LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Athletic Bilbao

Cathedral built on quarry policy and cup custom

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Never-relegated Athletic Bilbao echo the origins of the Spanish game and act as a figurehead of Basque pride. Fielding only Basque players, Bilbao have lifted the Spanish title eight times and the cup more than 20.

Only three clubs have been more successful in La Liga than Athletic Bilbao, and only one in the Copa del Rey, Barcelona. 

But Los Leones, ‘The Lions’, are not trapped by history. Brave enough to knock down the century-old San Mamés stadium and build a new one alongside, opened in 2013, Bilbao were finalists in the Europa League the year before. 

Foreign inspiration has always been paramount. Seeing British workers play football in the late 1800s, local students founded Anglo-sounding Athletic. Sporting the red-and-white striped shirts of Southampton (or possibly Sunderland), Bilbao headed the Spanish game in the early 1900s. Their status was assured with the opening of the grand San Mamés in 1913. The first goal at ‘La Catedral’ was scored by Rafael Moreno, aka ‘Pichichi’, who unwittingly lent his name to the award for Spain’s annual top scorer.

Bilbao dominated the Spanish Cup then, in the 1930s under pioneering English coaches Fred Pentland and Willy Garbutt, the new Spanish League.

Despite Franco forcing a name change to the more Hispanic ‘Atlético’, Bilbao continued to shine in the 1940s. Forwards Zarra, Panizo and Agustin Gainza won silverware at home and led Spain to fourth place in the 1950 World Cup. Six times Pichichi, Zarra bagged 251 league goals, a record only broken in recent seasons.

After the double win of 1956, Bilbao entered the European Cup, beating Honvéd in Brussels in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising. It was the last time Puskás and company played for their home side.

After losing 6-5 to the Busby Babes, Basque-only Bilbao found it hard to compete at home with stars such as Puskás and Kocsis at Real Madrid and Barcelona. Bilbao were always difficult to beat – particularly with José Ángel Iribar in goal – but saw little silverware.

A Basque revival came after Franco’s death in 1975, newly renamed Athletic making the UEFA Cup Final in 1977. While Basque rivals Sociedad began hiring foreign stars, Bilbao dug in. Under Javier Clemente, Athletic won consecutive titles in 1983 and 1984, albeit with an aggressive defence personified by Andoni Goikoetxea, the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’. His hatchet job on Diego Maradona nearly ended the Argentine’s career, and led to a brawl at the 1984 cup final.

Amid a succession of big-name foreign managers – Guus Hiddink, Jupp Heynckes, Howard Kendall – French World Cup star Luis Fernandez took Bilbao to second place in the league in 1998. Joined by the club’s first French Basque, Bixente Lizarazu, striker Ismael Urzaiz netted chances created by precocious midfielder Julen Guerrero, offered a record salary to stay at the San Mamés.

Athletic dipped with Guerrero’s emotional retirement but gained praise by fielding Basque-Angolan Jonás Ramalho, the club’s first mixed-race player.

Under brave, progressive coach Marcelo Bielsa, and with ‘Lion King’ Fernando Llorente, Bilbao impressed in the 2011-12 Europa League, beating Manchester United in cavalier fashion at Old Trafford and Schalke in Gelsenkirchen. They then fell to Falcao and Atlético Madrid in the final – and to Barcelona in the cup final soon afterwards.

Contractual disputes clouded the 2012-13 season but Bilbao bounced back in 2013-14 under ex-Athletic player Ernesto Valverde. Never out of the top six all season, Bilbao scored a memorable victory over Barcelona to rise to fourth in December, and stayed there right until May. 

Over the course of the campaign, the club only had partial use of the new San Mamés Stadium, some 35,000 squeezed for home games instead of the 53,000 when it was fully complete a year later.

Four thousand-plus fans descended en masse to Madrid for the game at Rayo Vallecano in May 2014 that saw Bilbao achieve that hallowed fourth place. Their pre-match tickertape display held up kick-off for 15 minutes. Two were carted off to hospital when Óscar de Marcos rushed, Tardelli-style, over to the Bilbao sector on the half-hour, supporters spilling over each other to celebrate his second goal. A free-kick from young prospect Ander Herrera in the second half sealed the deal.

Despite Herrera’s sale to Manchester United, Athletic beat Napoli in the play-off round to qualify for the Champions League group stage in 2014-15, a fitting fixture for the full unveiling of the new San Mamés. Equally appropriately, it was Aritz Aduriz, in his third spell at the club, who hit two second-half goals in front of a 49,000 crowd to sink Napoli in the second leg after the Basques had fallen behind.

