Athletic Club 1-1 Valencia C.F
San Mames, Liga BBVA, April 9th
The football hipster team of choice seems to change almost every season. Recent favourites have included Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, and now, I believe, Fiorentina. Athletic Club (to keep the hipsters and the club themselves happy) had their year as the hipsters’ favourite in 2011/12. That was the season that Marcelo Bielsa, the honey to every hipster bee, led the club on a glorious run to the finals of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League, before ultimately falling short in both. The question is, though, even without Bielsa, how are they not the permanent hipster number one?
If you are the sort of person who reads this blog, you are probably already aware of Athletic’s hipster credentials, but let’s just remind ourselves anyway. Bucking the global trend for big-money, foreign imports, Athletic Club are a local team for local people (and not in some bizarro, League of Gentleman kind of way). Since their foundation in 1898, the club have only used players from Euskal Herrria, the seven Basque-speaking regions of Spain and France. That currently means picking their team solely from a region of about 3 million people. Limiting themselves to solely Basque players hasn’t limited their success, however. Athletic Club have been champions of Spain on eight occasions (although admittedly not in the globalised era, the last victory coming in 1983/84) and Copa del Rey winners 23 times (only Barcelona have won more). Since La Liga began in 1929, they have never been relegated.
And now there’s another reason to love Athletic. New-build stadiums are generally anathema to the football hipster; is there a greater symbol of the corporate game than the concrete bowls that lie on retail parks at the edges of cities across the country? Well, the new San Mames is different. Firstly, it’s exactly where the old one was, not quite in the centre, but very much in the city. Secondly, it looks absolutely spectacular.
Coming into the city by bus, as I did, it’s one of the first things you see. From the road, however, you only get a glimpse of the interesting new facade. Again, like the stadiums of old, the true size doesn’t become clear until you approach on foot.
This wasn’t my first visit to Bilbao, but my first to watch football. It’s a city I’ve come to love. I read a book recently called The Triumph of the City which introduced me to the idea of the Bilbao Effect. This relates to the use of creating cultural institutions to regenerate stalling cities. The theory has its critics and its failed copies, but Bilbao’s own form of cultural regeneration has certainly worked on me. I’ve mainly visited for the Guggenheim Museum, the heart of the city’s cultural and tourist resurgence, but there would be none of that today. Today, was about football and the latest addition to the new Bilbao; that magnificent stadium.
I got in to Bilbao just after 3pm and immediately got the tram to my hostel in the city’s Old Town. A quick turnaround followed and I was back out to enjoy a few hours strolling the city before kick-off. The combination of Guardian Football Weekly’s John Ashdown’s 500 Beers challenge and a friend telling me about the brilliant beer app Untappd has provoked my previously passing interest in the craft beer movement. Untappd recommended two bars in the Old Town where I could add some new brews to my own checklist of beers (I won’t be reaching 500), but after wandering in circles for half an hour, I called the search off. Another suggestion was Singular, conveniently located halfway to the stadium and was happily easier to locate. The smart decor and 1930s music made me think twice about whether this was the best place for a pre-game, but the welcoming barmaid and her knowledge of the beers on offer suggested she was used to visitors like me. I polished off two new beers- Falken Brewing’s Nuclear Hophead and Siren Craft Brew’s Soundwave– and then it was back up to the stadium on the tram.
A crowd was starting to build around the bars in front of the ground. I had a couple of beers, this time of a more generic variety, and bought my half-time, foil-wrapped bocadilla (Spanish omelette filling). There were impressive numbers of red and white-striped shirts on-show, some going back several years. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody was still wearing 2004’s tomato-stained abomination. The strangest kit sighting, stranger even the merchandiser offering Leeds United or Bolton Wanderers scarves, was the Valencia fan who had opted for #4 SENDEROS on his shirt.
My worries that my e-ticket might require printing proved false, so I ended up inside the ground before the players had even taken to the field for the warm-up. As everywhere else in Spain, it was only non-alcoholic beer on offer in the stadium, but I took a 0,0% San Miguel and some Athletic Club-branded crisps (perhaps the club aren’t quite the bastions for good, after all).
First impressions of the stadium were very positive. The toilets were the cleanest I’ve ever seen in any football stadium anywhere. My seat was comfortable and the view was even better than the 3-D model on the club website had suggested.
