Basquet of delights

Bilbao, along with 11 other European cities, is gearing up to host the biggest EURO in history next year.

Bilbao, and Spain's Basque Country, will host EURO matches next summer
Bilbao, and Spain's Basque Country, will host EURO matches next summer ©Getty Images

After a hiatus of more than half a century, Spain is back playing its part in hosting the elite of European national team football. This time Bilbao, along with 11 other European cities, is gearing up to host the biggest EURO in history next year.

Spain’s illustrious history in the European Championship boasts three titles, a string of record-breakers and some unforgettable moments on the pitch, reinforcing its position as one of the continent’s giants. However, for Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), this EURO brings brand-new opportunities to showcase Bilbao’s impressive San Mamés stadium, and the Basque Country’s warm hospitality and natural beauty – as well as another chance for La Selección to entertain.

©Getty Images

Rubiales shares his pride and excitement at Bilbao’s involvement. “I think it will be a special EURO,” he says, “as it’s the European Championship’s 60th anniversary. That’s why they [UEFA] planned to do something different. In Spain we’re very proud to have Bilbao as one of the venues. Spain has a very rich footballing tradition. We’ve always been modest, but also proud of our history; that’s why we thought we could contribute something. Besides, Bilbao has got a brand-new stadium, which was inaugurated just a few years ago. Although it was built virtually in the same area as the ‘Catedral’ [nickname of Athletic Club’s former stadium], the old San Mamés, I think we met all the requirements to contribute to this project, so we’re extremely happy that our colleagues at UEFA understood that Bilbao deserved to be one of the venues.

“People in the Basque Country are very passionate about football, in a very special way. But not only there. There are going to be people coming from all parts of Spain, but we also hope foreigners will come along. Besides, Bilbao is a city with a bit of everything.”

A city of culture
Steeped in culture and known for its outstanding food, Rubiales mentions some of Bilbao’s main attractions. “The oldest monument may well be Santiago Cathedral, and then there’s the current ‘football cathedral’. It also has the Guggenheim Museum. It offers so much in terms of culture, tourist attractions and wonderful gastronomy. I think everyone will be able to get involved, everyone will feel this event is their own and they’ll enjoy it, both the locals and those coming from further afield.

With EURO 2020 taking place in 12 countries across Europe, Rubiales believes that the rich tapestry of cultures will give fans a unique and varied experience, and that it is a key opportunity for other countries to demonstrate their capabilities in hosting a major final tournament.

Luis Rubiales
Luis Rubiales©RFEF

“It’s important,” Rubiales adds. “I’d like to refer here to something that the UEFA president, Aleksander Čeferin, says very often. When he talks about football, he always refers to the football pyramid. The big boys are at the top, but football is built up from the bottom.

“This has helped UEFA a lot in terms of developing the social side. And thanks also to this terrific UEFA management, they’re helping the weaker ones.”

The heat is on
As with the other 11 nations hosting EURO 2020, Spain will have to qualify for the final tournament – bringing a fresh element of competitiveness to the competition. For Spain, qualification will also mean La Selección playing in Bilbao for the first time since 1967. With this in mind, the Spanish football federation and city authorities – including Athletic Club – are working closely to ensure fans enjoy an unforgettable experience, celebrating the opportunity to be part of a new chapter in history.

“Yes, it will be special, of course,” Rubiales adds. “That’s why we need to make the most of UEFA’s experience, as well as the help from the Basque institutions, and even from Athletic Club, the team from that city, and I think it’s a very cherished and special one. They’ve got supporters all over Spain. At the Spanish Football Federation, we’ll try to work together with all these bodies and do our best.

©UEFA

“The fact that all the institutions are helping and collaborating, the fact that Athletic Club has offered us their stadium for the federation to work from, and the fact that Spanish fans who want to enjoy it will be able to experience the city, will make us feel at home.”

As with all countries that host UEFA competitions, Spain will have plenty of opportunities to build a lasting legacy, and Rubiales and his team have identified a two-tiered approach – adding to La Selección’s illustrious back catalogue of success, and supporting Spanish society.

“I think legacy building is an important point,” Rubiales explains. “I’m going to differentiate between two things here. First of all, the sporting side of things. As the Spanish national team, we’d like to go as far as possible, obviously. If we achieve that, great. But, if not, we’ll shake hands with the winners as always.

“However, there’s also the social side of things, the big impact that football has on society and the impact we want it to have on the city. Not only Europe, but the whole world will turn their eyes towards Bilbao, Biscay, the Basque Country, as well as Spain in general.

“For me, this is an opportunity to prove ourselves as a warm and welcoming country that leaves a mark on all its visitors. In Spain, in general, we’re a leading country when it comes to football, and I say that with all due respect to the rest and while showing humility, but it doesn’t just apply to that. It also goes for tourism and gastronomy … I think that whoever comes to visit will want to come back.”

©Getty Images

Bilbao
The largest city in the Basque Country thrived on commerce and industry in years gone by, but has reinvented itself as a hive of art and culture since the stunning Guggenheim Museum opened its doors in 1997. A contemporary masterpiece in itself, the Frank Gehry-designed building is one of several museums in a city nominated as a Creative City of Design by UNESCO in 2014, and the same taste for reinvention has also touched the local football scene – hence the new San Mamés stadium, inaugurated in 2013 to replace Athletic Club’s traditional home of the same name, a 1982 FIFA World Cup venue and for many years the stomping ground of goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar, a European champion with Spain in 1964.

MATCHES

15 June: Group E match
20 June: Group E match
24 June: Group E match
28 June: Round of 16

This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 185

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