These are exciting times in Bilbao. In September 2014, the city and its new San Mamés stadium were awarded co-hosting of Euro 2020. That same month, Champions League football returned after 16 years. The previous May, flagship club Athletic qualified by claiming a creditable fourth league place behind Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, arguably the three strongest club sides in the world, able to call on the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Diego Costa.
But Athletic achieved a Champions League place while still sticking firmly to their policy of fielding Basque-only players – a policy their regional rivals, Real Sociedad of San Sebastián, abandoned in the 1980s. Moreover, while other top clubs around Spain buckle under huge debts and underachieve – Valencia, Málaga, Real Betis – Bilbao seem to go from strength to strength.
Evidence is all around them, the legendary San Mamés stadium, aka ‘The Cathedral’, being rebuilt in stages completely anew. Much more of the arena will be open to the public in 2014-15, close to its proposed full 53,000 capacity.
In June 2013, a packed house at the San Mamés had bid farewell to Spain’s most revered football ground, exactly 100 years after it opened. Great Athletic players past and present stepped onto the hallowed turf, originally shipped all the way from England, before an exhibition match between Bilbao and a Basque XI.
A century of football history in Bilbao had come full circle. In fact, it was in the 1880s and 1890s that British miners, foundry and shipyard workers, from the south coast and the north-east, began playing football around this industrious northern port. The first organised match, between an expat team and ‘Bilbao FC’, essentially expats as well, took place in 1894.
Although a game had taken place before then, in Seville, also with mainly expat workers, Bilbao is considered the cradle of the Spanish game. Young well-to-do locals, educated in England, picked up on the game, including Juan Astorquía, who in 1898 helped found what would become Athletic Club Bilbao. Though there remains no documentation of this historic deed, 1898 is the date Athletic fans stick by.
What we do know is that students of the Zamacois School and players from Bilbao FC convened at the Café García on February 5, 1901. On the agenda was the official formation of a local football club, put to paper exactly seven months later at the same venue. Located at Gran Vía 22, the café was taken over by a bank in 1918.
Until then, it was a popular meeting place for the local football fraternity. Here they would discuss matters such as the shirts Bilbao would wear – initially the blue-and-checked quarters of Blackburn, then the red-and-white stripes of Sunderland or, more likely, Southampton. A composite side of Bilbao FC and Athletic, Club Vizcaya, won the inaugural Copa de la Coronacíon, forerunner of the Copa del Rey, in 1902.
A year later, it was Athletic Bilbao, having swallowed up Bilbao FC, who set a long tradition of being cup specialists. Another tradition was fielding Basque-only players, one kept to now for over a century. While Real Madrid spend millions of euros on Bales and Ronaldos, Bilbao prefer to raise their own.
Never relegated, Los Leones have won the league eight times. English managers, starting with a ‘Mr Shepherd’ in 1910, is another Bilbao tradition – thought there hasn’t been one since Howard Kendall in 1989. It was perhaps no coincidence that England played their group games here in the 1982 World Cup – kicking off with a goal in record time by Bryan Robson.
Ultimately, though, the San Mamés, built by Basque-born Manuel María Smith in 1913, personified the long, proud history of football in Bilbao. Comprising a grandiose wooden stand, a crescent of terracing and flower beds, not to mention a playing field of English turf, the San Mamés was light years ahead of the roped-off park pitches used elsewhere in Spain at the time.
At the inaugural match, against fellow Basques Real Unión de Irún, the first goal was scored by Bilbao’s Rafael Moreno, aka Pichichi. The striker was equally revered for his bravery, having died young fighting off typhoid. To this day, the top scorer in the Spanish league is called the Pichichi – dictated by tradition established in Bilbao.
Bilbao’s transport also comprises metro and trams. An all-zone one-day pass on the metro is €4.60, single tickets €1.50-1.75 depending on how many zones are crossed. The chargeable barik travel smartcard is €3, after which fares are charged at 50%. Tram tickets are €1.45, €4 for a day. Combined tickets with the tram are only available for long-term use.
For a taxi in town, call +34 94 444 8888.
With the stadium in the city centre, there are abundant nearby hotel options. Top business choice is the four-star Hesperia Zubialde, part of the NH group, right opposite the stadium, its Fair Play bar offered as a pre- and post-match choice. Also close, in the same group, is the NH Villa de Bilbao.
In town, convenient for the city’s transport hub, the quality Sercotel Coliseo, pricy but with Sunday offers. Walking distance from the bar hub of the Casco Viejo and Abando station, the Vista Alegre is an old-school internet cheapie.
Bilbao’s old quarter, the Casco Viejo, is choc-full of bars, where beer (or cider) is served in round glasses. As the city is a gastronomic capital, the tapas here are superior. Athletic Bilbao peña bars also abound, meeting places for district supporters’ clubs, serving beer and open to all.
Typical of the genre is the Gau-Txori in Pelota Kalea in the Casco Viejo, next door to the Peña Athletic del Casco Viejo, the Old Town Supporters’ Club, recently and tastefully revamped into a stylishly themed restaurant with a bar counter.
A short walk away, Restaurante Urbieta (Del Perro Kalea 5), in similar vein, is the seat of the Peña Koldo Aguirre. In the same street, Egiluz also displays framed Athletic history, as does Rio-Oja.
Even mainstream restaurants, such as those on Plaza Nueva at the entrance to the Casco Viejo, such as Taberna Plaza Nueva and Victor Montes, are decked out in red and white.
Bilbao has pubs too, such as The Dubliners near focal Plaza Moyúa.