Following a poor showing in the group stage, Bilbao fell to Torino in the Europa League by the odd aggregate goal in nine, an early strike in Turin coming from promising young striker Iñaki Williams. The son of Ghanian migrants who first settled in Pamplona, Williams was given his Basque Christian name after the charity worker from Bilbao who had helped his newly arrived parents the same year he was born.

As a teenager, Williams moved from Osasuna to Bilbao, breaking into the senior side when the ageing Aduriz was injured. His unmarked run into the box at Turin produced the first goal by a black player in a Bilbao shirt – albeit in a green away top. When Aduriz came back into the side, he and Williams lined up together but it wasn’t enough to match a stellar Barcelona team the final of the Copa del Rey in 2015. Xavi’s last game at the Nou Camp saw a wonder goal from Messi and a consolation one from Williams at 3-0.

A few months later, at the Spanish Super Cup final curtain-raiser to 2015-16, Aduriz scored a hat-trick for Bilbao to sink the same Barcelona 4-0, prefacing a memorable season for the veteran striker. In a league featuring Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Cristiano Ronaldo, Aduriz hit the most impressive goals, playing his way back into the national set-up. He also became top Europa League scorer – though Bilbao fell to eventual winners Sevilla on penalties at the quarter-final stage.

Goals form Aduriz kept Bilbao in European contention for the following season, as goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga returned to his boyhood club from loan spells to make the No.1 spot his. Sold to Chelsea for a then record €80 million for a goalkeeper in 2018, Kepa left behind a team in transition as Aduriz approached retirement. 

Soon afterwards, winger Markel Susaeta also bade farewell to San Mamés after more than 500 games in an Athletic shirt. Fellow academy graduates and long-term seniors, midfielders Ander Iturraspe and Mikel Rico moved on, too, but Iker Muniain stayed, his new contract not even including a buy-out clause, so committed was the free-scoring winger to the club he had joined as a youth a decade earlier.

It was a goal from Muniain that saw off Granada in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final of 2019-20. On the eve of the pandemic, the San Mamés had been packed out for the late defeat of Barcelona in the previous round, too – but Bilbao would have to wait a whole year to take on regional rivals Real Sociedad in an all-Basque final. 

Played in driving rain in an echoingly empty La Cartuja stadium in Seville, this match, almost more than any during the pandemic, deserved a live audience. It also should have had goals, instead of the meagre but vital one netted by Sociedad.

Within a fortnight, bizarrely, Bilbao were playing the following year’s cup final, having got through by stoppage-time goals and penalties. Again, the venue was an empty La Cartuja but this time, Messi’s Barcelona put on a show to brush aside the Basques, 4-0.

Athletic failed to make it three finals in a row when, in an emotional semi, Valencia overcame a Bilbao side steered by their revered ex-manager, Marcelino. On the plus side, an extra-time goal from Iñaki Williams sealed the Spanish Supercopa for Bilbao over Barcelona in January 2021, again at La Cartuja, before the tournament’s controversial move to Saudi Arabia.

There, a year later, a late strike from Iñaki’s brother Nico reversed the scoreline against Atlético Madrid in the semi-final, but the Basques succumbed to an imperious Luka Modrić against Real in the final. 

League form, particularly that of striker Gorka Guruzeta, then impressed in 2023-24, pointing the way towards a return to Europe after six years.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Opened in 2013 when not yet complete, the new San Mamés stadium had a lot to live up to. Alongside, since demolished, the original San Mamés, opened in 1913, was considered ‘The Cathedral’ of Spanish football.

As fervent as almost any ground in Europe, the San Mamés went on to stage Spain’s first home international and 40 years of title- and cup-winning runs. It was twice renovated, first in 1952 to reconstruct the main stand as buildings crowded in around the ground, the second in 1982 for the World Cup. It was here that Bryan Robson scored in record time after 27 seconds for England against Platini’s France. 

From the first rebuild of the old ground to its last game, one feature remained constant: the arch on the main stand, a symbol of Bilbao itself. In June 2013, Athletic fans in the Herri Norte end paid tribute to their modern-day heroes Julien Guerrero and Ismael Urzaiz, who joined stars past and present for the farewell match.

Soon afterwards, stalwart goalkeeper and Basque hero José Ángel Iribar lined up with fellow Athletic players from the senior, junior and women’s sides to pass a brick from the old San Mamés to the new one on the old trade fair grounds alongside, while the arch was transported piece by piece to the club’s training ground at Lezama.

