Goodbye to San Mames

“We are well aware of what it means to move but nobody thought that next year we would not be playing here. When the referee signals the end of the Levante game I don’t know how we’ll react.

“It will be very emotional. With all the players that have passed through San Mames, to get the opportunity to be one of the 14 that says goodbye to it makes me very proud,” Athletic captain Carlos Gurpegui told Perarnau Magazine last week.

The Basques are moving to a 53,500 capacity stadium – with the provision to extend it by another 2,000 – for the start of the 2013-14 campaign, a ground that is built on land next to the existing San Mames and that was occupied until 10 years ago by the Bilbao International Trade Fair. Named San Mames Barria, Athletic’s move across to it will mark the end of almost 100 years of football at La Catedral, The Cathedral, as it is commonly known, which will be demolished to make way for a new housing development.

Opened in August 1913 when Copa del Rey holders Racing de Irun were held to a 1-1 draw, the San Mames cost around 89,000 pesetas, around €500, and was the first major purpose built stadium in Spain, having room for 3,500 spectators. It takes its name from Mammes of Cesarea, a saint and martyr who was allegedly thrown to the lions on land where the venue stands – hence the club’s nickname Los Leones, The Lions.

Appropriately, the first goal at the new ground was scored by Rafael Moreno, better known as Pichichi, who became Athletic’s most famous player and today lends his name to the award for La Liga’s top goalscorer each season. To this day there is a bust of the striker in the ground, frist placed in the north stand before being moved to to the main stand in the early 1980s. In a ceremony that has taken place since 1927, each team visiting San Mames for the first time lays flowers at the foot of the bust.

In 1921 San Mames staged its one and only Copa del Rey Final when Athletic overcame Atletico Madrid 4-1, and later that year Spain played their first ever international on home soil there, beating Belgium 2-0. Ground improvements throughout the 1920s led to an increased capacity of 9,500 before further revamps over time saw the stadium reach a peak of 47,000 in the 1952-53 season, when the 12,000 seat double-decker grandstand with its famous supporting arch was built, making it one of the most unusual sporting structures in Europe.

In the early 1960s two-tiered stands were built at the north and south ends of the ground, both irregularly shaped because of the proximity of surrounding streets, and a new east stand was constructed the following decade. For the 1982 World Cup the stadium was chosen to host three group games, and another redevelopment took place as the main stand was linked up with two new stands at either end, with new floodlights installed along the roofs of the main and east stands.

The late 1990s meant the San Mames’ capacity was required to be reduced to 40,000 after FIFA, UEFA and the Spanish Football Federation insisted terracing be removed, yet the tight, steep stands situated close to the pitch, usually packed with families on match day, did nothing to detract from the unique atmosphere which some have compared to an English ground. As for the arch, until Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum was opened in October 1997 it remained arguably the Basque Country’s most identifiable architectural feature, and there are now plans for it to support a bridge that will link the new stadium with the north bank of the nearby River Nervion.

Although players and Coaches may have come and gone over the years, the San Mames has stood as a lasting testament to football from another era and is seen by many as not just another football ground, but a symbol of the Basque region and its proud people. It is also the only ground in Spain that has seen top-flight football in every season since La Liga was founded in 1929.

Come Sunday night there will not be many dry eyes in the house and nor, one would suspect, throughout the rest of the Spanish football community. It promises to be a poignant occasion.