Soccer: Island club Formentera relishing visit of Cup kings Bilbao
By Richard Martin
(Reuters) - Tiny island team SD Formentera usually attract 300 supporters to their games but they have been hastily expanding their stadium capacity for Wednesday's King’s Cup visit of Athletic Bilbao.
Athletic, eight-times Liga champions, have lifted the Cup 23 times and played in 37 finals, in contrast to Formentera, who first entered the competition three years ago.
The team from the remote, picturesque island of 12,000 inhabitants quickly developed a taste for the Cup, however.
Last season they won three consecutive penalty shootouts to reach the round of 32 and set up a tie with then runners-up Sevilla, whose visit saw 3,000 fans cram into temporary stands at Formentera’s municipal stadium for its biggest attendance.
Hopes of a fairytale ending were dashed as the Champions League side hammered the minnows 5-1, although not even a harrowing 9-1 defeat in the return leg could dampen Formentera’s enthusiasm for the King's Cup.
They won another penalty shootout at the start of this campaign and last month overcame having a man sent off against former Liga side Logrones to win 4-3 in extra time.
The squad huddled around a television for the last 32 draw, where teams from the top flight enter, and exploded with excitement when they were paired with Athletic.
"For a team as humble and small as Formentera this is something historic and unimaginable," said coach Tito Garcia Sanjuan.
"No-one thought this could happen to us again after playing against Sevilla. It's a unique experience for us to play against one of the greatest teams in Spanish football and we're going to enjoy it."
The thought of Formentera playing a team of Athletic's stature was even harder to imagine a decade ago, when they were on the brink of going bust and administrators took over the cash-strapped club for seven months.
They have experienced slow and steady growth since and last season finally reached the third tier of Spanish soccer, Segunda Division B, after winning the playoffs at the fifth attempt after four years of heartbreak.
Despite Formentera's beautiful beaches, attracting players to the club has not been easy due to a shortage of housing, which obliges team mates to share living quarters.
"This is like a small village, which has its limits and complications because there isn't much to do here," says goalkeeper and captain Marcos Contreras.
"But you have the advantage that you are dearly loved and valued by the people who surround you."
Contreras, who came through the academy at Real Betis, joined Formentera in 2011 and has gained hero status for his decisive performances in the four penalty shootouts.
"When I arrived we were like a village club, an amateur team with no hint of professionalism," he recalled.
"It was run by people who wanted to do things well but had little experience. Over the years we've taken short steps and look where we are now."
Before Formentera turned professional after promotion, Contreras used to have to clean the team's kit and dressing room to make ends meet, while his team mates worked in hotels and restaurants after training.
On Wednesday he will come up against Athletic and the likes of Spain international Aritz Aduriz and dazzling winger Inaki Williams.
"Athletic are a historic team, one of the best sides in Spain due to their history, they have an incredible support and a beautiful stadium," he added.
"Playing in stadiums like San Mames and the Sanchez Pizjuan (Sevilla's ground) is a huge luxury for us. I'm so happy to have been a part of this club's amazing growth."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Rex Gowar)