The New Cathedral
After 100 years at San Mames, known as The Cathedral, Athletic Bilbao moved to their new stadium this season. Adam Bate took a trip to Basque Country to see how the atmosphere is shaping up as the construction of the new San Mames continues...
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 12/11/13 11:50am
"I had been told about it," said former coach Marcelo Bielsa, after experiencing one particularly memorable evening at the home of Athletic Club in Bilbao. "But it is one thing to be told, another to experience it," he added. San Mames. The Cathedral. It was a special place with an atmosphere all of its own. A source and conduit of Basque pride for exactly 100 years until it finally made way for a new stadium earlier this season. The new San Mames.
Bielsa departed in the summer to add to the sense of new beginnings in Bilbao. The Argentine coach had briefly constructed the most entertaining side in European football as he guided Athletic to the finals of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey in 2012. But both matches were lost and things began to unravel last season. Ernesto Valverde , back for a second spell in charge, is the man with the rebuilding job - reflected in the inclusion of debutant Guillermo Fernandez against Levante on Saturday.
However, Guillermo's stuttering performance suggested that - like the stadium itself - there is some way to go. After fulfilling their first home fixture of the campaign at the Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian, Athletic moved into the three-quarters completed San Mames in September. A billboard rather than a stand occupies one end of the pitch, while the lettering on the seats implores supporters to get behind 'Athletic Cl' with the extension yet to accommodate the final two letters.
Everything points to a club in transition. Only season ticket holders are permitted this season and as a result there is only a rudimentary ticket office for the current campaign. The museum tours are on hold. And it was not just the heavy rain that contributed to an atmosphere of chatter rather than chanting at the weekend - the team's most passionate supporters are now located in a small area behind one of the corner flags.
Attacking the opposite end in the first half, the early pressure saw Athletic looking for the breakthrough against a backdrop bereft of fans. Within a quarter of an hour, sheets of rain swept towards that half of the pitch causing those supporters nearby in the adjacent side-stands to flee for shelter too. One wonderful sweeping move resulted in Markel Susaeta firing across goal from six yards out to spark huge applause from the other end of the field.
But poor defending from Oscar De Marcos and Aymeric Laporte allowed Jordi Xumetra to set up David Barral to open the scoring and left San Mames in shocked silence. The crowd became agitated. For the fifth time in six matches at the new stadium, they had conceded first. Levante had also won the final match played at the old San Mames. There seemed a cruel symmetry to it - would they be the first team to beat Athletic at their new stadium as well?
However, yet another second-half turnaround demonstrated that the New Cathedral had the power to stir its team to action too. Valverde made two substitutions, bringing on Mikel Rico and Aritz Aduriz, and the two men responded with a goal apiece as Athletic rained crosses in on the Levante box. Nothing too subtle but it proved effective as the crowd roared their approval. Suddenly the stadium was transformed into a surging mass of energy. The visitors were helpless to resist.
Los Leones have now recovered an astonishing 11 points from losing positions at home this season and their record at the new San Mames stands at four wins, two draws and no defeats. That intangible quality that every team fears will be lost when moving to a new stadium appears intact. The mystique remains.
Levante boss Joaquin Caparros was certainly impressed when quizzed on his first impressions of the ground among the plush surroundings of the new press facilities. "It's spectacular and even though it's unfinished, it's an extra, extra, extra large stadium," said Caparros, himself a former Athletic coach. "It's a great joy to come here and it's a signal that Athletic is a massive club. It's a real treat to visit this stadium."
Barcelona are the next team to have that dubious treat of entering the Lions' den when they come calling later this month. It will be a hugely difficult challenge for that unbeaten home record to be maintained. But with the San Mames due to be completed in time for next season, the real question is this: If Athletic Bilbao can make themselves so difficult to beat on their home patch right now, during this transitional phase, what will the place be like when it's finished?