“A Bilbao without San Mamés would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
These were the words of former Athletic Bilbao coach Luis Fernandez. Up until very recently these words were little more than a tongue-in-cheek comment. But now that Athletic Bilbao have played their last game at San Mamés and are moving away from the stadium in which they have played for a hundred years, it seems as though Bilbao will never be the same again.
When Athletic Bilbao beat Real Mallorca 2-1 in May, 40,000 Athletic supporters were sent to a state of pure bliss. The win not only meant that they were safe but also the fact that their new stadium will showcase top-flight football in its inaugural year.
Athletic are one of only three clubs - Real Madrid and Barcelona are the other two - to have never been relegated from La Liga. Although the last match at the San Mamés ended in defeat, supporters still stayed back, long after the game got over and gave the stadium the farewell it deserved.
San Mamés has a rich history, which will ensure that its glory is not forgotten anytime soon.
Built in 1913, it was the first purpose-built stadium in Spain and all it took was a mere seven months to build a structure that lasted for a century.
Even when it all began, Athletic were a club that was run by the socios (members), who helped build the stadium and still run the club to this day. For Athletic fans, this is not a stadium, but a place of worship. So much so, that it was nicknamed La Catedral (the cathedral), due to its proximity to the Saint Mammes Church. The club symbolises the word authentic, because even the match programme is written in Euskara (ancestral Basque language) first and only then in Spanish.
Athletic Bilbao's place in Spanish football history is assured thanks to their eight league titles, which makes them the fourth most successful club in Spain after Real, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
But that is not the only reason the club will be remembered. Because a trip to San Mamés gives a glimpse of how rich and ancient the place is. The stadium stands out like an ancient relic, which acts as a shrine to Bilbao and an emblem of the city’s identity.
On a match day, the whole city is painted red and white (the club's official colours) and even the napkins in coffee shops are adorned with the club crest and the words “Aupa Athletic” (go Athletic). There is a certain energy in the air and everybody in the stadium knows that Athletic aren't just a club, but a way of life.
For the Basques, Athletic are a source of local pride and the fans, for their part, understand that the shift to a new stadium was inevitable and they will be there, to stand by their team, wherever they play. And although the new stadium might hold over 53,000 people, an ancient relic, a symbol of the city is now lost forever.
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