For football fans the north of Spain is a hotbed boasting some of the oldest names in football – and Bilbao is steeped in football history.
It was late in the 19th century that football began to make its way over to Spain thanks to a mixture of British miners and sailors. In 1898 Athletic Club were formed, not forgetting their British roots and the name they still carry with them to this day. Los Leones (The Lions) are one of the three founding members of La Liga and are fourth in the all-time league titles list (never to be relegated) and second only to Barcelona for Copa del Rey titles, a mark of the success the club has had over the years.
Their club colours are based on those of Southampton after a student visiting Britain bought the Saints’ shirts as the club’s new kits when visiting England in 1909. Unlike most Spanish teams, they press more, they are more physical, the turnover of play is quicker, backed by a vociferous crowd who follow their team around the country, a rarity in Spain. Of course the club are famous for their policy of only having Basque players.
The club moved into their new stadium in 2013, the new San Mamés. The old ground was famous for its intimidating atmosphere. Although the new ground is a typical ‘modern bowl’, it has a different feel to it and has kept the atmosphere too. Perhaps that’s because it’s a region that is so passionate about its club.
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The Basque derby with Real Sociedad the visitors is a hotly anticipated clash in La Liga. In the build up to the tie you could expect to see hordes of red and white shirts in the city, with a mix of the blue and white stripes of La Real, hours before kick-off.
In the old part of the city near ‘La Plaza Nueva’ the majority of fans meet for pre-match drinks and tapas. You can enjoy some typical Spanish tapas down the old cobbled streets in the sun, including some ‘Rabas’ (fried squid rings).
The stadium looks a bit like a spaceship from the outside, lights up red in the dark and looks stunning. On one side of the ground there are a few small bars where fans gather. Inside the stadium, the new concourses are in immaculate condition with decent sized free programmes on offer for everyone.
The noise is incredible as the teams entered the field, as the Athletic club anthem booms out and everyone in the stadium sings every word with their scarves aloft.
Bilbao’s history in the Spanish game and British roots make it more appealing to football travellers, not to mention the new stunning arena. If the fixture list is kind, it is not too far from Real Sociedad and Osasuna so you could enjoy two games!
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This is based on an article that originally appeared in Football Weekends magazine, an English-speaking magazine for fans who love travelling to watch the game in Europe. Copies are posted throughout the world. Visit www.footballweekends.co.uk