A sign that I saw in one of the bars in which we sheltered from the winter drizzle amidst Bilbao’s mazy and narrow streets of the Casco Viejo (Old Town), said it all:
“Dear Tourist please be aware that you aren’t in Spain, nor are you in France, you are in the Basque Country”.
It left us in doubt as to where exactly we were: a city and a country with a crystal-clear sense of its own identity, traditions and values.
Those familiar with the history and traditions of the fiercely loyal, proud and passionate Athletic Club, (at this juncture it is important to be aware that this isn’t ‘Atlético’ or even ‘Athletic Club de Bilbao’, just simply Athletic Club), are likely to be aware of their longstanding and ongoing policy of recruiting only players native to or trained in football in the Greater Basque Country. Whether you see this as an exclusive prejudicial approach or something to be admired as one of the last great bastions of endeavouring to ensure that the local club represents the local area will depend very much upon your own disposition and outlook.
Originally founded in 1902 by the merger of one club formed by British industrialist migrants drawn to the area by the iron-mines and nearby shipyards and another developed by the sons of the educated Basque classes returning from their studies in Britain, Athletic Club has grown into something that continues to represent at least a city, if not an entire region.
The fact that Athletic Club remain one of the most successful clubs in the history of the game in Spain: being one of only three teams, alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, never to have been relegated from the top division; that has won La Liga on eight occasions (the fourth most in Spanish football history); and who stand second only to the mighty Barcelona with 23 Copa del Rey triumphs; has no doubt helped to encourage their adherence to their principles of recruiting only local talent.
Even now in the money-driven world of modern football Athletic Club usually compete towards the top end of the table (currently they sit in seventh place) and qualify for European competition more often than one would expect, given their self-imposed recruitment restrictions.
In essence their strong local focus may in actual fact power their achievements. If FC Barcelona prides itself in being “mes que un club” (more than a club) Bilbao is “a city that lives for the club and where the club is the symbol of the city”. The revered old San Mamés stadium was referred to as ‘La Catedral’, while this was initially to distinguish it from the church of the same name, it latterly came to represent a ground more akin to a place of worship with the almost religious dedication of the club’s fans, more than a mere sports spectating facility.
Sadly progress, as it so often does, meant that the old spiritual home had to be sacrificed five years ago in order to allow the club to continue to compete in terms of marketability and income generation. However the fact that the ‘Nuevo San Mamés’ stands on an adjacent site and was developed while “respecting the rules of the game of Athletic Club”, in other words looking after the feelings of the club members, respecting tradition, and working in line with the values of the region, tells you so much of what you need to know about this uniquely special club.
A single visit to the new stadium will simply blow you away, it stands up there with the most recently developed new venues in any sport, the ring of corporate boxes between upper and lower tiers a source of new commercial income, yet the very structure bristles with the passion of the fans, the antithesis of the prevalent soulless concrete bowls so criticised by football traditionalists.
We originally visited Bilbao four years ago but the penchant that the powers-that-be in La Liga fixture-scheduling have for late announcements or switching kick-off times and dates at the last minute, meant that the game we had planned to go and see was moved and we had to console ourselves watching Athletic take on AZ Alkmaar in a Europa League dead rubber group stage game. Still the experience was so enjoyable that we knew we simply had to return to do it all properly.
Anyone who has ever visited Bilbao will tell you that it isn’t like the other cities that make up Spain: this isn’t the land of paella, sangria, flamenco and bull-fighting, instead it is the region of Txakoli (a slightly sparkling, dry white wine), a bemusing language all its own, and an absolute obsession with food and drink most notably the world-renowned pintxos (Basque tapas which tend to be bigger and more adventurously conceived-, the broader the selection the better). Beyond that though there is a different approach to life, something that their French neighbours would no doubt call a ‘joie de vivre’, an enjoyment of life simply for what it is.
After a couple of days of acclimatisation, (read: drinking beer and wine and eating pintxos), Saturday and matchday came around and we got proceedings underway in the only appropriate manner: by heading to the old town to bar hop and mingle with local fans. To say the place was mobbed would be an understatement, beyond those actually going to the match, there seemed to be a significant proportion of the city’s population filling the winding streets in a kind of impromptu fiesta even with kick off a good six hours away!
The most popular of the venues were any of the several ‘Peñas’– literally a members’ club for fans, but much more akin to the other bars and restaurants in the environs than how anyone from Britain would understand a supporters’ club.
Suitably refreshed, we hopped on the tram to make sure we were in time to watch Athletic’s local rivals Real Sociedad take on the mighty Barcelona in what turned out to be a surprisingly even and entertaining 2-2 draw. At half-time in that match we met Tom, a Glaswegian student teacher and similarly hopeless football obsessive, who had been so taken by the experience of watching Athletic Club that he had become something of a regular despite being based in San Sebastian the home of the aforementioned Sociedad.
The match itself against Eibar, themselves a storied Basque club given their Cinderella-esque ascension to and survival in La Liga despite the most meager resources as La Liga’s smallest club with a stadium that holds just over 8,000 (Ed’s note: Eibar is most definitely on an ever growing list of future Football Nerd on Tour destinations!), was interesting enough but the passionate home support deserved to see more of a cutting edge from their beloved side.
The most impressive performance, hardly unexpectedly, came from new star Iñaki Williams- a wide forward born in Bilbao to Ghanian immigrant parents and who, if rumours are to be believed, is very much on the radar of Liverpool, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Although his nine-year contract and €135 million release clause, should ensure that the club is protected even if he does follow the likes of: Javi Martínez, Aymeric Laporte and Ander Herrera in moving on. For that is how Athletic operate: spot and nurture young local talent, sell for big money and reinvest again; a refreshing approach in the mercenary world of modern football.
Athletic had the ball in the net in the 72nd minute thanks to an own goal from Correa, but the wild celebrations which most definitely included the missus and I, were brought to an abrupt halt by the realisation that the goal was undergoing a VAR check. In the end it was ruled out, correctly to be fair, but frustratingly to say the least. As much as we want decisions to be correct, the flow and spirit of the game are unquestionably being affected.
In the end we all had to content ourselves with accepting a draw, but there was no real sense of disappointment in the bars around the ground or in the Casco Viejo later on; instead there was a feeling of happiness at having been able to watch a team that truly represents this unique and utterly captivating city.
It is unlikely that Athletic will win the league this season, they trail Barca and Real by 9 points already, they might qualify for Europe, but you get the feeling that neither of those things really matter to the supporters as long as they can keep coming to watch their team, at their ground, in their city. For our part we know this certainly won’t be the last time we join them, as Tom said in his summary of the game “San Mamés never disappoints even if Athletic sometimes do!”