Is there a club more inextricably linked to its region than FC Barcelona? Well, the answer is an emphatic “Yes”. Travel to Vizcaya and you will see that potent symbol of Basque pride, Athletic Club de Bilbao doubling up as the national side. Maybe it is the language, the region’s political aspirations or La Cantera, the club’s strictly Basque-only policy. Whatever it is, the followers of Athletic generate a fervour that is unequalled throughout the whole of Spain. At the centre of that intensity was the fans place of worship, the magnificent San Mamés Stadium. So it seems only appropriate that the stadium also went by the name of La Catedral.
Bilbao was one of the first cities in Spain to witness football, when in the early 1890’s British miners & foundry workers, in the city during its industrial expansion, amazed the locals with their footballing frolics. On 3 May 1894, the best of these workers played a team made up of students who had picked up the game whilst at university in England. One of these students, Juanito Astorquia was to head a committee that four years later formed Athletic Club. Now Athletic celebrated its centenary in 1998, but technically the current club did not come into being until 11 June 1901, when it merged with Bilbao Football Club.
Bizcaya Athletic Club as it was known following the merger, played its first matches at the Campo Santa Eugenia in the northern suburb of Getxo. A year later they moved south to Leioa and the Campo Lamiaco that was to remain their home for eight years. In 1910, Athletic (They dropped “Bizcaya” in 1903) moved again, back to Getxo and the Campo Jolaseta in the district of Neguri. Around this time, the club also switched from their original blue & white colours to their now famous red & white stripes. The National Copa competition was in its infancy and Basque clubs dominated those early years and it was following their fourth victory in the cup in 1911 that Athletic decided to build a new ground. They chose fields at the end of the Gran Via, close to the Casa de Misericordia, a building still stands today. At the time it was an orphanage and homeless refuge which had been built on the site of a hermitage where the saint and martyr Mammes de Cesarea was venerated, hence San Mamés.
It speaks volumes of the stature of Athletic that they were prepared to build a stadium like San Mamés. At a cost of 89,000 pesetas, it was the first major purpose-built stadium in Spain. For their money, Athletic got a magnificently ornate red & white wooden stand that sat atop a grass bank. In front was a narrow strip of terracing, either end of which were flower beds. Opposite the main stand was a crescent-shaped wedge of terracing, a shape that the current east stand still follows. The 10,000 capacity was completed by thin strips of terracing behind each goal. It took seven months in total to build and saw its first match on 21 August 1913 when Cup-holders Racing de Irun was held to a 1-1 draw. Fittingly, Rafael Moreno or “Pichichi” who is probably the club’s most famous and certainly most iconic player, scored the first goal at the stadium. A treble of wins in the Copa occurred between 1914-16, before Athletic secured another win, their eighth, in the 1921 cup-final, the only one ever staged at San Mamés. Later that year, on 7 October, Spain played their first ever international on “home” soil, beating Belgium by two goals to nil.
Pichichi, whose goals had propelled Athletic to the top of the Spanish game, tragically died in 1922 and four years later the club erected a bust of the great striker at the back of the north terrace. It became a tradition for clubs making their first visit to the stadium, to lay a bouquet at the foot of the bust. The bust was moved to the main stand in 1953 when the north terrace was redeveloped and relocated again in 1982 when San Mamés underwent further work for the WC’82. It is now housed in the President’s box and the tradition of visiting teams placing flowers at its base continues. Pichichi’s legacy lives on and since the early 1950s, the season’s top scorer in La Primera wins the Pichichi trophy.
The loss of Pichichi was a great shock and although they won the Copa in 1923, it took a further seven years before they were to win another trophy. That trophy was the club’s first La Liga title, achieved thanks to a remarkable unbeaten 1929-30 campaign. What followed was the club’s next golden era. Between 1930 & 1936 the club won four La Liga titles and was victorious in the cup on four occasions. All of this was achieved under the stewardship of English coach Fred Pentland. Curiously, despite Athletic’s strict adherence to La Cantera, they appear to have never given a second thought about employing an overseas or Spanish coach. Up to the Civil War, Athletic was undoubtedly the most successful club in Spain. The club continued to achieve after the war, despite the government’s intolerance towards “wayward” regions. Powered by the goals of Telmo Zarra, the club won its fifth La Liga and three Copas from 1943-45. Madrid’s power and influence was growing, however, both in political and footballing terms. Trophies had become fewer and league positions lower and with the club refusing to lift La Cantera, focus turned to the ageing San Mamés stadium.
Little had changed at San Mamés in the intervening years. The main stand had been extended with the addition of wings, terracing behind the goals had also been increased and a large propped cover was erected over the north terrace. The crescent-shaped East Terrace had also received a makeover, but it was no longer the leading stadium in Spain and was dwarfed in terms of size by stadiums in Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla. Athletic, however, faced a problem. The fields that had surrounded San Mamés had long been swallowed up by Bilbao’s urban sprawl making it impossible to redevelop in the way that Real Madrid or Sevilla had done. So, Athletic focussed on rebuilding their main stand and went for a form of roof construction that was new to stadium design – a giant arch. To start with, two five-storey screening blocks were built, on top of which sat the huge steel arch. Beneath the arch, a flat roof hung over a 12,000 seat double-decker stand. Work began in February 1952 and took just over a year to complete. The San Mamés arch quickly became a popular image in Spanish football, while on match days the supporting corner blocks, which now featured balconies, would be crammed with supporters – a sort of 1950’s private box!
