Right now, it’s just a huge hole, in which excavators and trucks are doing their work. Above that, the giant arc rises above San Mamés’ main stand. The old stadium, in which Athletic Bilbao will be playing until the summer of 2014, when the new arena will be ready. To replace the stadium which was renovated for the 1982 World Cup and has been quietly aging ever since. The stadium which will be demolished after it served the club for 101 years. In a highly modern city, the old ground is an anachronism, a charming one, however. And with “El Loco” Marcelo Bielsa, old San Mamés gets one final hooray.
It’s already known what’s gonna happen to the space left behind by a demolished stadium – the University will get some new buildings. The fate of the giant arc above the main stand, however, is still unclear. There is a suggestion that maybe it should be cut into pieces and sold as memorabilia. Others would much rather like to see it span over the Ría de Bilbao. Between all the modern bridges, it would fare quite well, probably.
That’s because the Basque city has become highly progressive architectually, since the Guggenheim Museum has opened in 1997. Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the new Olympic Parc in Athens, is responsible for a pedestrian bridge, while the main highway coming vom the North leads over an suspension bridge, whose pylon is illuminated at nights.
And, of course, the Museum of modern arts with the famous name itself – or the flashingly green new Basketball area in Parque Miribille, which has opened just a year and a half ago and does lean quite gently along the slope leading down to the Old Town. Among all those newly designed buildings, the old San Mamés stadium, opened in 1913, is an anachronism. However, one the fans learned to love – there’ll doubtlessly be lots of tears when Athletic will finally be leaving the building behind. Not just because of all the memories brought, among other things, with eight La Liga championships.
But also because of some whimsical details about it. Like the telephone next to one seat in the president’s box, connected directly to the bench – for raging Managers banned to the stands by the refs. Or a memory of a lots bet by the former president of Basque rival CD Alavés, who said after Athletic’s league title in 1983, “you can’t do that again next year – and if you do, you’ll get my stuffed lion!” However, Athletic even won the double in 1984 and ever since the hunting trophy is guarding San Mamés’ VIP lounge.
With Bielsa on the way up
To date, it’s been the last league title for the club only allowing Basque footballers to play for them. A significant disadvantage to the likes of Real Madrid or FC Barcelona and that’s a significant reason, why a 2nd place in 1997 (with Jupp Heynckes as their manager) has been the biggest success since.
Until now, with Marcelo Bielsa as their manager, new hope arises among the fans. The Argentinian, who impressed the world as Chile’s national team manager in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, joined a club willing to let him work on a long-term project. Which is why, after an abject start of the season, Bielsa was not sacked. Continuity that pays off now.
After just five points from the first five leage games this season, Athletic gathered 24 points in 13 games, thereby conceding only one defeat. Moreover, they progressed safely to the next round in the Europa League, leaving PSG, Salzburg and Slovan Bratislava behind and reached the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.
And the modest atmosphere in which Bielsa can thrive is best represented by the club’s actual home base outside the city.
Headquarters in the middle of nowhere
It takes a train ride of about half an hour to get vom Bilbao zu Lezama. The village itself is small and sleepy: hardly five strees, hardly any noteworthy buildings – despite the relative proximity to the modern Bilbao it is, basically, the middle of nowhere. In one of the larger gardens, some sheep graze, the neighbour has got some grapevines, from the next one you can hear some chicken.
But still, Lezama is quite famous – because of Athletic’s training facilities opened in 1971. Here’s the club’s actual home base: On seven pitches the teams do not only train, but expect for Bielsa’s men, every other team of the club plays it’s home games here. From the little children up to the Ladies’ team.
Record champions and hunters of Barcelona
Winning the national championship four times, Athletic is actually Spain’s record champion in women’s football. In the current season the team is in second position, trailing FC Barcelona by three points. This past weekend, with the kick-off being at noon on Sunday, they were playing mid-table team Olivenza. Which is a town loceted somewhere in the Extremadura region near the portuguese border.
Women’s football in Spain is developing well, with the national team earing a 2-2 draw against Germany in a recent EURO qualifier and the Under-17 girls being European Champions. Still, the league consisting of 18 teams isn’t really competitve, which this game showed quite well. The visitors formation was roughly a 4-1-4-1, with defensive midfielder Desi dropping very deep. So, Olivenza effectively play with five at the back, only trying to avoid a humbling defeat. As a mid-table team rid of any fears of relegation, that is.
Similar to Bielsa’s men
So the visitors quite happily let Athletic have the ball and they collected at least 80 per cent possession, trying to create width by full-backs bombing forward (especially Iraia on the right). The centre-backs hat the responsibilities of playing the first pass.
There, Tzibi Juaristi doesn’t only resemble Carles Puyol because of her haircut. There, Irene Paredes, at 5’8″ the tallest player of her team, doesn’t only resemble Gerard Piqué because of her stature. Not hitting long balls, bat playing calmly and hitting clever passes from behind is what those two constantly try to do.
Plus, the front three kept on interchaning positions. But still, the favourites had a hard time really creating goalscoring opportunities. The ball hit the woordwork twice (23rd minute, after a corner and 39th, from a long-distance shot), but otherwise, the village elderlies had a lot to complain about.