Three months later, Athletic strode out in the three-quarter-built arena, the South Stand not yet in place. Capacity for 2013-14 was 36,000, increased in 2014-15 – 49,000 witnessed Athletic’s win over Napoli in the Champions League qualifier in August 2014. Standing out against the grey Bilbao skyline, the exterior consisted of thousands of stark white filter panels used for ventilation and to let in sunlight. Later a vast external video screen was added.

The three-tiered, 53,000-capacity arena also gained a club store and museum on each corner of the new South Stand, Tribuna Sur/Hego Harmaila. Visiting fans should enter through Gate 20 near the museum to find their seats in upper sectors 321-322. 

Tribuna Norte/Ipar Harmaila remains the home end. The main West Stand, Tribuna Principal/Harmaila Nagusia, is closest to the transport stops, the East Stand, Tribuna Este/Ekialde Harmaila, closest to the river.

The San Mamés was the only Spanish venue chosen to host the multi-base Euro2020 championships but the four games were then shifted to Seville for safety reasons during the pandemic. By way of compensation, the stadium will host the Women’s Champions League final in 2024 and the Europa League final the following year.

getting here

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

Few stadiums are as well served by public transport as the San Mamés. From Abando station, metro lines 1 and 2 take just over five minutes to travel the three stops via central Moyúa and Indautxu to reach Santimami/San Mamés

Alternatively, the tram run by Euskotren follows the river via the Guggenheim to link Abando station and San Mamés, journey time 12mins – the stop before, Sabino Arana, is actually slightly nearer the stadium.

Also very close by, Bilbao’s main bus station, Termibus, has easy connections to Bilbao Airport and main cities in the Basque region and elsewhere in Spain. Alongside is the train stop for local lines C1 and C2 run by RENFE, the cercanías skirting the city centre but still connecting San Mamés with Abando station four stops away.

For all the transport possibilities, walking is an easy option, 10mins from Indautxu, 20 from Abando, the only problem being which bars to miss out along the way.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

The ticket offices at the San Mamés open on the day before the game (10.30am-1.30pm, 5.30pm-8pm) and on match day itself (10.30am-1pm & 2hrs before kick-off). Online, they’re sold for the next home game about two weeks in advance. Availability for most games is limited but don’t leave it too late and you’ll get in somewhere.

Prices start at €30 for high up in the Tribuna Sur, and rise to €40-€50 for a better seat behind the goals. A place nearer the halfway line in the Tribuna Este will set you back the best part of €100. A booking fee of €2.50 is charged per person. 

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

Of the club’s four stores, the main stadium one (Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm) is by the press entrance, between gates 0-26, and the two city-centre outlets are at Alameda Rekalde 44 (Mon-Sat 10am-2pm, 4.30pm-8pm) by Moyúa metro and at Mazarredo Zumarkalea 65 (Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm) by the Jeff Koons’ Puppy guarding the Guggenheim. There’s a late-opening store at the vast Max Center  (Mon-Sat 10am-10pm) in Barakaldo, about 5km outside Bilbao. You’ll find it on at B28, between JD Sports and Foot Locker.

The current iteration of the hallowed red-and-white stripes has red sleeves and a black, ring-necked collar. The away top is like some children’s puzzle-book game, a maze of red and grey shapes on black, somehow coming together to form the face of a lion. There’s a lovely range of affordable, old-school souvenirs for kids – yo-yos, spinning tops, sewing patterns, face-painting sticks – and a gift to surprise your friends, a Basque card game of mus, with a themed Bilbao baize. Monopoly might be easier.

tours & museum

Explore the club inside and out

Easily one of the best club museums and tours in Europe, the visit to San Mamés is both touching, imaginative and comprehensive, covering some 125 years of honourable tradition. It’s also flexible – for the tour, you can choose between an audio guide you download onto your phone (€14/6-14s €5, bring headphones) or an actual guide (€20/€8) who can deliver his or her spiel in English, Spanish or Basque, though the default language is Spanish. The audio guide is also provided in French if need be and covers the museum as well. 

Visits take place daily except match or events days, 10am-8pm in summer, 10am-7pm in winter, audio guides every 30mins, guided tours every 2-4hrs. Each lasts 45mins, the same length as the museum walk-through.

This starts below ground, with a film showing the industrialisation of Bilbao and an original coal truck from 1885 in a mock mine. Documentation in English, Spanish and Basque highlights the urban legend of ‘Alirón’, the shout that went up from local miners when the British experts declared the mineral quality of the coal to be ‘all iron’. This chant was then taken to the football pitch.

