Copa del Rey scares for Real, Barcelona shows Spain's cup competition is a competition again

SALAMANCA, Spain -- Alvaro Romero started running a little way inside Real Madrid's half, more or less level with the sand pit and the plaque at the side of the pitch commemorating Jonathan Edwards' triple jump world record, and he didn't stop until he was inside their area. As he ran, the noise rose, almost squealing with every step. Hang on, he couldn't, could he? He turned one way, then back the other and then back again. And then the ball flew into the net, Las Pistas exploded and Romero kept on running with everyone else running after him. Past the temporary floodlights he went, across the track and towards the club's owners: all 3,000 of them.

The bench, which really is a bench, emptied and they embraced. In the main stand, if you can call it that, where the players left out of the squad gathered together, one put his hands on his head. This can't be happening. Everybody leapt out of their seats -- well, off the piece of concrete where they sat, a couple of lines and a number painted on it. Javier Sotomayor leapt higher than anyone else ever here, but they were higher than him now. The people in this place, a small municipal athletics ground with a history of its own nestled alongside the football stadium where they used to go but now refuse to enter, were going wilder than their wildest dreams.

Unionistas is the fan-owned club set up in honour of the original UD Salamanca, who they had supported until it went out of business in 2013 and whose anthem they still sting in memoriam. They had started from nothing; now they had scored against Real Madrid. "All sorts of thoughts go through your mind," Romero said afterwards. Even winning. Madrid had not even been in the city for 21 years, back before this club was born, but now that they were here, they could actually be beaten. Or so some in Salamanca and across Spain dared believe. Unionistas are only six years old, but even if they had been founded in 1923 like UDS, this might have been on course to become their greatest night.

- Stream a replay of Unionistas de Salamanca vs. Real Madrid on ESPN+
- Stream a replay of Ibiza vs. Barcelona on ESPN+
- Stream a replay of Cultural Leonesa vs. Atletico Madrid on ESPN+

The team from Spain's regionalised, 80-team, four-group, Segunda Division B were drawing 1-1 with Madrid, the club whose budget is 2,000 times theirs. Gareth Bale, the man who had opened the scoring for Madrid, earns around €3.16 million a month; now his team had conceded an equaliser against a bunch of blokes most of whom are on less than €1,500 a month. "For a moment, there was hope," their manager Jabi Luaces said later. And even though they were ultimately defeated, there was a moment. That moment. All of those moments from Wednesday. There always will be. Gorgeous commemorative matchday posters had been made and will be put on many walls.

At the back of the stand, radio reporters had set up on a temporary table, cables everywhere, sitting on plastic chairs. They, like the fans, had been in very early, and they relayed what was happening elsewhere in the Copa del Rey (stream the entire tournament on ESPN+).

In Ibiza, Barcelona were losing. An hour later, they were still losing. And then for 20 minutes or so, they were heading to extra time, still on a knife edge after Ibiza hit the post. Until, in the 94th minute against another Segunda B team, Antoine Griezmann got the winner. "We almost did it," Ibiza manager Pablo Alfaro said afterwards, "and this flame will never die." Back at Las Pistas, Unionistas ended up feeling exactly the same way.

Madrid went back into the lead soon after Romero's goal but still it was close: Unionists' Carlos de la Nava had a late chance to take it to extra time before Brahim Diaz finally made it 3-1 in stoppage time. It didn't matter much, the fans celebrated anyway. At the full-time whistle, as Madrid's players headed off to modest dressing rooms and Zinedine Zidane made his way towards a gym converted into a press room, the Unionistas team did a lap of honour. When they got around again, they stood before their supporters and together they sang, quietly at first then louder and louder. Like they do after every game, only this was different. It had been a long week, not always an easy one, and they weren't quite done yet, but they had enjoyed this.

And then Romero rushed to the dressing room. He said he wanted to get there before the hot water ran out, and he meant it. It really does there. When he finally departed, he had Dani Carvajal's shirt to go with his moment. "I don't know what cologne that guy uses, but it smells great," he said. Another reminder, as if he or anyone even needed it. At the same time, Unionistas fans -- who are their owners -- were busy packing up, gathering the flags and the banners and putting them in the small storeroom they have, ready for the next game. Wheelie bins were filled, cables rolled, chairs stacked. It was cold and it was late and it was over.