Olivenza? Nah. In the rare case they actually had the ball, they could do absolutely nothing with it. Hardly ever, they managed to string together three passes before the ball was back with Athletic, playing a pressing game, or crossed the sidelines or just ended up in Athletic’s half, nowhere near lone striker Nerea, who had to chase hopeless balls. The visitors hardly caused more trouble than a five-year-old would cause Viatli Klitschko, but at least they took the goalless draw to half-time.
Fatigue beats the visitors
With Guru Fernández (instead of Nekane), Athletic manager Juan Luis Fuentes brought a new left winger for the second half, and with her there immideatley was more threat. Her converting a penalty three minutes into the half finally got Athletic the long overdue lead, however there wasn’t really anything pretty about it – she just knocked the ball centrally into net net.
Olivenza must have known that with that, the game was lost. Fatigue now added to the general harmlessness and resistance crumbled worryingly. After Erika converted to good crosses from the right (60th, 62nd) and took advantage of a mistake by Olivenza’s goalkeeper Cristiane (74th) to make it 4-0, the game was done.
Even more so after Athletic changed the shape a little: With Beristain coming in an playing in a Number 10 role, Desi was dragged out of her position between the centre-backs to track her, which exposed Olivenza even more. Not only did Athletic make it 6-0, but the hit the woodwork three more times in the second half alone.
Athletic Club – Olivenza 6:0 (0:0)
Lezama, 250, Referee Elexpuru-Sanz. Goals: 1-0 (48′ pen) Guru, 2-0 (60′), 3-0 (62′) and 4-0 (74′) Erika, 5-0 (78′) Guru, 6-0 (80′) Erika. Athletic: Ainhoa; Iraia, Irene, Tzibi, Saioa; Orueta (55′ Flaviano), Olabarrieta, Itsuso (62′ Manu); Nekane (46′ Guru), Erika, Ibarra (64′ Beristain). Olivenza: Cristina; Lucky, Idaira (61′ Alicia), Laly, Conchi; Desi; Lourdes, Marina, Martita, Amanda (75′ Beatriz); Nerea (61′ Esperanza).
Young vs. Old
23,8 years on average – the team Marcelo Bielsa fielded the same night against Levante was unbelievably young and full of players with a bright future. Not only with Athletic, because when European heavyweights knock on their doors, some of them will surely leave. Like, say, Under-21 European Champions Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera, or also Iker Muniain.
Levante, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. The granotas are the last chance of several Have-Beens who want to show the world they’re not quite done yet. Players like Farinós, who played in the 2000 Champions League final with Valecia. Or Javi Venta, who reached the semi-finals of the same competition in 2006 with Villarreal, before crashing out against Arsenal in the last international game ever played at Highbury. Ot Juanfran, whose career never quite got started after he failed to impress in the 2002 World Cup. Or Asier del Horno, who became an International playing for Athletic, until his move to the Chelsea was good only for his bank account, but not for his career. Or, last but not least, like Sergio Ballesteros who reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals with underdogs Rayo Vallecano in 2001, who played well whereever he was, but never actually won anything.
So in a team with an average age of 31,4 years, cental midfielder Xavi Torres ist the youngest with 25 years. But nonetheless, a lot of the oldboys show what they can do, with manager Juan Ignácio Martínez leading them to a surprise fouth place in La Liga, just behind Real, Barcelona and local rivals Valencia. Against Athletic, however, they didn’t stand a chance.
Good understanding up front
Levante played a fairly basic 4-4-1-1 with José Barkero and Arouna Koné showing a good understanding up front, making it obvious why Levante scored the fouth-most goals of any team this season. Barkero worked well, came from deeper positions and offered himself als a recipient for passes from Farinós and Xavi Torres – when one of those two charged forward, the other would stay put. Koné moved quite well and it was him who created most of the danger for Athletic’s defense.
Or, much rather: The only threat. Neither Juanfran nor El Zhar could offer a lot from the flanks because they were quite heavily involved in defensive work. They tried to push forward when Levante got the ball, but they didn’t really create anything.
Safe through the centre, forward on the flanks
Marcelo Bielsa ist known for organizing his defense on the grounds of what the opposition plays up front. In South America, that was usually a 3-man-defense, but since in La Liga hardly any teams deploys a classic two-striker-formation anymore, Athletic usually plays with a classcal four-men-defense, to alway hav one spare man at the back.
Now, Levante did play with two strikers, so Bielsa basically switched his formation to a 3-4-3, especially when in possession. Iturraspe dropped deep between Amorebieta and Javi Martinez and the full-backs became wing-backs, thriving forward. In the centre of the pitch, one of the remaining midfield players – usually Herrera – dropped a little to act as a connecting play, the wingers (Muniain more so than Susaeta, however) tucked inside to be overlapped by the wing-backs, thus creating width.
The lead brings control
It took Atheltic only ten minutes to score the 1-0, after Amorebiete converted a header after a corner kick. With that, the home team comfortably controlled the game. Especially the fact that with Iturraspe and Javi Martinez, they had to very adapt passers in the back-three gave Athletic a very solid base on which they completely controlled the midfield. De Marcos couldn’t properly be covered by both Farinós and Xavi Torres and the Athletic wingers constantly dragged Levante’s full-backs out of position.