The south and north ends of the stadium were developed between 1954-58. Each featured a two-tiered stand, the roofs of which were supported by props. The stands were irregularly shaped due to the surrounding streets, whilst the south-east corner continued the balcony theme with a narrow crescent-shaped construction that featured five tiers of palcos or booths. This was linked to the new east stand in the early 1970s, which followed the shape of the old curved east terrace. Again, this was a double-deck stand with a supported flat roof. With little room remaining, floodlights had to be mounted on squat little gantries atop of the corner blocks and along the roof of the new east stand. San Mamés was now totally enclosed and a veritable lion’s den, which considering that St. Mammes had been thrown to the lions, seemed entirely appropriate. You can watch the development of San Mamés from its opening to its final day on the fantastic CGI video.
The rebuilding of San Mamés took 20 years to complete and whilst the club continued to produce many great footballers from their academy or quarry (Fans joked that such was the strength of Athletic players, they must be chiselled from the rock of a local quarry), in truth the club rarely competed at the top. Whilst the league was won in 1955-56 followed by the first taste of European football a year later, it was the Copa del Rey that remained Athletic’s forte. The trophy was won a total of five times between 1955 and 1973, with the club finishing runners-up on a further two occasions. League form improved in the 1970s and Athletic made regular appearances in Europe, reaching the final of the UEFA Cup in 1976, losing out to Juventus on away goals in a two-legged final. It was the league title, however, that the fans craved and they wouldn’t have long to wait, but first of all, San Mamés was about to undergo another remodelling.
The stadium was chosen to host three group games in the 1982 World Cup and the redevelopment would see the main stand link up with two new double-decker stands at either end. Athletic were adamant that the arch should remain, but since it was held up by the huge corner blocks, another way of supporting the arch had to be found before the blocks and their balconies were demolished. The conundrum was resolved with a brilliant piece of engineering. First, cantilevered brackets were inserted into the back of the stand underneath each end of the arch. Then, as massive cranes took the whole weight of the arch and the roof, the corner blocks were demolished. The new brackets were then edged into position to accept the weight of the arch and its roof. Throughout the whole process, the roof and arch were in danger of buckling and sensors were needed to ensure that the new concrete was at the correct temperature throughout. When the process was finally complete and the arch was resting on its new supports, it was found that the whole structure had shifted only 5mm. An incredible feat.
Whilst the main stand was undergoing major surgery, work continued on the north and south stands. These were basically cantilevered versions of the earlier structures, but with more seating and brighter. Both were clad with moulded white roofs and were illuminated from the rear by windows that ran from the main stand to the east side. The east stand got a new roof and seating was installed in the lower tier. The original stumpy floodlight gantries were removed and new floodlights were installed along the roofs of the main and east stand. The new San Mamés had a raised capacity of 46,000, of which 36,000 were seated, but it came at cost of 1,100 million pesetas. Not that the fans worried too much about the cost as the refurbished La Catedral inspired Athletic to win back to back league titles in 1982-83 & 83-84. The Copa del Rey was also secured in 1984, with an infamous victory over Barcelona. Now we all like to watch a good fight and believe me, this is a good fight.
That victory in the 1984 Copa del Rey was Athletic’s last major trophy. Coaches & players have come and gone and every so often the supporters hopes are raised of another great Athletic side but to no avail. Three runners-up spots, one in the league and two in the cup, and an appearance in the final of the Europa Cup are as good as it has got in the last 28 years. Old arguments resurface about La Cantera and it does seem that the club has a slightly more flexible approach to “Basque-ness”, but in essence, the club is an anachronism. Perfectly suited to the first half of the twentieth century, but unlikely to ever compete at that level again. What of San Mamés? Well, there is no denying the fact that the arch dominated the stadium. Until the arrival of the Guggenheim Museum, it was Bilbao’s most recognisable architectural feature. Unsurprisingly, this type of structure has not been repeated, although different ways of supporting a roof with an arch can be found at Wembley and Durban. It was one of my favourite places to watch a match and the atmosphere is particularly intense for the Basque derby against Real Sociedad or when Real Madrid come to town.
In 2006, the club announced plans to build a new stadium on land between the Rio Nevrion and the back of the west stand. The world financial crisis offered San Mamés a stay of execution, but work started in May 2010 on the €211m, 55,000 capacity stadium. Alas, the new stadium will not feature an arch and from the plans, does look rather formulaic. Once complete, the old stadium will make way for a new residential area. The arch was dismantled and taken to the Ciudad Deportiva de Lezama, the club’s training complex where it now stands resplendent as the main centrepiece at the redeveloped B Team arena. The new stadium, also called San Mamés, may not have the distinctive features of the old stadium, but Athletic can count on one thing. The club’s fanatical supporters will remain defenders of the faith at the new cathedral.
The last official match took place on 26 May 2013, with Levante spoiling the party and capping a disappointing last season for Athletic at the old stadium, by snatching a late winner. However, Athletic Club is more than the result of just one match, and San Mamés was much, much more than a just football stadium.