San Mames, the home of Athletic Club de Bilbao, is a cauldron of red and white. From the tribal noise that greets the team to the partisan nature of the crowd itself, the experience of watching a game at this new stadium is impressive.
The city comes to a standstill in many ways when Athletic are at home. Dotted around the streets of the old and new towns, on any day, you will see people walking around wearing the club’s famous red and white striped shirts. Shops invariably have a poster on the wall, a scarf draped somewhere to demonstrate their support of Athletic. Even top-class purveyors of Iberico ham, for example, have some sort of symbol of allegiance. Given Bilbao is a one-club city- not even Real Madrid and Barcelona can claim “the city is ours” – this is a passionate football location in every sense of the word.
Basque-ing in glory
But it is not just about Bilbao, the city, it is also the club as a standard-bearer of the Basque “nation”, so much so that, historically, only Basques could don their colours. There’s a little flexibility in there now, but essentially, Athletic is still Basque.
Just consider the men who ran out for the game against Getafe on September 13.
Goalkeeper Iraizoz, defender San Jose, midfielder Gurpegui and new signing Raul Garcia are all from Pamplona. Central midfielder Etxeita was born in Amorebieta, winger Oscar De Marcos is from Alava, striker Aritz Aduriz hails from San Sebastian, Benat is from Igorre, Markel Susaeta was born in Eibar and then there’s the Bilbao duo of Lekue and Ager Aketxe. In other words, all Basques.
That’s no mean feat because the Basque Country has a population of just 2 million. The region ranks first in Spain in terms of per capita income and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is 40% higher than the European Union and a third higher than Spain’s average in 2010.
Bilbao was once the industrial heartland of Spain, with a heavy emphasis on iron ore, steel and shipbuilding. There’s a nice pastiche of New York skyscraper workmen sitting on a girder that has been adapted to have red and white-shirted builders risking their lives high up into the Manhattan sky. It underlines the working-class roots of the club.
It does make you wonder how Athletic have managed to be as successful as they have over the years, although it has been over 30 years since they won anything tangible. In modern La Liga Terms, they have been cast into the second strata of the top clubs.
Last 10 years: Athletic Bilbao
|La Liga||Copa Del Rey||Beaten by…||Europe||Av.Att.|
|2014-15||7th||Final||Barcelona 1-3||R16 Europa||41,137|
|2012-13||12th||R16||Eibar 1-1||R32 Europa||36,105|
|2011-12||10th||Final||Barcelona 0-3||Final Europa||35,053|
|2009-10||8th||R32||Rayo Vallecano 2-4||R16 Europa||36,642|
|2005-06||12th||R16||Real Madrid 0-5||36,895|
New San Mames for old
They may be the top Basque club, but in today’s football universe you have to be competing on an international stage. It’s always tough to lock horns with Real Madrid and Barcelona year-in, year-out, but La Liga should be about more than just these two leviathans. Athletic, Valencia and Sevilla represent the next layer of the Spanish football cake, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be among Europe’s top clubs. At present though, TV money and the dominance of the English Premier means that a club like Stoke City is bigger than Athletic.
The new San Mames stadium may provide the springboard for greater things. The old ground, which was known as La Catedral (a bar opposite the ground ensures the name lives on), was Spain’s oldest stadium before it was demolished. It was renowned for its boisterous atmosphere. The new ground was opened for the 2013-14 season and has been selected to host three games in the European Championship 2020.
It’s a neat and spacious stadium, with a capacity of 53,000. The exterior is very distinctive with its white zig-zag effect standing out from a distance – it’s almost as iconic as Bilbao’s other main attraction, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. It’s also close to the city centre, so access is easy. As you soon discover, all roads lead to San Mames. On matchdays, the banners come out across the city and the bars of Calle Licenciado are heaving with people drinking and eating before a home game.
Athletic v Getafe
Half an hour before kick-off, the ground was still empty. I was concerned, because there had been some confusion over the kick-off time – 4pm or 5pm. My ticket was no help, and there was conflicting information on the internet. But 4pm it was and at 4.40pm, the ground was almost deserted. The last minute rush is not exclusive to Spanish football, but they all came streaming in and by kick-off, there were 39,003 people in the ground.
