“Bilbao without San Mames would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower,” said former France and Athletic Bilbao midfielder Luis Fernandez recently, contemplating the last days of the stadium where he once played and coached.
In this the year of its 100th anniversary, the legendary stadium is about to close its doors once and for all. The famous arena will host its last league game this Sunday before bidding a final farewell at the start of June with a special tribute match between Athletic Bilbao and a regional representative team.
After that the stadium that was graced by greats such as Rafael Pichichi Moreno, Telmo Zarra, Jose Angel Iribar and Dani, where Iker Casillas made his Spanish league debut and which Diego Armando Maradona once described as the most beautiful in the land, will be no more.
By next season Athletic will have taken up residence at the new San Mames, a modern and functional stadium built partly on the site of its predecessor and which will seek to keep alive its mystique and charm, qualities that once prompted Pep Guardiola to comment: “It’s such an intense place and the fans get so involved and so passionate that everything seems to happen not once but twice.”
Like Europe’s other great footballing temples, San Mames’ packed stands made it a fortress that inspired respect from visiting players, among them former Real Madrid star Michel, who has made many trips there as both player and coach: “Anfield? There’s nothing that hits you more than being in the tunnel at San Mames and hearing the club anthem. It’s a unique experience.”
Founded in 1898, Athletic played their early games at a racecourse in Lamiako, in the outskirts of Bilbao, which English workers at the shipyards on the River Nervion had adopted as their football pitch. Yet as the game grew in popularity and matches began to attract ever-larger crowds, the club’s directors started looking for a more suitable site closer to the city.
They found one at Jolaseta, complete with a roofed stand, and it was there that Athletic Club played their home games until December 1912, when it was decided at a board meeting that a new stadium should be built on a leased site in the Bilbao suburbs, close to church of San Mames.
The church provided the club both with a name for the stadium and the team’s nickname of Los Leones (The Lions), for St Mammes – to give him his English name – was a Christian martyr who was thrown to the lions by the Romans and survived the ordeal by taming them.
Construction work began in early 1913 and was overseen by the celebrated architect Manuel Maria Smith, who designed a box-shaped, English-style stadium with a capacity of 3,500.
The new arena staged its first game on 21 August that year, with Athletic Club hosting Spanish champions Racing Club de Irun, and it saw its first goal just five minutes into that inaugural match. The scorer was Pichichi, who with that goal triggered the legend of his striking prowess.
Athletic fans took the striker to their hearts and though typhus tragically cut short his life at the age of 29, they continue to pay tribute to him today. His bust stands at the entrance to the stadium’s executive seating area, and whenever a team plays at the San Mames for the first time, the visiting captain lodges a bunch of flowers on the wall next to it.
Connoisseurs of the game
It was during the first few decades of its existence that the stadium became known as La Catedral, the name fans gave it to distinguish it from the nearby church. The nickname stuck, to such an extent in fact that the 100-year-old stadium is regarded by football fans across Spain as the cathedral of Spanish football.
It has attained that status thanks in the main to the sporting behaviour of its fans, who have long had a reputation for applauding visiting teams and players whenever they produce memorable performances. One opposing player to receive an ovation from the Bilbao faithful on more than one occasion is Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez. “I’m very grateful to the fans at San Mames,” he once said. “They’ve always treated me very well there and it gives you goose bumps when they applaud you.”
Through its 100 years the much-loved stadium has undergone a number of modifications, which have increased its capacity to 40,000. While all the stands have been refurbished at some stage or other, the most significant of these modifications came in 1953, when a group of architects were given the brief of redesigning the main stand. In a pioneering project that gave the stadium its current appearance, they covered the stand with the largest concrete roof in Europe and topped it with an arch that would become San Mames’ most distinctive feature.
Such is the symbolic importance of the arch that the club’s board of directors announced that it would be removed prior to the stadium’s demolition and relocated elsewhere in the Basque country as a memorial to the old San Mames.
The only stadium to stage matches in each and every Spanish league season since the inception of La Liga in 1929, the legendary San Mames has welcomed the best teams in world football. The last club to run out there will be Levante this Sunday, when Athletic fans will pack the famous ground to the rafters one last time.
Rojiblanco captain Carlos Gurpegui is well aware it will be no ordinary Sunday: “I don’t know how we’re going to react when the referee blows the final whistle. It’s going to be very emotional.”
The new San Mames – construction of which began with the depositing of a box containing a tile from the facade of La Catedral and a piece of turf from the pitch – is waiting in the wings. The task that awaits it is to match the aura and appeal of a stadium that current Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa described as “a box filled with a feeling that will resonate and echo forever”.