Despite living within half an hour of Bilbao for over a year and being a huge football fan, watching an Athletic Bilbao game at the wonderful San Mames stadium was something that up until recently had eluded me.
It might be the lack of entertaining football on show over the past few seasons, my preference for Eibar or just general laziness, but for some reason it wasn’t particularly high on my list up until a few weeks ago. I was staying in Bilbao on the Friday night and knowing La Liga’s penchant for games at random times I thought I’d check the fixture list.
Athletic were at home to Real Sociedad: their arch rivals. There was just the small issue of tickets; they don’t go on the sale to the general public until about three days before the game, and with it being derby day they’d likely be in high demand.
I checked the Athletic online ticket website on the Tuesday morning and, perhaps unsurprisingly there were only a handful of tickets left. Those on the lower tier were priced ridiculously, so in the end I opted for the cheapest seats up in the gods for a still relatively pricey €45 plus fees. A far cry from the exceptionally cheap and well-placed €20 seats in Italy!
The game kicked off at 9pm so I arrived in the city at 7pm to drop my bags off at the hostel round the corner from the ground. You could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing happening on the night as the area surrounding the stadium was deserted. It soon filled up with supporters of both teams having pre-match drinks at around 8pm and there was a friendly, buzzing atmosphere.
In the end I decided to grab an overpriced (€4!) chorizo sandwich from a nearby shop and a can of Estrella Galicia for a reasonable €1.80 before entering the ground at around 8.40pm. When I got to my seat (not a great choice for vertigo sufferers, by the way…) I was surprised at just how empty the place was. It was only 20 minutes to kick off but I was one of only a few people who’d taken their seats!
I decided to go for a wander and grab a beer when I realised the reason the place was so empty…probably.
There was no alcohol on sale! According to Google there was a law that was passed in the Basque Country a few years ago preventing the sale of booze at sporting events. No wonder everyone waited until the very last minute before taking their seats!
I noticed that there was a red sheet of paper on every chair with a load of writing in Basque on the back. Now naturally I just assumed this was a protest of sorts due to it being the Basque Country, but it was in fact to be held up when the teams come out to create a red and white mosaic of sorts. In fact, I didn’t even get to see the teams coming out as a result!
The first half started with plenty of Athletic possession but absolutely no end product which was frustrating for me as a neutral; I dread to think how their fans felt! I was reminded of a classic Keith Hill quote from a good few years ago where he compared his Rochdale team to soft porn: lots of foreplay but no penetration!
Everything sprung into action about halfway through the first half when the ref suddenly stopped play and ran to the sidelines to get VAR input on an incident from about 90 seconds earlier. To be honest I’d completely forgotten that the Bilbao defender had pretty much karate kicked the attacker in the box but the ref quite rightly awarded a penalty – the crowd could VARdly believe it!
Madness ensued and I almost ended up with a perforated eardrum thanks to the amount of whistling going on in the stadium, but eventually the penalty was converted. The response was immediate however, as my man of the match (for the first half, anyway!) Iker Muniain tapped in an equaliser about a minute later after a goalmouth scramble. Game on!
The first half ended at one-a-piece and I took a wander to see what the half time refreshments were like. In the end the queue was humongous and I found myself extremely jealous of the people who’d thought ahead and snook in their own sandwiches and beers. Live and learn.
The second half started in a similarly dramatic fashion to the way the first ended, with Athletic almost scoring straight from kick off. However it was Sociedad who ran up the other end and took the lead on the counter just a few moments later. 2-1 to the visitors.
Athletic huffed and puffed but had nothing to show for their efforts and the game was put to bed in the 73rd minute when the home keeper brought someone down in the box and Sociedad had another penalty with absolutely no VAR needed this time. 3-1 it was and fans were started to get restless and head for the exits.
It was to end this way and the large majority of the people around me were more interested in the flights of a number of paper aeroplanes doing the rounds instead of the action on the pitch. Not an ideal Friday night for a die-hard, but for a neutral a very entertaining one indeed!