Meet Osasuna, the underdogs aiming for a Copa del Rey miracle vs. Real Madrid
May 5, 2023, 01:25 PM ET
In February 2019, with Osasuna flying high in the second division and chasing promotion back to LaLiga, graffiti began to appear on the streets of their city, Pamplona.
The first image depicted forward Roberto Torres as a saint. A month later, captain Oier Sanjurjo appeared as Superman. Then it was Chimy Avila as a boxer. Winger Ruben Garcia was pictured as The Joker. Defender Unai Garcia was Captain America.
The street art was the work of an anonymous, Banksy-esque artist and Osasuna fan known as LKN. In 2020, with the club back in the top flight, he unveiled his masterpiece. A billboard not far from their El Sadar stadium was seized by a reworking of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Renamed “The Creation of Jagoba,” it inserted manager Jagoba Arrasate into the “God” role, his touch creating life.
Was it sacrilegious? Probably. But Arrasate’s five years in charge of Osasuna have been pretty miraculous, winning promotion and guiding them to four mid-table finishes on one of LaLiga’s smaller budgets.
Now, beating Real Madrid in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final? That really would be a miracle.
– Live on ESPN : Real Madrid vs. Osasuna, Copa del Rey final (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET)
Saturday’s game will be Osasuna’s second cup final in the club’s 103-year history. They’ve never won a major trophy. And at the La Cartuja stadium in Seville, they’ll face a Real Madrid team whose raison d’etre is winning finals: they’ve emerged victorious in 19 of the 23 they’ve played over the last decade. Do Osasuna stand a chance?
“What we have to do is compete,” the club’s sporting director Braulio Vazquez tells ESPN. “We aren’t going to Seville to have a beer by the Guadalquivir River. It’ll be a rojillo invasion with 25,000 of our fans. There, we’ll beat Real Madrid for sure. After that, we have to compete. It isn’t a day out, even if they are the favourites.”
Competition, against the odds, is what Osasuna are all about. The club’s name means “health or vitality” in Euskara, the official language of Basque Country in northern Spain. Its identity is based on the struggle to survive and thrive in an increasingly hostile football landscape.
“If the feeling of belonging to a shirt — of having roots — exists anywhere, it’s in Pamplona,” coach Arrasate told El Pais in 2021. “There’s a set of values here, of fighting, of not giving up.”
Osasuna are also one of just four clubs in Spanish football — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Club and Osasuna — that are still owned by their members. “We’re a club — we’re not a Sociedad Anonima Deportiva, a limited company,” Vazquez says. “We don’t have a foreign owner. The budget we have for the squad is €49 million. I don’t know how much Real Madrid’s is — €800 million?
“We’re proud to be playing the most successful team in the world. But we eliminated [Real] Betis who were the cup holders, we eliminated Sevilla who are a Champions League team, we knocked out Athletic Club [in the semifinals]. That’s what we’ve done in the cup.”
If this Copa del Rey final isn’t the biggest game in Osasuna’s history, then it isn’t far off. The club have spent 41 seasons in LaLiga, with 37 in the Second Division and 14 in leagues below that. Their highest league finishes were fourth in 1991 and 2006, the latter coming with perhaps their best-ever team (until this season), playing the 2005 Copa final — losing to Betis after extra time — and reaching the 2007 UEFA Cup semifinals.
“Who knows when Osasuna will be in another cup final?” Pierre Webo, the centre-forward of that 2005-06 team, tells ESPN. “It’s so big for them. Everyone in Navarra is into it. For them, it’s more than a final. For Real Madrid it’s just another final, but for Osasuna it’s more than a final. They’ll go down in history.”
The club flirted with disaster in 2015, coming close to a catastrophic relegation to the third tier, with Arrasate arriving three years later. A former lower league footballer, he had coached at Real Sociedad and Numancia before getting the Osasuna job in June 2018. He’s now LaLiga’s second-longest serving coach after Diego Simeone, but things could have gone very differently.
After achieving promotion from Segunda in his first season — going unbeaten at home all year — and a 10th-place finish in 2019-20, Arrasate’s Osasuna went three months without a win the following season. Most clubs would have fired their manager. Osasuna didn’t. “The captain steers the ship, and that’s Jagoba,” sporting director Vazquez said, in a now infamous news conference in January 2021. “The boat will make it to port or it won’t, but with the same captain. If we sink, we all sink. We’re with him to the end.”
