Osasuna's fairy-tale run to Copa del Rey final penned by Pablo Ibanez, the homegrown midfielder who came back from Spain's fifth tier

The first goal Pablo Ibanez scored for the team whose shirt he had always wanted to wear was also the best he ever would. Born in Pamplona in 1998, this is his debut season with Osasuna, and he may have a decade of football before him, but when he said, "I doubt there will be anything like this," he wasn't wrong. How could there be, when this was not just the maddest, most brilliant moment he has lived and is ever likely to, but pretty much the best any of them had? "I'm going to need days, months, to grasp this," he said. These things aren't supposed to actually happen.

There were four minutes to go of extra time in the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg against Athletic Club at San Mames on Tuesday and Osasuna were hanging on for penalties when suddenly they were sprinting up the pitch: Jon Moncayola and Chimy Avila, who wasn't fit and couldn't run but was running anyway, and Ibanez too. The ball came to the latter on the edge of the area, set nicely. Shifting his body slightly, Ibanez struck a ludicrously good volley with the inside of his right boot, guiding it past Julen Agirrezabala. Ibanez didn't see it go in and he didn't need to either, not yet: he could have just cut it out from a comic and, anyway, he knew. He was off, sprinting and screaming, mind gone as soon as the ball was.

Lying in the corner, Ibanez couldn't really take in what his teammates shouted as they piled on, but he thought he heard someone say that maybe he couldn't breathe under all those bodies. With just four minutes to go, the goal, his first, had taken Osasuna into the Copa del Rey final for only the second time ever, a chance to win the sole trophy in their 102-year history.

"It's been epic," coach Jagoba Arrasate said afterwards, and that was an understatement. He called it an exercise in survival, which was what they had left. His team had not scored in more than 500 minutes. And then Ibanez did.

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Athletic were winning 1-0 on the night, 1-1 on aggregate and all over them: before 51,544, the biggest crowd San Mames had ever seen, the kind of noise you could still hear in your head when you turned out the lights, they had fired off 28 shots, taken almost 20 corners, but Osasuna were somehow still standing. Not just on this night but all those others too.

"We believed because the cup has shown us this," Arrasate said afterwards. "Extra time was in the script; penalties was in the script. And, I'm not going to lie, we have [goalkeeper] Sergio [Herrera], which is an important weapon, and so we believed in this plan."

Osasuna had, after all, reached extra time four games in a row, and always come out the other side. Eric Montes had scored the winner against against Nastic on 112 minutes. They had conceded in the last minute against Sevilla in the quarterfinal, only for Abde Ezzalzouli to win it back again on 99. Before that, against Real Betis in the round of 16, a 91st-minute David Garcia goal had taken them into extra time before a second equaliser, this time from Ruben Garcia on 106 minutes saw it go to penalties. There, Herrera saved from Sergio Canales to send them through.

That was not chance. Wrapped around Herrera's water bottle were notes, little drawings of which way his opponents would shoot, where they had gone before, even if he often followed his intuition instead. He had saved two penalties in a single game against Karim Benzema and then another one when they met again the following season. He stopped three in a single match against Cadiz. And his stats show that almost 50% of the penalties he had faced had not been scored.

Now he had seemed almost in a trance, one save at the very start setting the scene. The save and the celebration, that is: wildly thumping the air. He kept stopping Athletic, over and over, and now his time was coming. There was faith in him, but pressure on him too.

"We thought we were going to win on penalties," Ruben Garcia admitted.

In the end, they didn't need to. If all that was in the script -- extra time and penalties -- this wasn't. As his players set off, Arrasate could have been forgiven for screaming: "What the bloody hell are you doing?! Don't go!" Instead, it turned out nice.

"Moncayola started it, Chimy stretched the move, Pablo arrived, and better the goal than penalties," Arrasate said.

As Ibanez slid to the turf in the corner of San Mames, lying there face up but eyes closed, bodies pilling up on top of him, Ruben Garcia admitted he didn't know whether to run all the way to Herrera instead. Ibanez's perfect shot had stolen the keeper's moment of glory.

"Nah!" Herrera grinned afterwards, when someone suggested as much, heading out of San Mames and making for the bus home where, a couple of hours' drive away, everyone was going wild. "With everything around me and everyone trusting in me, it would have been pressure. We were spared the shootout and lots of suffering."