A few minutes after kick-off, I got my first experience of this famously noisy crowd, loudly booing the traveling supporters’ early rendition of Viva España. A couple of fans, whether offended by the song or something else, engaged in a bit of fisticuffs with a steward and later found themselves ejected. Louder still were the boos aimed at the referee when he booked striker Aritz Aduriz. I enjoyed watching Aduriz, a feisty, old-school Number 9 in stark contrast to the tiki-taka style that has become associated with Spanish football. But what an effective attacker he is; he was to end the night with his 12th goal of the season, the sixth time in seven seasons he’s reached double figures in Spain’s top-flight.
However, it was Aduriz’s forward partner who was, for me, the best player on the night. I had noticed Iñaki Williams earlier in the season as he scored two hat-tricks in the first three games of season for Athletic Club II. Despite the Welsh-sounding surname, Williams is Bilbao-born to West-African parents. He moved up to the first team in December and became the club’s first ever black goalscorer in February. His play reminded of when Danny Welbeck first began to establish himself in Manchester United’s first team. Williams ran endlessly, intelligently and very, very quickly. He was the player who seemed to get the crowd most excited, even though his tricks and runs rarely ended in the creation of a chance.
The first-half ended 0-0 to the sound of boos for the referee and the rustling of thousands of foil-wrapped sandwiches, my personal favourite Spanish football tradition. Mine would have to wait as I needed the men’s room, which, despite having been visited by thousands of people, was still in pretty good shape. The ticketing system for the already crowded concession stands put me off another alcohol-free beer, so I went back to my seat and enjoyed my egg sandwich.
The second half was more open, more entertaining and more controversial. Williams again had the crowd on their feet early on. Tracking back from his position on the right-flank, he put in a tackle and set off at pace, beating a couple of players before running the ball into touch. It was typical of the young man’s night, but there is definitely a future player in him. A bit of luck and a bit of skill allowed ex-Bolton loanee Rodrigo to tee up the opening goal. He beat his man on the left and slipped a pass that was dummied intelligently by Paco Alcacer and finished well by Rodrigo de Paul. Cue more Viva España and more boos.
The end of 2014 saw Athletic Club knocked out of the Champions League and their subsequent Europa League campaign ended in early 2015. However, despite a disappointing first half of the season, the club are back in with a slim chance of qualifying for Europe again next season. Home defeats won’t help that cause and they threw everything at Valencia. There was one great save from Diego Alves and Aduriz had a typically powerful header cleared off the line.
The controversies came late on. First, Nicolas Otamendi launched himself into a high tackle to prevent an Athletic counter-attack and received a red card. The incident caused something of a melee and had Alves sprinting 70 yards from his goal to collect the ball, like an open-side flanker clearing out at a ruck. In the final minute, more controversy. Aduriz got free in the box and squared a pass, the ensuing shot hit a post, but Aduriz tapped in from an offside position. The goal stood and the crowd went wild. Final score, 1-1.
If I was to criticise this wonderful stadium, it would be the time it took to get out. Despite plenty of stairwells, it took an age to get out of the ground. Most of the 42000+ people seemed to be heading for the subway or the tram, so I walked the half an hour or so back to the Old Town. There, I finally found one of the bars- Zapzi Bide- I had so fruitlessly looked for earlier and after two more new beers, I called it a night.
The last bus left for San Sebastian just as the game ended, which was what had prompted the hostel. My wife joined me the following day as I caught up on the cultural stuff (i.e. another visit to the Guggenheim). For lunch, we dined, at my wife’s suggestion, at the restaurant of the Peña Casco Viejo, the official Bilbao Old Town Supporters Club; a hearty three course meal at just €12 a head, including wine.
I’ve loved visiting the city and I’ve loved going to the Guggenheim. Thankfully, the stadium didn’t disappoint, either. San Mames is right up there among the best stadiums I’ve been lucky enough to visit.
GOOD: the magnificent stadium; the contrast in age and style of the Aduriz-Williams front-pairing; the beers at Singular; the stadium toilets; Bilbao
BAD; getting out of the stadium and the general human congestion around the ground; my poor Google map-reading skills