Asked now about the decision to stick with Arrasate, Vazquez smiles ruefully. “We had gone 13 games without a win,” he says. “We were second bottom. The situation was critical. We had two options: firing him and bringing in someone else — which would have been easiest — or sticking with him.
“[The players] needed to hear that the captain wasn’t going to change. That message was important, because we then had an extraordinary second half of the season.”
That loyalty has been rewarded. Osasuna recovered to finish 11th in 2020-21 and 10th last season. Now they’re in the Copa del Rey final. How were they able to keep the faith considering that football is so often dominated by short-term thinking?
“The answer is simple,” Osasuna president Luis Sabalza tells ESPN. “We believe in Jagoba. Beyond the results, we believe in him as a professional and as a person. He’s the ideal coach for Osasuna. Otherwise, it would be unthinkable for him to have taken charge of so many matches at the club.”
This season’s highlight — so far — has been the Copa del Rey semifinal elimination of Athletic Club, Osasuna’s hometown boy Pablo Ibanez scoring a spectacular, extra time equaliser at San Mames. There are standout players — defender David Garcia, midfielder Moi Gomez, on-loan Barcelona winger Abde Ezzalzouli, the charismatic Chimy Avila — but the star is the team, and the El Sadar crowd.
“A characteristic that has always defined Osasuna is the connection between the team and the fans,” Sabalza tells ESPN. “I love the fact that after each game, win or lose, the players go to the centre circle to sing with the fans. It’s what makes us different.”
There are other, more tangible factors too.
“It’s sustainable planning,” sporting director Vazquez tells ESPN. “We try to be better every year. We don’t have the money for a revolution, and we don’t want one. We’re a team with 60% homegrown players. We’ve held onto our best — talents like David Garcia, [midfielder] Jon Moncayola, [playmaker] Aimar Oroz — and we’ve added important signings like Chimy Avila, Moi Gomez, [midfielder] Lucas Torro and [goalkeeper] Sergio Herrera. But in the last two seasons, the top seven in LaLiga has stayed the same. That shows you how hard it is [to progress].”
The next step, with Osasuna seemingly established in the first division, is to win a trophy, and on Saturday they’ll get their chance.
The club invited their 2005 Copa del Rey finalists back to El Sadar last month — attending the LaLiga game with Real Sociedad on April 28 — to pay tribute, and perhaps to give them the opportunity to share some experience with this new generation.
“I didn’t enjoy the  final,” former captain, midfielder and club record appearance holder Patxi Punal tells ESPN. “It was too much for me… The team that’s going to play this final on Saturday is much more mature than we were. There are five internationals, some of them played in the World Cup this season. They’ve been in bigger situations.
“Maybe that’s what I and that team lacked. We lacked a bit of a winning mentality. Our mentality was ‘we probably won’t win it, but imagine if we did…’ and the mentality has to be ‘we’re going to go there and take it home.’ We lacked the mentality to win the trophy.”
“Enjoy it after the game, because in a final against Real Madrid you won’t enjoy it on the pitch!” former defender Carlos Cuellar tells ESPN. “You’ll suffer. That was the same message that [2005 Osasuna coach Javier Aguirre] gave us. Humility leads to victory. If the game is going badly, there are periods when Madrid are on top, and it feels constant, you have to hold on.”
“Madrid are lethal in the transitions,” Punal says. “If you let Vinicius, Rodrygo and [Federico] Valverde run at you, if you’re not on top of them, pressing them, Madrid are lethal… [Arrasate] will find a way to put up a fight. We have to be able to get forward and scare them once in a while.”
Win or lose, this season has been an unequivocal success.
“We’ve achieved survival in the First Division, and we’ve done it comfortably, with a lot of games to go,” club president Luis Sabalza tells ESPN. “People might think that’s settling, but it’s the reality. Right now there are big clubs like Valencia and Espanyol who are caught up in a dramatic [relegation] battle.
“If we manage to finish as high as possible in the league, and play a Copy del Rey final, it goes without saying… We’re not used to this. Being in the final is exceptional. It’s the second in our history. But we won’t lose our heads. We know who we are and where we’ve come from.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.