Can Mallorca, Athletic backup keepers step up in Copa del Rey final?

A bout of inexplicable madness will break out in Seville on Saturday evening when two teams will deliberately dump one of their best players onto the bench despite being genuinely desperate to win Spain’s Copa del Rey (stream LIVE, Saturday, 3 p.m ET, ESPN+). That will happen so that two men, Athletic Club‘s Julen Agirrezabala and Mallorca‘s Dominik Greif — neither of whom is considered good enough to start every week in LaLiga — can be named in the starting XIs and hold their fans’ dreams, and hopefully crosses and shots, safely in their gloved hands.

Athletic, the big Basque club, were once an outright dominant force in Spanish football but haven’t won this trophy in 40 years. If they’re triumphant on Saturday in Seville’s Olympic stadium, it will be only the third trophy for Los Leones in those four decades.

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This week, there will be a lava-esque flow of red-and-white fans from the extreme north of the Spanish peninsula down to Andalucia’s capital city — they will bring massive loyalty, over-consumption of their favorite prematch tipple, Kalimotxo — a surprisingly pleasing concoction of Coca-Cola and cheap red wine — and leonine roaring from start to finish of the cup final. They crave silverware; ravenous hunger doesn’t cover it. But their team will leave their first-choice keeper, Unai Simón, on the bench as they have done during this competition. Will Agirrezabala be up to the task?

Mallorca are a different cup of tea. The club is diminutive by comparison, island-based and trying to redefine an identity; the aim is to become more attractive to fans all the while being partially steered by people such as the Nadal tennis family, England international Graeme Le Saux, Steve Kohlberg, Steve Nash and Steve Kerr. The club has only two major honours in its entire history, the last one over 20 years ago, yet coach Javier Aguirre — like Ernesto Valverde up in Bilbao — will confirm to his No. 1, the excellent Predrag Rajković, that he’s not starting.

Mallorca will instead choose their radically unfortunate and much-loved but unquestionably second-choice keeper, Greif.

These are hungry teams, it’s a huge occasion and history beckons, with pressure oozing into and out of everybody’s pores, yet both coaches will deliberately sacrifice a king between the posts for a pawn. Is it madness?

Both when I was growing up and when I was cutting my teeth as a football reporter in the UK, this concept of there being a “cup keeper and a league keeper” not only didn’t exist, but it would have been ridiculed to within an inch of its life. From your two (or, at the utmost, three) keepers in the squad, you established a hierarchy and the best man started every single match — especially the vital occasions — unless injured. But continental Europe often did things differently and now, frankly, it’s the norm everywhere.

From “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” coaching to the more prevalent “show the back-up guy a little bit of love and give him some sugar” approach, it was a radical change with diametrically opposed thinking — now, if we’re honest, it makes a heap of sense so long as your second-choice keeper is terrific and merits being alternated in and out of the side when the cup section of the season comes along.

The Athletic goalkeeper lineage is terrific and remarkable, but it’s not our story today. From transferring Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea for a world-record €80 million to establishing Simón as No.1 choice for the Spanish national team, then losing Simón’s main competition (the top-class Álex Remiro) to their chief rivals, Real Sociedad, to now seeing Agirrezabala genuinely challenge the excellent Simón — that’s one hell of a pedigree production line.

Greif’s story is wholly different and, by the way, it’s his 27th birthday on cup final Saturday — of course it is.

For those of you who eschew all the complicated lingo, video analysis, “half-spaces,” “playing out from the back” and professorial analysis that some football fans are addicted to, and who simply believe that some victories are “meant to be,” then I expect you’re already imagining a tearful Greif saving shots, headers and maybe even a few penalties before lifting the huge Copa del Rey up to the night sky. Right?

This 6-foot-6 Slovakian has been through an absolutely stinking inferno since signing for the Islanders. Honestly, it would have broken lesser men.

Greif’s arrival back in summer 2021 was actually prefaced by anticipation, wit and some mischievous fun. His old club, Slovan Bratislava, flirted with moving him to Mallorca six months earlier — Greif actually flew to Spain to finalise things — and then dramatically put the brakes on the move before retaining him against his wishes. Once the news broke, the Spanish club’s fans started a #FreeDominik campaign that got some social media traction (including a retweet from Greif himself) until, that following summer, the deal eventually took place for a €2.5m transfer fee.

The now-fashionable “arrival video” by the club cheekily nicked a sequence from “The Shawshank Redemption” — the part when the prison staff realise Andy Dufresne has successfully tunneled out — and then cut to Greif being urgently told by a Mallorca employee to hide in the boot of his car so that he could be whisked off to the island and finally join their squad. It’s all good, clean fun really: it ends with the big man with his feet up on the balcony of his flat staring out into a beautiful Mediterranean sunset with the hashtag #FreeDominik smack bang in the middle of the frame.

Then, it seemed as though hell descended on the poor fella, from a muscle problem, then wisdom tooth pain, to a related infection and then total physical incapacity. He lost an entire year to various ailments, and nobody really knew why. Here we have a relatively young guy in a foreign environment, not fluent in the language, lonely and scared, bouncing from one diagnosis to another, not playing and not making friends in the squad because of his total isolation from them: Greif would have been forgiven for becoming a wreck.

In due course, he broke his silence to the Slovakian media: “My body was completely wracked by intolerable pain. I was like a living corpse. I couldn’t make it as far as shopping in the local supermarket, or going into the garden to play with my dog. My girlfriend had to lift me into the passenger seat of the car as if I were wheelchair-bound. I was given the type of pain medication that they sometimes proscribe for horses and often told ‘this cure or that cure, will work in about six weeks.’ But nothing [happened] until they finally got to the root of the problem and a solution finally worked.”

When Greif featured in Mallorca’s 0-0 draw with Valencia at the weekend, given one LaLiga match as practice for the big Copa showdown, his loquacious and characterful Mexican coach, Javier Aguirre, added some more detail to the bigger picture.

“Dominik is a guy who deserves to be getting these opportunities,” Aguirre said. “When I took over [as manager], he was at rock bottom. He was limping and bent-double all the time, he spoke just the barest word or two of Spanish, he was getting injections to try and solve his problems, he was getting treated back in Slovakia to see if that could help… he was destroyed. We just didn’t know what to do for him.

“But, eventually, with the help of various therapies and with Dominik playing his part by really working hard at things, he’s fit, he’s well, he speaks good Spanish and can even make jokes with the lads at training. Really, he’s back to being the smashing keeper the club thought it was buying and he merits his chance in the cup final. [Greif] has had the most awful time, but he’s been terrific in the cup: it’s been ages since the semifinal and so I used him against Valencia to give him some sharpness, and he played well!”

Saturday will be the big man’s 12th match in four years, and it’ll be against a significantly better team than Mallorca — the Athletic fans will dwarf those supporting Greif in number, noise and passion.

If football’s all about stats, budgets, tactical hieroglyphics and Goliath beating David 99 times out of 100, then it’ll be grief for Greif in Seville. If not, if this is one of those occasions when fate has already decided that the sufferer will finally get his reward, then I want Morgan Freeman to do the voiceover of Mallorca’s victory parade.

All together now, paraphrasing from his infamous narration of “The Shawshank Redemption”: “I’d like to think that the last thing that went through Athletic’s heads, other than that the final whistle, was to wonder how the hell Dominik Greif ever get the best of them?”