I expected a mass of banners, but there were very few. It seemed, at first, especially quiet. The teams trotted out, photos were taken (both teams had line-up shots) and there was a special cheer for debutant Raul Garcia, who joined the club for EUR 40m. Garcia had been a key figure in Atletico Madrid’s 2013-14 Lia Liga title win, but he made a transfer request in the summer and was snapped-up by Athletic. A Basque coming home, you might say. The crowd gave him a rousing reception and he didn’t let the fans down.
Garcia and his new team-mates came out to the traditional pre-match soundtrack, a one-note screeching noise that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a film like Zulu. Then the club song, accompanied with scarves aloft. More than one scarf had the name “Inigo Cabacas” emblazoned on it. Cabacas was a young Athletic fan who was killed by rubber bullets fired by the local police in 2012. Another scarf pleaded for “Justizia”.
The starting teams were:
Athletic: Iraizoz, San Jose, Etxeita, Lekue, Gurpegi, Raul Garcia, Susaeta, Benat, De Marcos, Ager Aketxe, Aduriz.
Getafe: Guaita, Alexis, Roberto Lago, Velazquez, Carlos Vigaray, Juan Rodriguez, Lafita, Pedro Leon, Lacen, Scepovic, Victor Rodriguez.
Both Athletic and Getafe needed a result. Neither had secured a single point in their first two La Liga games of the season. Athletic had started the campaign with an astonishing 4-0 Super Cup win against Barcelona, a game that saw Aritz Aduriz score a hat-trick. Athletic drew the second leg 1-1 to win 5-1 on aggregate. They also got through two rounds of the Europa League, beating Inter Baki and Zilina to secure a group stage place. In La Liga, though, they were unfortunate to face a still-smarting Barca side that won 1-0 at San Mames. Athletic then lost 2-0 at Eibar.
Getafe, meanwhile, from the small city from the south of the Madrid metropolitan area, have to contend with Real Madrid on their doorstep. They also lost their first two games, at Espanyol and at home to Granada in front of 5,000 people – underlining the gulf between a club like Getafe and Real.
It did not take long for Athletic to get their fans going. Barely six minutes had gone when Aritz Adruiz glanced home a header from a corner. The home side had to thank goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz for keeping them ahead when he pulled off a spectacular save from a header by the Uruguayan Emiliano Velazquez in the 19th minute.
Athletic went further ahead in the 24th minute when a cross by Markel Susaeta was casually back headed into the net by Raul Garcia – a perfect finish. This triggered off extended celebrations as the new man captured his new audience inside half an hour of his debut.
Both Garcia and Adruiz should have made the scoreline emphatic and there were calls for a penalty when the latter went sprawling in the area. The whistling was shrilling and chilling.
After the interval, Athletic had more opportunities to bury Getafe, but were way too generous to the visitors. It was richly entertaining and the football was of an excellent quality at times – and these were the bottom two in La Liga. Now wonder the Spanish believe it is the best league in the world. They could have a point.
Getafe silenced the crowd – apart from the small band of away fans (a paltry number that could have been bettered by non-league clubs in the UK) – with a 70th minute tame volley from Velazquez. It was a mistake by Iraizoz and the fans recognised that, and at the same time, applauded him for his earlier efforts.
Seven minutes from time, Athletic sealed the points when Javier Eraso, who had come on for Raul Garcia in the 79th minute, dashed down the flank, sent in a low cross and Adruiz slid the ball home. 3-1, job done. Raul Garcia, after the match commented: “The important thing is that the team won. When the team is doing well everybody benefits. I’m happy that I scored but I’m happier for the victory,”. It wasn’t just a victory for the team, Raul – it was three points for the Basque nation!
It had been an entertaining and passionate afternoon’s football. The crowd was happy, the home team was relived to get off the mark, the city buzzed after the game. It was all quite intoxicating, and not just because some locals in front of us puffed their way through several euros worth of exotic tobacco for most of the game. Mellow people, these Basques!