Formed in 1898, Athletic Club de Bilbao is one of Spain's oldest clubs. It also lays claim to one of the proudest, most unusual traditions in
Founded by English football fans from either Sunderland or
Southampton (depending on who you believe), Athletic's earliest line-ups
featured names like Mills, Langford and Evans.
But that cosmopolitan feel gave way to a new philosophy: for almost
its entire history, the club has fielded only players born or raised in
the Basque country. What that means to the city is evident every time
you go into a bar (which will be often) and see the team photo hanging
proudly on the wall. The connection between club, players and fans is
far closer than at almost any other club. Athletic have effectively
become the unofficial Basque national team; the representatives not
just of a city or a region, but a country, a people.
Visitors, however, are always welcome, as fans of both Newcastle
United and Aston Villa – English sides who have travelled to Bilbao – will testify. In fact, the Geordies' UEFA Cup visit 11 years ago is
legendary in the city. Athletic fans recall in almost reverential tones
the huge quantity of drink they shared with their visitors.
On the pitch, their direct style means that Athletic (never call
them Bilbao!) are considered the most 'English'-style club in La Liga.
Perhaps no surprise, then, that they have had several English coaches,
including the bowler hat-wearing Freddie Pentland and, more recently,
Howard Kendall. (A thirsty traveller asking for "A Kendall" in his
former local The Bridge will be presented with a mammoth gin and
The traditional route to the game starts with lunch in the old town
(El Casco Viejo) or the tiled Café Iruña. From there cross Gran Via and
head towards Calle Pozas – a long straight street with San Mames
visible at the far end.
Be warned: Pozas is lined with bars and should you stop in all of
them, even for just a gulp-sized txito of beer, you will probably
never arrive at the football. Pozas 42 is, however, a must, where the
big-game atmosphere heats up amidst the hordes of red and white shirts.
With tickets generally around £20, any trip to San Mames is
worthwhile, but if you can, see a derby against Real Sociedad. They
tend to be midfield slogs, but the atmosphere, with both sets of fans
mixing before, during and after the game, is unforgettable. Otherwise,
try to catch the hated Real Madrid to see San Mames become a patriotic,
Close to the town centre and with its own metro station, the
40,000-capacity San Mames (also referred to as La Catedral, such is its
almost religious significance for the city, community and region) is an
imposing, completely enclosed, if rather uneven, English-style ground
with good views from just about anywhere. It is well within walking
distance from most parts of the city and is right alongside the coach
Club address Felipe Serrate, E-48009, Bilbao
Telephone (0034) 944 240 8770
CITY GUIDE: BILBAO
Though large and modern, Bilbao never feels claustrophobic due to
the green of the ever-visible surrounding mountains. Away from the
wealthy centre you'll find grittier suburbs defined by high-rise
buildings and factories. However, much investment is being poured into
the city's poorer quarters in an attempt to reinvent itself.
Frank Gehry's Guggenheim (www.guggenheim-bilbao.es) is an example of such progress; a stunning
building which arguably puts the art on display in the shade, some feat
when Picasso, Cezanne and Warhol are involved. Entry is around 10.50
euros, but the kids go free.
By plane: The newly-built airport lies 15km from town (0034 905 505
505). The shuttle bus into town costs 1 and takes 40 minutes.
Alternatively if you're willing to fork out 20 you could take a cab.
By ferry: P&O from Portsmouth to Santurtzi. Once at the port you'll find frequent buses and trains to the town centre.
C/Rodriquez Arias 3 - (0034) 944 795 760 www.bilbao.net
Bilbao is a lively city all year round, getting into full swing
during the August fiesta. For a manic high-speed bar crawl head to
c/Barrenkale where punters spend less than 10 minutes in each bar
before marching, staggering or crawling to the next. If you're in the
mood for something quieter head to Lamiak at c/Pelota. The new town
offers a slightly smarter scene with bars scattered along c/de Buenos
Aires and c/Ledesma.
Assuming you've tried the Guggenheim, check out the football club's official museum, Athletic Club Museo, found
through gates 26/27 of the Estadio San Mames. Tickets are priced at 6
for adults and 4 for children under 14. The museum is open on match
days but closes at midday.
SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
Bilbao is blessed with an abundance of beaches. One of the most popular
can be found at Getxo (Algorta metro station), which boasts an
attractive waterfront and old quarter.
The February carnival, held over the weekend before Ash Wednesday, is
worth a look. Celebrated throughout the Basque region, it's
particularly lively in Bilbao and San Sebastian.
For regular updates on the crazy world of Spanish football, see our blog La Liga Loca
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