis and their ideology of the superiority of race", Menotti had said months earlier, responding to his rival, who in previous clashes had extolled the Basque "race", the "different" paste of Athletic's players compared to those of Barça.

The Biscayans, who took to the field six days after being crowned league champions for the eighth and last time in a row, took the lead in the 14th minute through Endika Guarrotxena. "We didn't play any more. It was all fouls, fouls and fouls, and time wasting. We didn't play football. We played something, but not football. I remember that match with sadness and helplessness, and all this translated into a dissatisfaction that added to the constant provocations and the heated atmosphere led to the incidents of the end", regrets Víctor Muñoz.

In the same vein, the exculer Julio Alberto Moreno recalls that "there was a lot of dialectical rivalry, and in 1984 the tension moved to the field and the matches became a time bomb". "With Athletic we have hit each other a lot, but what happens on the field stays on the field. We used to call each other a lot of things, and luckily this is now a little bit in the past. Football has got rid of violence, however, on the contrary, we have lost purity, heart, roots, identity. Commitment. And the feeling of belonging to the football of yesteryear, that of the bocadillo", says the former culé full-back.

Three-month ban for Maradona, who left for Napoli

Dani Ruiz-Bazan, captain and top scorer of the Athletic of the time, appeals to this feeling of belonging to explain what that title meant for Vizcaya. "It is a moment for life. I remember seeing 85-year-old people who were dying to touch us, to shake our hands and thank us. Football is unique and in Bilbao the feeling towards Athletic, too", argues Dani, who at the same time plays down the importance of the pitched battle of 84: "If you play one on one, Barça win, because technically and player for player they are superior, and this can only be compensated for by putting in a little more desire, grit, strength, drive, fight and suffering than the opponent. It was, and is, the only way to achieve victory, and that's what we did. What happened at the end are things that have always happened in football. I don't think it's too important, because what Barça did, we could have done ourselves. In moments of tension sometimes you react in a way that makes you regret it later".

Maradona moves between Nunez and De Andres in the 1984 Copa Final

The tension was also reproduced in the press room, with the umpteenth confrontation between Menotti ("This way they will sink and kill football") and Clemente ("There are people who come from outside who don't have the same education and we have to put an end to them. It would be better if they didn't come"). Maradona, Clos, Migueli, Goikoetxea, Sarabia, and De Andrés were punished with three months of sanction, in spite of the fact that none of them ended up fulfilling them.

37 years later, and at the gates of a new and decisive Barça-Athletic, Julio Alberto, returning to the saddest moment of his career at Barça, concludes that "it is a pity because the image that football gave was lousy, pitiful". "We players are idols for many children and we not only have to be great footballers, we also have to be great people with values and principles. And we screwed up. We all screwed up. I didn't fight, but I should have done more to avoid it, and it makes me very sad to remember it. It's unfortunate, and I wish it hadn't happened. In life, you have to know how to win and lose. And you have to accept it when you've made a mistake", he says.