San Mames destroyed

Centenary of history turns to rubble

July 18, 2013
By Duncan McMath, Spain correspondent

1913: one year before the outbreak of World War 1, King George V was on the throne, suffragette Emily Davidson threw herself under the king's horse and died, crisps were first introduced in the UK, Bill Shankly was born, Sunderland won the First Division in England and Athletic Club de Bilbao's San Mames stadium was built.

San Mames Stadium Athletic Bilbao
GettyImagesSan Mames is the oldest stadium in La Liga

Exactly 100 years later and George V's granddaughter has been on the throne for 51 years, women have had the vote for 95 years, Bill Shankly became one of the greatest football managers of all time, we eat six billion packets of crisps a year, Sunderland narrowly avoided relegation to the Second Division, now called the Championship, and Athletic Club de Bilbao's San Mames stadium has just been demolished.

It was La Liga's oldest ground, ever present from day one of Spain's Primera Division. Only three teams have never been relegated - Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona and Real Madrid, but only one stadium has lived and breathed every single season of first division football in Spain since the league began in 1929. San Mames.

But with young fans on a long waiting list for season tickets, and bigger and better stadia sprouting up all over Spain, the Athletic Club board decided the time had come to replace San Mames with an upgraded model and building work began on the new stadium in May 2010, just over the road.

Like many Spanish football enthusiasts with too much time on their hands, I went on a pilgrimage to Bilbao in May to take one last look at Athletic's 100-year-old home. There were still two weeks of the season remaining and while the builders hadn't yet brought in the wrecking ball, the new stadium was very much underway.

To avoid ground-sharing, two thirds of the stadium will be completed this summer but the final stand won't be built until the end of the season. So Athletic will play home games in a horseshoe arena for the entire 2013-2014 campaign.

The elaborate plan for the new San Mames means that come Sunday August 25, Athletic will, fingers crossed, be ready to host their first home game of the new season in their new ground - against local rivals Osasuna. It should be quite an occasion.

Whether the atmosphere will be the same in a three-stand stadium remains to be seen, but the fans are determined to make the new San Mames as daunting and noisy a fortress to visit as the last one was. Unlike most stadia in Spain, San Mames is famed for an electrifying atmosphere. It's often full to the rafters and the fans sing, shout and generally make a racket throughout games.

"There is a very special atmosphere here, this stadium has something unique - the colour of the grass, the smell, the noise you hear down on the pitch, how the fans get behind the team - everyone in this stadium makes such a noise and that really surprises people." I was speaking to Asier Arrate the director of the club's museum, who admitted to being devastated that the old stadium he'd grown up visiting every two weeks was to be torn down.

Athletic Bilbao fans get into the spirit ahead of the kick-off
AssociatedAthletic Bilbao fans have given San Mames what has been described as an 'English atmosphere'

The noise, the buzz and the high attendance are all things that have given San Mames the reputation of having an English-like atmosphere, but as Arrate told me, the club has much more in common with English football than loud fans.

"Athletic have always looked to England as an example, ever since the beginning. It's a very English club and in fact, in the statutes they wrote that they wanted to 'create a club in the image of an English club'. The name, Athletic Club, is also English."

And the comparisons don't end there.

"When they built San Mames they used an English grass seed for the pitch and the shirts were also from England. You have to take into account the context - when this club was founded at the end of the 19th century, it was the time of the Industrial Revolution so there were a lot of English engineers here helping to build the mines. They introduced us to football and it soon took off. England has always been an example for us and San Mames certainly has an English feel to it."

In the 1920s San Mames became known as la Catedral (the Cathedral), a nickname that would seem to depict a quiet and solemn place rather than a frenzied din, but it's a name that has stuck. There are a number of theories as to how it came about but Arrate told me about the one that's considered most likely.

"When they built San Mames, Athletic had one of the best teams this club has ever seen, and between 1910 and 1920 they went on a great run winning three Copas del Rey on the bounce and three regional championships. They went five years without losing a single game here. So it's said that playing at San Mames was like a religious experience, they believed there was something mystical about this stadium, hence the Cathedral," explained the museum director and lifelong Athletic fan.

"Also, before 1913 there used to be a chapel stood on this piece of land, so it went from being a chapel to a cathedral due to the amount of people that would come to the stadium!"

While in the Basque Country I also interviewed Iker Muniain, an immensely talented young midfielder who will shoulder a lot of the responsibility next season following the exits of Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente over the last 12 months. After discussing that pressure and his hopes for a less stressful campaign this season, the conversation switched to San Mames and the youngster's eyes lit up.

"The moment you walk out of the tunnel, you immediately understand why it's so special," the 20-year-old said, speaking from the heart. "I've played in many different stadia and I'm not just saying this because I'm an Athletic player, because anyone who comes here would say the same - you only have to be here, to be down there on the pitch and you can feel that this stadium is different. Playing here is something that I will treasure forever."

I'm pretty sure he meant it. Muniain is young but you can tell he loves what he does. Only this week the midfielder returned three days early to pre-season training. After helping the Spain under-21 side to victory in Israel he had been given some extra days holiday, but the youngster missed his team-mates and was keen to get stuck in.

Fernando Llorente
AssociatedAthletic Bilbao's Europa League win over Manchester United will be one of their most coveted

I asked Muniain to pick the best game he'd ever seen or played at San Mames and he didn't have to think for a second. "The game against Manchester United," he shot back. "It was an unbelievable match and we managed to knock them out of the Europa League. We knocked out Manchester United! It was unreal and the fans were beside themselves. It was a wonderful moment."

I posed the same question to Athletic's oldest and most famous fan Jesus Arrizabalaga - he's been attending la Catedral religiously since 1943, he wears a huge txapela, or Basque beret and always gets on camera at any home game - and I got a different answer. "The most exciting time was the 1983/84 season when we won the double with Javier Clemente as manager. I can't tell you how brilliant it was, I couldn't put it into words."

And when I asked Arrate, who's been a season ticket holder since the sixties, he couldn't pick out one game or one season in particular. "I've seen this team win league titles here, I've seen them get to the final of the cup in a penalty shoot-out, I've seen them avoid relegation with a goal in the last minute, I've seen a goal from a corner, I've seen people cry with sadness and cry with happiness. I've seen so much."

It is the end of an era and it is sad to see such an historic stadium flattened to the ground. But, unlike so many football clubs who have put money ahead of fans, leaving city centres to build new stadia on cheaper land, Athletic have done all they can to make the transition as painless as possible.

The stadium is only moving 50 metres and the fans will be able to stick to their traditional pre-match rituals: the same local bars will be full of the same fans before and after games and season ticket holders will be in the same area of the ground, in the same row, surrounded by the same people.

The players will be hoping that one more tradition remains as it was, and the atmosphere inside the Cathedral of Spanish football is just as raucous, intense and goose pimple-inducing as it ever was at the old San Mames.