We were handed an unexpected hero and it couldn't be more perfect. At the end of the game, Ibanez stood at the side of the pitch trying and mostly failing to take it in. For only the second time in history, Osasuna are in the final, one question began. "You're telling me," he replied, "being an Osasuna fan who watched that, aged six." That same year he joined the club. As the stadium emptied, Ibanez approached his cousin in the stands -- a cousin who plays at Athletic -- and they embraced. Which is when the tears came.

But this is not just 'Youth Teamer And Fan Makes History,' not just that he of all people had taken them to the final, scoring the goal that would always be there and always be theirs. It was that he had joined the club at seven, but been forced to leave again, a little less than a decade later. That he had gone to play for tiny AD San Juan and then Union Deportiva Mutilvera, in tercera, Spain's fourth tier, if you can even call it that -- it was more like the sixth, playing on astroturf pitches in front of a handful of fans. Mutilvera have 300 members.

It is that he was playing there less than two years ago. That he only returned to Osasuna in 2021 -- and that was to play for the B team. That he was playing in Segunda RFEF, Spain's newly constructed 124-team fifth division. That he only joined the Osasuna team this season. And that he is not a regular, starting six times in the league. He has played 90 minutes three times this season -- against Fuentes from the Aragon regional league, Segunda RFEF side Arnedo, and Primera RFEF side Nastic in the first, second and third rounds of the cup. Rare opportunities for a footballer.

Iñaki Williams finds the back of the net to put Athletic Club on the board

Iñaki Williams finds the back of the net to put Athletic Club on the board

This was his competition. Well, sort of. It certainly is now. Against Betis, he wasn't in the squad. Against Sevilla -- when Osasuna, in a lovely gesture, invited the entire Fuente team to come and watch them play -- he stayed on the bench. In the first leg against Athletic, he got four minutes. Before the second leg, Arrasate held him up as an example to them all: Osasuna to the core, the embodiment of commitment, work, feeling, always positive and patient too. One-hundred minutes into it, Arrasate put him on the pitch.

A quarter of an hour later, Pablo Ibanez had scored his first goal.

He will probably never match it. No one will. With the exception of the equaliser John Aloisi scored in the 2005 final, it may well be that no one in Osasuna's history ever has. A kid from the same city, a fan of the club, who joined at six and was forced to go away against at 16. "It hurt but what am I going to do? You think the dream is over but you see that you can grow elsewhere," he said, but he came back again, given another chance at it. Still he didn't imagine this, until the Pamplonian who had never scored went and did that. With his team suffering at San Mames and just four minutes left in the Copa del Rey semifinal. With a strike that was as brilliant as it was unbelievable. Osasuna were going to their second final ever and the whole city was going wild.

When a radio journalist played those scenes back to Ibanez still at San Mames, but itching to get on the road and join them, it was all he could do to say: 'wow and pffff and hostia, bloody hell.' "The hairs are standing up on my arm," he said. From among the crowd in Pamplona, someone shouted: "Pablo, I'll marry you!" A couple of hours later, he was there with them, fireworks in hand. The following morning, heads hurting, it still hadn't sunk in. "I'm in the clouds still," he would say. He had seen the goal played back by then -- many times.

It was some night.

"I'm as happy as a partridge. These are the feelings that football gives you and you're thankful to be able to live them," midfielder Lucas Torro insisted.

"A man can't be happier than I am," Arrasate said.

Osasuna is a special club; Arrasate knows. He has made it even more so, bringing them from the second division to here. A man who the club backed when things were bad. Universally popular and rightly so, not a shred of pretence about him, he is a former teacher who began down there at the kind of clubs where Osasuna started this journey and has now led them the way to the biggest game of all. "Blessed be the day that I signed for Osasuna," he said, and everyone else couldn't agree more.

After a game a couple of weeks ago, Mallorca coach Javier Aguirre, who was the Osasuna boss in 2005, sought him out and embraced him as he was doing a TV interview. "You have to tell me how to get to the final," the current coach said, smiling. A few weeks before that, Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti joked that they would see each other in the final. Arrasate didn't dare believe that, but it turned out he was right, that he could match Aguirre 18 years on. And if the way it happened wasn't in the script, which was wild enough already, it was even better this way.

"I'm glad it was Pablo who went down in history," Arrasate said.