Lost in…Portugalete

Club Portugalete 1-2 Martos CD
Campo La Florida, Tercera Division Promotion Play-offs, June 14th 2015

While UK-based groundhoppers clog up my Twitter feed with end of season reflections and tentative plans for pre-season, here in Spain we are still two weeks from the 2014/15 season climax. I am in my final weeks in the Basque Country and was hoping to get in a couple of late season hops before departing, but readying yourself for an international move has a nasty habit of getting in the way.

For this past weekend, I had put together an elaborate plan involving an overnight train from San Sebastián to Lisbon, and then a connection to the Algarve for Gibraltar versus Germany. However, restrictions on time and money put paid to that trip. So, instead of Portugal, I headed to Portugalete.

Portugalete is one of the many footballing suburbs of Bilbao. It is no surprise the city’s Athletic Club is able to field a team of solely Basque players when there is so much grassroots football going on around them. For example, join me briefly on a journey along the Bilbao Metro system. We begin in Basauri, which is where Tercera Division CD Vasconia play. Moving on we pass Santutxu (also 3ª) before reaching San Mames, the home, of course, of Athletic Club. A couple of stations along, the line splits. Follow Line 1 and you will pass three more 3ª teams in Erandio, Leioa and Getxo, while Line 2 will take you to Barakaldo, Sestao (both 2ª B), Portugalete and Santurtzi (both 3ª). Line 2 therefore boasts six league clubs within a little over 30 minutes travel.

With all that choice, I don’t really have any excuses for why it has taken me so long to get out the suburbs of Bilbao. The season is deep into added time now, but we all know that late goals are among the most satisfying, and fortunately that was to be the case on this trip.

Club Portugalete was founded in 1909. Most of their long history has been spent in the Tercera Division or in the Basque regional leagues. They did spend the 2005/06 season in the Segunda B and now have the chance to once again reach Spain’s third tier if they can successfully negotiate the mammoth Tercera Division Promotion Play-offs.

The Tercera is comprised of 381 teams playing across 18 groups and 72 of them get the chance of promotion in the play-offs. The first stage sees the 18 group winners face off to decide the first nine promoted teams. Portugalete won Group 4, but lost out at this first stage to Talavera. Meanwhile the other top four finishers across the 18 groups- 54 teams in total- also played off. The 27 winners were joined in the next stage by the nine losing first stage teams in a competition that will eventually be whittled down to a further nine promoted teams. Confused?

I began my journey on the 8:30am bus to Bilbao. After a transfer onto the Bilbao Metro, I arrived in Portugalete just under two hours later, with an hour to go before kick-off. The red and white stripes of Athletic were prominently displayed on the balconies of Portugalete, but a few bars and cafes were flying the black and yellow stripes of the local team and a few patrons were in their similarly-patterned shirts ready for the match.

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I took a wrong turn on my way to the ground, but it was worth it for the wonderful view back to Bilbao and across the Basque Country that my iPhone was barely able to do justice. My Google Maps app proved to be more useful and I eventually made it to the ground in good time.

Bilbao and the Basque Country

Bilbao and the Basque Country

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The clubhouse shutter was down at the Campo La Florida, but the ticket boxes were open and there were plenty of black and yellow-clad fans buying their entry. La Florida makes a good first impression. Firstly, there are black and yellow striped walls around the outside the ground. Inside, there’s a long, single stand and stalls well-stocked with food, drink and club merchandise. The grass looked especially green on this sunny, early summer morning. I took a seat opposite the main stand on the shaded concrete steps.

The full spectrum of football fans were out for the game, from the hipster with the ‘Against Modern Football’ t-shirt to the young lad with the Athletic Club-Barcelona, half-and-half scarf. As I sat among these fans, pondering how likely it was that the low pitch-side wall would cause a serious injury, I saw something I would never have expected to find out in the suburbs of Bilbao: a familiar red dragon on a white and green background.

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The Welsh flag demanded more attention, so I headed over to behind the goal to try and find its owner. That turned out to be Jon, a Swansea native who has lived in ‘Portu’ for over a decade and I ended up watching the game with him. His friends generously kept us in beer as we shared mutual acquaintances and rejoiced in Wales’ victory over Belgium two days earlier.

Portugalete were 3-0 up from the first leg, but were showing some early nerves. It wasn’t a surprise when Martos’ #9 opened the scoring. He had already shown a few nice touches and now he beat his man and finished well from a tight angle just in front of us. Portugalete soon calmed down and their #11 equalised before the break with an excellent curling free-kick.

The teams come out

The teams come out

The main stand

The main stand

Enjoying the shade

Enjoying the shade

Martos on the attack

‘Portu’ on the attack

As half-time approached, our little group got chatting with the Martos club photographer. He and his group of 20-30 away fans had travelled overnight from Jaen in Andalusia. The journey, if I understood correctly had begun at midnight and they had arrived in Portugalete around 9am, which was showing excellent commitment to the cause.

The long return journey would probably be an enjoyable if Martos were able to find the three goals they needed to progress. Their attacked intendedly, but that left plenty of space for the Portugalete forwards. Still, Martos did get one back around the 75-minute mark with another free-kick, this one being rolled to the #10 to blast home. The home keeper made one outstanding save, but when he was eventually beaten again, the referee ruled the goal out, and one of the Martos substitutes earned a red card for his protestations. Portugalete had plenty of chances to make the game safe, their #14 and #15 especially enjoying the extra space being afforded them. Martos introduced a very young-looking substitute goalkeeper and three times he was rounded, but the home side were unable to finish.

It had been a very open and entertaining second half, but there were no more goals. Portugalete had a 4-2 aggregate win and were in the draw for the final promotion round. At the final whistle, kids ran on to the field and took the chance to play on the grass and experience that wonderful feeling of putting the ball in the big nets, while we joined the mini-pitch invasion for a photo opportunity.

A Welsh pitch invasion

A Welsh pitch invasion

Jon invited me to dinner and I joined him and his sons for good pizza and coffee down on the waterfront of the Nervion River, in the shadow of Portugalete’s most famous sight. The 120-year old transporter bridge is the Basque Country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was looking good in the day’s blue skies.

El Puente Colgante

El Puente Colgante

Portugalete transporter bridge

Portugalete transporter bridge

The town hall are getting behind the team

The town hall are getting behind the team

We said our goodbyes and I headed back towards Bilbao and eventually San Sebastian. Gernika and Arenas de Getxo also made it into the final play-off round, meaning Basque teams will be involved right up to the end of June. Hopefully I’ll make it to one of three home games before I get on the train to head back north. If not, this was a very worthwhile way to end my season in the Basque Country.

GOOD: Nice little ground and a decent turnout; two (TWO!) direct free-kick goals in one game; the hospitality of Jon and family and the other Portugalete fans. 

BAD: Nothing really (even the annoying Sunday evening bus schedule allowed me an impromptu visit to the Guggenheim Museum). 

One thought on “Lost in…Portugalete

  1. Pingback: Lost in…The Basque Country (and beyond): A 2014/15 Review | Lost Boyos

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