The museum continues to place events in their social and historical context, displaying unique memorabilia such as the club’s first official communiqué from 1901, a picture of the first line-up, the first rulebook – Athletic are, after all, a club of firsts. For all the many trophies, pride of place goes to the league crown from 1942-43, the first won on home turf and the first won with Franco as Spanish leader. There’s even newsreel footage of the Caudillo’s visit.

Touchscreens show videos of key matches – including Bilbao’s 3-2 win at Old Trafford in 2012 – and you can watch an older film of the club’s history while sitting on the original Este Alta stand from the old San Mamés. Shirts, pennants and photographs – including portraits of the 5,000 players to have donned the Athletic colours – provide further detail.

The bust of Pichichi, the travails of providing a perfect turf despite precious little sunlight in grey Bilbao, the vast cost of the roof extension, your guide on the stadium tour covers many bases but perhaps the most touching is the press room. Beneath a wooden ceiling deliberately fashioned for the best acoustics, a plaque is dedicated to a legendary Basque radio reporter who passed away in 2016.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

The San Mamés is surrounded by bars, particularly along Luis Briñas and connecting streets, where dozens of drinking spots beckon. 

The Briñas Café Bar occupies a large corner of Briñas and Pérez Galdós Kalea facing the transport intersection, offering more tables than most of its neighbours on match days. Further along at No.27, the Bar Zubi has swapped its rare black-and-white photos from Athletic history for standard images of rock legends but the talk is still all football.

Near the Hotel Estadio, Aterpe typifies the pre-match genre, a lovely old lived-in interior decorated with archive photos of Bilbao and its revered club, the bar counter groaning with all manner of pintxos and tapas. TV too, and seats outside. 

Just round the corner onto Luis Briñas itself, the Bar Aliron is similar in sentiment but more stylish and contemporary in its approach, specialising in upscale tapas and Keler 18 beer. Its name refers to Bilbao’s industrial past, when British engineers referred to the mineral wealth they found as ‘all iron’, an urban legend the bar is keen to propagate.

A couple of doors down, between the San Mamés by Pillow hotel and the sidestreet of Urkixo Zumarkalea, Antxi exudes tradition in look and cuisine, hefty homely favourites served to regulars inside and out as a TV beams out football action. Across Urkixo Zumarkalea, La Catedral is one of the stand-out spots in the vicinity, Athletic Bilbao the inspiration for the imaginative decor. 

On the next corner, by Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea, authentically retro-looking Bar Estadium features a large photo of Athletic players in celebration. Keep going down Briñas to find Campeón, another match-day favourite and home of the Euskal Lions fan group. Next door, the Bar Flower deals with the overflow in the run-up to kick-off.

Walk a few paces down Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea to the corner of Sabino Arana, where the age-old Bar Gol proudly displays photos of goalkeeping trio Ricardo Zamora, Lev Yashin and José Ángel Iribar, and Franco-era, title-winning Bilbao teams. 

Just across Sabino Arana, the Bar Casilda show a stylish touch in its support for Athletic. Also here, scarf-decked Bar Athletic on Plaza Victor Chávarri provides yet another pre-match option, if another were needed.

One curiosity is the Swansea Caféteria where Sabino Arana meets Rodríguez Arias Kalea, whose support for the Swans is indicated by a framed shirt but little by way of explanation.

If you’re entertaining a client, then a drink at the Fair Play bar in the abba Euskalduna hotel, right by the stadium on the river side, makes sense, backdropped by artwork reflecting Bilbao’s long football tradition.

By the club shop, La Campa de los Ingleses is superb. A large, comfortable bar-restaurant displays black-and-white images of famous moments in club history around the top, cups lifted and celebrated, tears shed. It’s open every day of the week until the evening, so if you’re here for the stadium tour, you can opt for the daily or weekend menu featuring Basque cod, roast meats and vegetarian options (€20-€32). Kids get a selection, too, and nobody will bat an eyelid if you just want a glass of wine or beer. TV screens beam football everywhere.

 On match days, it closes 2hrs before kick-off and opens 1hr after the final whistle. Nothing has been dumbed down or added without thought – note the replica of how the dressing room would have looked in the club’s foundation year of 1898. A perfect example of how to create and run a restaurant at a football stadium.

Next door, the San Mamés Jatetxea is significantly upscale, the showcase for top Basque chef Fernando Canales, hence the €68 menus. It’s open every lunchtime, evenings as well on Fridays and Saturdays.

Both La Campa and the Jatetxea are on the first floor, overlooking the hallowed turf.

Around the other side of the stadium opposite the abba Euskalduna hotel, the Geuria! San Mamés Sports Bar serves standard burgers, sandwiches and beer, as rows of huge LED screens display match action.