Plus, Ballesteros (36) and especially Nano (31) looked old. While the former covered a lot with his experience and good positioning, the latter – who is about to move to China – was compleletly hapless. He let Llorente roam quite freely, so that the Athletic striker was very well included in his team’s game. The style of Athletic war fast and direct, with pressing after conceding possession and with konsequent play over the flanks.
Attracive football is rewarded
After half a season, Bielsa’s system and his philosophy are already deeply rooted in his team and with their fast and direct approach, Levante had massive problems. So the 2-0 just before half-time wasn’t only a logical consequence of the weaknesses exposed within a slow Levante team, but also quite symbolic for Athletic’s style and, of course, somewhat of a decision in this particular game.
Óscar de Marcos escaped Farinós os the right side and Ballesteros hesitated – tackle De Marcos or help Nano covering Llorente? – and ended up doing neither. De Marcos ended his darting run by chipping a high cross over Ballesteros the Munua in the Levante goal only to find Llorente completely unmarked. Nano was nowhere near, and so it was 2-0.
Correct changes proved to be useless
Levante hat only two real goalscoring opportunities in the first half: The first being a shot narrowly left by Koné, the other a free-kick which sailed just right. But manager Martinez knew he had to start by doing something about his defense, so he left Nano out for the second half (“His mind is obviously already in China”, Marca wrote about his performance), Del Horno moved to the centre and Juanfran was now the left full-back; Valdo came in and took the left midfield position.
All of that, however, was basically useless, since Athletic steppt off the gas in the second half. The wing-backs played far more conservatively and when they went forwart, die wingers stayed behind. After 70 minuted, Bielsa brought on Toquero for Llorente – the bold-headed Toquero isn’t exactly a technically gifted player, but he is very powerful in closing down the opposing defenders. Which is presicely what he did.
Absorb pressure, let Muniain play
Athletic’s only remaining aim was to absorb possible pressure coming from Levante and not to let them back into the game. So the visitors now had more possesstion, but they couldn’t test Iraizoz in Athletic’s goal. So Bielsa could leave Muniain on the pitch, whose head-through-the-wall approach didn’t really get him anywhere, but the crowd still was pleased to see the young man constantly trying.
Until it was a Levante player who eventually lost his nerves: Juanfran conceded a second yellow card just before an Athletic corner in der 89th minute an was sent off. Just to add some insult to defeat, San José (who came in just minutes earlier) converted the corner-kick for the final score of 3-0. So now, Athletic moved up to fifth position in the table, only three points behint Levante – and a spot in the Champions League qualification.
Athletic Club – Levante 3:0 (2:0)
San Mamés, 35.000, SR Velasco Carballo. Goals: 1-0 (10′) Amorebieta, 2-0 (40′) Llorente, 3-0 (90′) San José. Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, Javi Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; De Marcos, Iturraspe, Herrera (81′ San José); Susaeta, Llorente (73′ Toquero), Muniain (88′ Iñigo Pérez). Levante: Munua; Javi Venta, Nano (46′ Valdo), Ballesteros, Del Horno; El Zhar (68′ Rubén Suárez), Xavi Torres (80′ Roger), Farinós, Juanfran; Barkero; Arouna Koné. Sent off: Juanfran (89′, for a second bookable offence).
It would be a special highlight, if old San Mamés would indeed see some Champions League football before it falls to the same fate the former stadium of Real Sociedad did in San Sebastian (or Donostia, as it is called in Basque) some twenty years ago.
Real Sociedad ist the biggest Basque rival of Athletic, but there hardly are real animosities between those to clubs. Too much are they united in their resentment against the teams from Madrid, too similar were the philosophies of the two clubs when it came to player selection. Until just recently, Real Sociedad only fielded Basques and foreign players, but in recent years, there have also been Spaniards playing for them. There are limited resources and it’s very hard to feed two big teams from players of a region with just 3 million people.
They went to Anoeta…
In 1993, Real Sociedad moved to the Anoeta. The 33.000-seater with a running track is part of a big sports complex also containing a Rugby stadium, a velodrome and a martial arts centre. The highlight, however, is the bull-fighting arena which got a retractable roof and now is home of the Basketball team. From an architectural standpoint, Illunbe Arena is the most attractive building, there.
And, given the running track in the stadium, probably from an athmospheric standpoint as well. This past week-edn, over 8.000 fans in the nearly sold-out bull-fighting arena saw their Basketball team lose 56-71 to FC Barcelona (in Basketball, too, they are competing with Real Madrid…).
…after they left Atotxa
The old Atotxa stadium, which was located right in the middle of town, became too small, with a capacity of just 17.000. Where Real Sociedad celebrated two La Liga championships, now is a residential area. With a café by the name of “Tribuna Norte”, some shops in the middle, which does look more like some lovelessly arranged building site containers, and with a playground for the children.
But there’s one thing you’re not allowed to do, in the exact same place where there used to be a football stadium. That’s made very clear at every entrance:
all pictures: Philipp Eitzinger