Boy, was it worth staying up. It was below freezing and 32 minutes past midnight on what might have just become the best night of many of their lives when the final whistle went and the place, noisy even at "normal" times, went wild. A late goal from Abde Ezzalzouli, a moment of genius as the clock showed 99:00, had settled it, defeating Sevilla 2-1 early Thursday and sending Osasuna into the semifinals of the Copa del Rey. The last time they'd gone this far in the competition, David Garcia was 10 years old and sitting in the stands; this time, aged 28, he was out on the pitch.
"Incredible," the defender called it. He was "flipping out at this."
"I think it's the most important game I have played in my life," said defender Jon Moncayola, and it was hard to argue. He is four years younger than Garcia, but he too is from here. Like Garcia and half a dozen teammates, Moncayola came through the academy system 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 characterises them. Those who arrive from outside soon learn. "We worked like no one. What suffering," goalkeeper Sergio Herrera said, parading a giant flag around the pitch.
- Highlights: Osasuna outlast Sevilla in Copa del Rey (U.S.)
Striker Kike Garcia wore a beret in the local style. Forward Chimy Avila, scorer of the opener, is from Argentina, but he wore a beret too and talked afterward about Osasuna's DNA. It's not just talk: A human wrecking ball of a footballer with thighs like thunder, he represents it probably better than anyone. He had been signed on the promise not so much of playing a certain way, his way, but the arena in which he would do so. "Imagine this place chanting your name," the sporting director had said to him. And now they were, communion complete.
How could they not be? They had done something historic. Fuentes, Arnedo and Nastic had been beaten. Then Real Betis, last year's winner's, went down on penalties. And now, Sevilla. Osasuna had been in the lead, but a 95th-minute equaliser had taken them back to extra time -- "a hammer blow," Garcia called it -- until Abde's brilliant winner took them through.
In the semifinals, Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic await. They have 73 cup wins between. Osasuna have only ever 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 not chance. Yes, it was close. Yes, they could have lost both games. Yes, it is only two games. But it's not -- not really.
Taking the league's salary limits 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 euros to assemble. Moi Gomez arrived this summer for 1.8m. Chimy Avila was expensive at 2.7m. Oh, and all of that is balanced by sales. Their target at the start of the season is to survive, something they've done comfortably since coming back (10th, 11th, 10th).
And yet, last season, they momentarily threatened Europe, and this season they definitely are, currently in a European place, level with Betis, two points behind Villarreal and Atletico in a Champions League slot.
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As Cesar Cruchaga, part of the team that reached the final in 2005 likes to joke with his former teammate Patxi Punal -- they are club legends, the latter now in charge of the youth academy at Tajonar -- This lot would put four past us. It is a properly good team, especially here, in a properly good place. That much was proved again. The federation did its best to ruin it. Putting this game at 10 p.m. kickoff on a Wednesday night (and a Thursday morning) in January in Pamplona was -- let's speak clearly here -- a disgrace. These fans, this team, made it a delight.
Only Barcelona have a better home record. At El Sadar, redeveloped without losing any of its essence and voted Europe's best stadium, their manager says anything is possible -- and that's not chance. El Sadar has always been different, perhaps the nearest thing there is to a Stoke, that stereotypical "hard place" to go. Fans are fiercely loyal and noisy, backing their team, stands tight to the pitch, flags everywhere, drums thudding, palms clapping. It is not chance that the redevelopment involved maintaining and building on their identity, keeping the stands close to the pitch and oh-so steep that they introduced railed seating. Which is to say, standing areas.
This time, they had some special extra help, too. In Osasuna's first cup game, they played tiny Fuentes from 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 quarterfinal, paying homage to him on the pitch before the game and dedicating the victory to his team after it. It was a gesture that says much about the club, the people. And in the end, it is always about the people.
The connection there is deep, which helps, and Garcia and Moncayola are not alone. About 30% of the total minutes played by Osasuna players this season have been played by canteranos, academy products from Tajonar, which has a long tradition of productivity and where the work done now is exceptional, even better than before. (If you look at Athletic and Real Sociedad, you'll see how many more players from home they could have.) Their B team is pushing for promotion into Spain's second tier, just a division away.
There is an identity there, and it is very clear and very much about place, even for those who are not from Navarra. There is a reason Chimy talks about Osasuna DNA. "If we don't suffer, it's not us," he says. "But we know what it is to play with 12 men." There's a culture there, an idea, and it is not just picked up along the way.
Instead, it is precisely because Jagoba Arrasate, a former teacher still theoretically on leave, has built a team that fits, that is theirs. It is because he was backed, because they believed in him, his idea, his identity. This was deeper than defeats, which always come. Arrasate brought Osasuna up from the first division, and his success has been astonishing, but it hasn't always been easy. A 13-game run without a win left him on edge, or at least it would have done elsewhere.
"Maybe [fans are cruel], but I can tell you that Osasuna's fans are the opposite," Arrasate told ESPN. "We went 13 games without winning. A run like that is synonymous with a manager getting sacked, but all 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, had built something; they weren't going to give up because of a bad run. Osasuna's fans are different."
At the same time the club's sporting director, Braulio, publicly insisted that Arrasate was continuing. "This boat is being sailed by the captain and that is Arrasate," he said. "The rest of us are the crew. This boat might make it to port or it might not, but the captain stays the same. If he sinks, we all sink."
They didn't sink -- quite the opposite. Braulio called Arrasate "his Jurgen Klopp," seeking rock-and-roll football, and although there have been modifications and tweaks, the idea stayed, rooted in the fans. Arrasate calls it binomial; the way the team plays fits with the way the supporters are. They don't just come to watch; they come to play. The team is part of who they are -- it feeds off the fans, is fueled by them. This is a team that's direct, that presses, that doesn't let you breathe, is always there: tough, defensively strong but skillful too, and loose, a team that plays like its brakes are cut. A team that knows it will be hard, sure, but just keeps on going.
And now they have come all the way to the Copa del Rey semifinal, along with their fans: never mind the cold, never mind the time, never mind school tomorrow or work in the morning. And it was worth it. "What suffering, and what reward!" Herrera said. "We deserve this, and the way the fans kept pushing us was amazing. These fans are the best."
Which means that the team is pretty good too. Which means that on the go, the chance for another moment as good as the last. Maybe even more. Sometime after 1 a.m. on a cold, dark night that turned out to be the warmest and most wonderful that most of them could remember, Arrasate spoke to the media, trying to make sense of this moment, while the players continued celebrating and some of the fans still hadn't gone home. "It started in Fuentes and now we want this adventure to have more journeys," he said.