As dawn broke in Bilbao on Monday, a melancholy air hung over the waters of the river Nervion. The sadness was not a reflection of any painting in the world-renowned Guggenheim art gallery, but rather was caused by the fate of another of the city's famous museums.
The San Mamés football stadium may not have been constructed in the same spectacular architectural style as the Guggenheim but the warmth, passion and heart shown by some of the world's best players during 'La Catedral''s many exhibitions of the past 100 years are treasures in themselves.
That the people of Bilbao are feeling a sense of loss owes to the fact the famed stadium hosted its final game with Sunday's Liga encounter between Athletic Club and Levante UD – inappropriately, a 1-0 defeat for the Basque team. Athletic are relocating to a new home a stone's throw away.
When the ground's foundation stones were laid on 20 January 1913, traditions were also planted that still stand a century later. Inspired by British expatriates and their devotion to football, citizens of this northern Spanish city erected San Mamés – and many of the rituals and symbols inside the stadium have maintained a certain British feel.
Situated in the directors box is a bust of Rafael Moreno Aranzadi – or Pichichi – the famed forward who scored the first goal at the venue, against Real Unión de Irún. A custom was initiated whereby each team visiting the arena for the first time would lay a floral tribute at the bust before kick-off while the home crowd offered applause.
Another norm came in the form of visitors to the directors box being obliged to wear ties; to avoid embarrassing absent-minded guests, the club kept its own tie collection. Even the deafening chant of "Alirón" – heard when Athletic are proclaimed champions (eight times so far) – originates from the UK. The word originates from the expression "all iron" which British miners would shout at the end of a productive day's work in Bilbao.
Of the 1,738 matches played at the home of Los Leones, perhaps two stand out more than any other; fittingly, both were against English opponents in Manchester United FC. In the first – a 1956/57 European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-final – Athletic triumphed 5-3 in a home leg played under heavy snow. After succumbing 3-0 in the return, the Basque side waited 55 years for revenge, until they knocked out Sir Alex Ferguson's team in last term's UEFA Europa League round of 16 – winning 3-2 away, then 2-1 at home.
Other memories to cherish include a 2-1 UEFA Cup final second-leg victory over Juventus (ending in an away goals defeat), a 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid CF and a Copa del Rey semi-final triumph over Sevilla FC. As of Sunday, though, there will be no more goals witnessed by fans – known as the 'Engineers' or 'Compassionate Ones' – at either end of San Mamés. Whenever the 'Alirón' chant goes up in Athletic's new stadium, however, memories will take supporters back to the old ... from where Pichichi will offer a knowing wink.
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