For Unionistas, it was. But this wasn't over, not by a long shot. As it turned out, it had only just begun.

In Salamanca, Unionistas had believed. In Ibiza, Barcelona had been close to a disaster. In Elche, Athletic Bilbao needed penalties to get through against another Segunda B team -- and they had done so with Unai Simon a long way off his line when he made the decisive save. "I'm so proud," said Elche manager Pacheta. In Logrono, there had been only one goal in Las Gaunas and Valencia had got it, edging past another Segunda B team. And in Badalona, where Getafe had fallen the round before, Granada had been taken to extra time before they found a way through against another team from the same level. The night before, Osasuna had also needed extra time, and Chimy Avila, to see off Segunda B's Recreativo de Huelva.

On the drive back from Salamanca down dark, empty roads on Wednesday night, there was a debate on the radio, only for once there was no debate: everyone agreed that the new Copa del Rey was great. Every game had been, well, a game. A proper match. In only one -- Villarreal's 3-0 win at second division Girona -- did a first-division team ease their way past lower-level opposition. Everyone else competed, made it close. Every Segunda B team had made a match of it, frightened their first-division opponents -- forced to take it seriously, obliged to fight back.

It had been a lot of fun, but in the end they had all fallen. Second division Real Zaragoza, a historic club the first division misses, had beaten Mallorca 3-1. Tenerife had defeated Valladolid 2-1. They were the only lower-level teams to knock out a side from Primera and, given their form, those were perhaps minor surprises. And then Thursday came.

The evening started with Leganes scoring a solitary goal at Segunda B Ebro, more of the same, but then it went really wild. Celta Vigo lost 3-1 at Mirandes. A sign there declares "This is Anduva" as if it was Anfield, but they're still a second-division team. So are Rayo Vallecano, who scored a late, late equaliser to make it 2-2 and then beat Real Betis on penalties -- a huge blow for a club that thought they could go a long way this year. At the end, the players of both those victorious teams had stood before their fans, celebrating: at Anduva, as ever, there was an Icelandic thunder clap; in Vallecas, they bounced to the beat of the Bukaneros' drum.

There was was more. Badajoz are a Segunda B side, but as Eibar manager Jose Luis Mendilibar said after his team had been knocked out by them, "You would think they were the first-division side tonight." So of course are Cultural Leonesa, who defeated Atletico Madrid, two wonderful goals taking them to a 2-1 victory. Atletico had started with their strongest possible side; yes, they sent on kids later in the game, but they're still kids from the B team, who top their Segunda B Group I table -- ahead of Cultu.

"In seven years, I hadn't experienced anything like this," Saul said. The last time they had been defeated by a team from a lower division, it brought Diego Simeone to the club. "We're out of a competition that's lovely because it doesn't allow you a single slip-up; this is my responsibility," he said afterwards. This is history, his opposite number said, which it was.

After years of declining engagement, of two-legged ties and weighted draws, privileges for the already privileged, the Copa del Rey was back. Or coming back, at least. Yes, there had been moments before: good games, excitement too, big nights for small clubs, the occasional upset -- but not quite like this. After years of early rounds that were almost ignored and final round matchups that felt inevitable, just a matter of making an effort, there was fun again, uncertainty. The way sport is supposed to be.

And it continued in the quarterfinal draw. Six lower-league sides will play host to La Liga competition in the next round, including Real Madrid travelling to Zaragoza (stream the Copa del Rey quarterfinals on ESPN+).

Even beyond results, it felt right. There were games, real games. The hint of equality and openness, embracing the adventure of "other" clubs, smaller ones. Give them no guarantees but give them their chance, hand them their moment. Even if it is a fleeting one, it might be forever. Ask Unionistas, or Ibiza, or Elche or all the people that watched them, drawn into the drama -- and they're the teams that did not go through in the end. It's still not perfect -- European teams get early byes; the draw remains loaded, if a little less; and the semifinal is two legs a month apart -- but it already feels so much better. And it had all been so simple: just make the cup the cup and let football do the rest. A single leg, one shot. For everyone. Not just those who have everything. Listening to Madrid's Federico Valverde talk, watching Madrid compete, you realised that those with everything may even appreciate it too.

At the end of Athletic's dramatic penalty shootout win over Elche, Asier Garitano said: "Cup games are like this." For too long, too often, they weren't. They are now.