Posted: 3/15/2012


          Quite a night at the old San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, as Athletic Club advanced with a win over a disappointing Manchester United in The EUROPA LEAGUE round of sixteen.

          The stadium, nicknamed EL CATEDRAL, is 100 years old, and building work has already started on the new SAN MAMES BARRIA next door, which will seat 54,000 fans, 14,000 more than the ancient arena's capacity. I was there for a couple of World Cup matches at ESPANA '82. After a long train journey from Barcelona following the opener, Argentina 0 v Belgium 1, with the doyen of English football journalists Brian Glanville, I had a few days in the friendly city.

         Walking through the city, now a tourist destination due to the Guggenheim Museum, the houses and businesses flew the Basque flag, similar to the Union Jack, in the white, green and red colours of the region. Those colours were used when they beat United 3-2 at Old Trafford last week. France v England was the first World Cup match and England scored after only 8 seconds through Bryan Robson and it finished 3-1, with the English also beating The Czech Republic and Kuwait in the first round.

         The stadium is near a church built to honour Mammes, an early Christian who was fed to the lions by the Romans. The lions wouldn't eat him, and he was later made a saint. Along with Real Madrid and Barcelona they are the only other club never relegated from the Primera Division of La Liga since its inception in 1928. These three clubs, plus Osasuna, are owned by their Associates or SOCIOS, and are not sporting companies.

          Founded one hundred and fourteen years old, the club only signs Basque players or those with Basque grandparents. It was formed by English steel and ship workers plus Basque students who learned to play the game while in England. They used to play in white, then blue and white halves similar to Blackburn Rovers. A young student, Juan Elorday was asked to bring back 30 such jerseys after spending one Christmas in London. However, while waiting for his ship home in Southampton he managed to buy 50 red and white striped shirts, the colours of Southampton FC.

          On his return the directors decided to change colours, and sent 25 to Athletic Madrid, also founded by Basques, who are now called Atletico Madrid and also still play in those colours.

          The old stadium rocked for the home leg, and after taking a well deserved 2-0 league it was only a superb Wayne Rooney rocket shot late in the match that made it interesting. A full Court Press, as P.M. David Cameron might explain to you in basketball terms, and Athletic were super, well organized and determined. Iconic Chilean World Cup coach Marcelo Bielsa is doing a marvelous job, and can expect the rich clubs of Europe to come after his players for next season.

         It was a sad night for Mancunians, with City narrowly failing to advance over Sporting Lisbon at home, going out 3-3 on the away goals rule, despite a second half come back, and goalkeeper Joe Hart almost the hero with a near miss header in the fifth minute of added time.