The Estadio San Mamés is renowned worldwide as a truly iconic sporting venue, and it is truly refreshing that Athletic Bilbao are reverentially aware of their history and heritage. But who was San Mamés? Saint Mammes was a third century Christian child martyr thrown to the lions by the Romans at Caesarea with his parents Theodotus and Rufina.
The San Mamés was opened in 1913 and will be celebrating its centenary by being pulled down in favour of the new San Mamés Barria stadium being built next to the current stadium on the site of the Bilbao International Trade Fair. Costing a reported 160 million Euros, the new edifice with have 53,000 seats and Athletic will move in to the initially three sided ground for the start of the 2013/14 season. The old San Mamés will be pulled down and then the fourth side will be constructed.
The current ground is steeped in history, substantially renovated for the 1982 World Cup by Manuel Maria Smith, it has seen some great occasions in world football. It is held in such esteem the nickname of “La Catedral” seems wholly appropriate. The statue of Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, “Pichichi” scorer of the first goal at San Mamés and a prodigious scorer in his career watches over the turf he graced with such skill. Though he had a short life, dying at the age of 30 from suspected typhus, Moreno is revered through the Basque region and the country as a whole. His nickname is given to the leading goalscorer award in the Spanish League each season and it is something of a tradition on European nights that the visiting captain lays flowers at the statue of Pichichi. It is said the gift will be rewarded with a good season and plenty of goals. The club’s rich history is admirably mapped out in the superb museum, voices and images of the past from the greats like Rafael Moreno, Iribar, Dani and Exteberria loom large over this season’s underachieving squad.
The Bilbao team that wowed Europe last season has broken down, players have left and star striker Fernando Llorente has been at loggerheads with the club all season and barely played. Their abject performance in the Europa League Group I against the likes of Lyon and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona has meant tonight’s game against Sparta Prague is meaningless, the hosts already out and the visitors safely through to the next stage.
Llorente is picked and given the captains armband, but his every touch is greeted with derision by the home crowd. “San Mamés divorces Llorente” screams El Correo the following morning. Llorente is pulled off at half-time along with Iker Muniain, Spain’s enfant terrible from their implosive Olympic football tournament campaign. Muniain, dubbed “the Spanish Messi”, having scant impression on a poor first half.
The second half is played out and it is the visitors that should have won, some profligate finishing on several occasions meaning the game ends in a drab 0-0 draw.
It is a shame that the San Mamés’ last European encounter was such poor fair, a decent and noisy crowd of 30,000 had paid a minimum of 38 Euros (unless you are a Socio) to witness the match.
The stadium empties and the famous arch of San Mamés glows in the night sky, it should survive the demolition. Unlike the ignominious demise of Wembley’s Twin Towers the arch is planned to be used as a footbridge over the Nervión, supporter’s wishes of its incorporation into the new stadium could not be accommodated but at least it will live on.
Despite a dull game, this visit will live long in the memory. Rarely have I been to a city where its football club means so much. Shutters are painted red and white, flags flutter on balconies, sun baked pennants adorn the walls of cafes and bars. This truly is more than a football club, it’s a cultural identity, Athletic are still fervently in favour of their Basque only player policy and they should be commended for their stance. Athletic is Bilbao, the blood that moves its body.
Athletic Bilbao (0)0 AC Sparta Prague (0)0
13.Raúl Mateos; 2.Gaizka Toquero; 28.Jonás Ramalho; 6.Mikel San José; 26.Igor Martínez; 8.Ander Iturraspe; 16.Ismail López; 19.Iker Muniain; 22.Xabier Castillo; 9.Fernando Llorente(c); 36.Aymeric Laporte.
Subs: 1.Gorka Iraizoz; 3.Jon Aurtenetxe; 11.Ibai Gómez; 20.Aritz Aduriz (for 19,46 mins); 23.Borja Ekiza; 39.Erik Morán (for 9,46 mins); 40.Álvaro Peña (for 2,46 mins).
1.Marek Cech; 4.Ondrej Svejdík; 19.Matej Hybs; 20.Tomas Zápotocny; 22.Josef Husbauer; 16.Pavel Kaderábek; 25.Mario Holek; 24. Vlastimil Vidlicka; 8.Marek Matejovsky(c); 11.Leonard Kweuke; 17.Jiri Skalák.
Subs: 9.Bekim Balaj (for 11,82 mins); 14.Václav Kadlec (for 16,69 mins); 26.Milan Jirásek; 27.Roman Polom; 31.Tomas Vaclík; 32.Adam Janos (for 8,87 mins); 37.Peter Grajicar.
Yellow cards: Zápotocny and Kadlec (Sparta)