Match Day in Bilbao

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You could go to the Camp Nou with its 80,000 season ticket holders who only turn up for the big games, or the Bernabeu where you are more likely to be sitting next to Tom Cruise or surrounded by stag parties than ‘real’ Madrid fans, but if you want an unforgettable experience of La Liga, how about a visit to San Mames, home of Athletic Bilbao?

Instead of galacticos, you’ll see a team whose players may not be household names (and with names like Goikoetxea, Etxeberria and Aldekoaotalora, this is hardly surprising), but who certainly inspire passion in their supporters.

We were in town to see the visit of Bobby Robson’s Barcelona team, a Saturday evening kick-off. ‘The Cathedral’ has the benefit of being right in the centre of town, at the end of Licenciado Poza, a road lined with bars that a couple of hours before kick-off were overflowing with red and white clad bilbainos of all ages.

We picked one of the bars, elbowed our way through the crowds and ordered a round of zurritos, small measures of beer that allows you to have a drink, a chat and move on to the next place in the space of ten minutes. Every bar was decked out with flags and scarves, and everyone was confident despite the prospect of a tough game ahead against the league leaders featuring a certain Brazilian named Ronaldo, who was scoring an obscene numbers of goals that season.

In one of the bars closest to the ground we picked up our half-time snack, a foil-wrapped bocadillo de chorizo, and headed towards our gate. San Mames is not the biggest ground in Spain, and it isn’t the most impressive-looking stadium, but once inside it is all about the atmosphere. The seating runs right up to the touchline, every available surface was draped in either a red and white striped flag or the Basque ikurriña, and the roof of the stands did a great job of keeping in the chorus of whistles that accompanied every bad decision made by the referee, or rather every decision that went against the home team. Spanish football fans like to whistle, usually mixed in with shouts of ‘vete a casa, inutil’ (‘Go home, useless’, surprisingly popular considering how creative Spanish can be with its swearing).

Barcelona scored first, and the lack of away fans that characterises matches in la Liga meant that the stadium was strangely silent as the Barca players celebrated. It didn’t take long for the locals to get back behind their team vocally, and on the back of the referee. Athletic were still one-nil down at half time, and as the rain started to come down while everyone in stadium unwrapped their bocadillos and tucked in, things weren’t looking too good. Luckily, Athletic got an equaliser mid-way through the second half and when their golden boy, Julen Guerrero, put them ahead ten minutes later the stadium erupted. The man next to me in a huge black beret handed me his bota and indicated that I should take a swig. Instead of achieving a perfect arc from wineskin to mouth, I dribbled a bit of red wine down my white t-shirt and handed it back. He seemed impressed.

Bilbao clung on to win, and the stadium emptied back out into the streets to the slow chant of ‘Athleeeetic! Athleeeeetic!’. A few fire crackers went off and in a town used to living under the threat of terrorism, this seemed to unnerve some people, but we didn’t notice any trouble. And the Basque police, the ertzaintza (Basque for ‘robocop’, I assume), looked like they could handle anything.

It was then that I realised the beauty of a Saturday evening match in a city-centre stadium, the game turned out to be just the start of a fantastic, and very long, night out. Bilbainos don’t need the excuse of a victory against one of the big two clubs to corner a foreigner and explain for the umpteenth time the unique history and home-grown policy of their beloved club. They were also keen to point out how Athletic considers itself a English-style team, rather than a Spanish team (hence the missing ‘o’), and the few words of Euskera that we had picked up went down a treat.

Several of the bars lining Pozas were showing highlights of the game and, in particular, a montage of scuffed shots, mis-controls and wayward passes by Ronaldo, each one bringing a round of cheers from the drinkers.

As so often seems to be the case these days, San Mames’s days are numbered. The plans for the new stadium look pretty impressive and retain that all-important central location, but I am definitely planning to get back to The Cathedral before it sees it’s final service. It probably won’t be to see Athletic in the Champions League – the Basque-only policy is making it harder and harder for them to compete with the resources of the bigger Spanish clubs – but this just makes victories against the Barcelonas of this world taste so much sweeter.

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