A jumbo jet passes over Lezama, a village set in one of the many green valleys of the Basque country ten miles east of Bilbao, piercing the peace. Until now, the only sounds have been the church bell striking one and the weak, high-pitched cries of adolescents echoing around the hills. These are the voices of girls and boys who play for some of Athletic Club Bilbao’s numerous youth teams and their opponents on this sunny Saturday afternoon in November.
The road sign pointing the way to the Lezama complex simply says ‘Athletic Club’, with the club badge displayed alongside.
This is not just a training ground. The majority of the players who will play for Athletic at San Mamés, their magnificent 53,000-seater stadium on the bank of the Nervión river in Bilbao, will be developed at Lezama.
The name, the badge, the red and white: it is more than a branding exercise. Here, under a huge white arch transported from the previous incarnation of San Mamés, is where one of the strongest identities in world football is forged.
A piece of paper stuck to an office window shows the week’s fixtures for Athletic’s teams at every level. There are 20 in total, from the men’s first team home game with Villarreal the following evening at San Mamés to the match currently taking place here at Lezama on Pitch 4 between the Infantil Femenino, Athletic women’s youth team, and Pauldarrak from nearby Barakaldo.
The women’s first team make their way down the slope from a training pitch at the far side of the vast complex. As they pass Pitch 4, all have their eyes fixed to the game and one or two stop to talk with a member of the coaching staff about the players hoping to eventually step into their boots.
The men’s under-23 side’s trip to England to face Manchester United the previous Wednesday is listed among the fixtures stuck to the window. United won 2–1 but Athletic took the lead with a stunning goal by their star player Gorka Guruzeta. English papers reported that scouts from the country’s top clubs were in attendance to watch Guruzeta’s performance. The days of youth team football raising whispers about talented youngsters yet to be uncovered are long gone. There are no secrets any more, which makes Athletic’s job much harder.
Athletic Club Bilbao are known worldwide for two reasons: they only field players born, raised or trained in the Basque country, a policy they have maintained for over a century, and the men’s team have never been relegated from La Liga, Spain’s top division, since its inception in 1929. There are some who think the former is threatening the latter. Under new coach Kuko Ziganda, who played for the club throughout the 1990s, the team have struggled.
There are several reasons for Athletic’s travails. They made a strong start with Iker Muniain the creative spark in most games but he suffered a long-term injury in the final minutes of a humiliating home defeat to Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League. The moment when Muniain fell to the San Mamés turf threatened to define Athletic’s season, particularly as the club’s policy means there can be no multi-million pound replacement arriving in the January transfer window.
It has been tough for a thin squad to cope with the demands of European football and Ziganda has failed to rotate the squad to good effect. The previous coach, Ernesto Valverde, was always going to be a hard act to follow when he left for Barcelona in the summer. Valverde’s record with Barcelona — four points clear at the top and ten points above the two Madrid teams after twelve games — shows stark contrast with Athletic’s current form.
Ziganda needs points, as Sunday morning’s local edition of Mundo Deportivo makes clear.
‘URGE GANAR’, screams the front page in bold capital letters above a picture of the previous night’s closed training session at Lezama.
San Mamés is known in Bilbao as the cathedral but it has also been a fortress for Athletic. The challenge in recent years, perhaps softened by the accomplished Valverde, has been to make the transition from the old San Mamés to the new.
There was no unsettling geographical move — the current stadium was built between 2010 and 2013 parallel to the old one, ensuring no home games had to be played elsewhere. This showed the determination for continuity and tradition that pervades the entire club and meant supporters could retain their pre-match rituals: the same metro stop, the same bars, the same matchday pilgrimage. There were no corporate naming rights sold and sponsor logos are displayed in red and white rather than their standard colour schemes.
The new stadium’s inaugural ceremony in 2013 incorporated male and female players from past and present along with supporters young and old, reflecting the representation of a whole city and region rather than a narrow cross-section. One of the most striking aspects of matchday at San Mamés is the variety of Athletic’s fanbase. Before the match, an elderly woman wearing an Athletic scarf is ushered to the corner of a small bar where she can sit on a beer barrel. She is treated respectfully by all those around her, almost venerated. In this small gesture, there is the unspoken acknowledgement that she has seen decades of football at San Mamés old and new. Outside the bar, a young woman inhales helium from a balloon and gives the famous cry of ‘Athleeeeetic!’ to cheers and laughter from those gathered around her. The bars around the ground are showing live pelota, a Basque sport, and the reactions to each point scored are almost as animated as those you’d expect for goals in an Athletic game.
It feels lively outside the ground but, as with so many clubs moving to new stadiums, the atmosphere during matches has been an issue. Although the new San Mamés is architecturally and visually spectacular, it does not and cannot possess the same intimacy as its predecessor. This is recognised and there are plans for improvement. For the visit of Villarreal, the club publicise an event organised by supporters’ clubs to be held in the adjoining streets before the game. A couple of hundred fans gather around a band to sing. The team bus motors past and the anticipation builds.
The team news brings three changes: the attack-minded Iñigo Lekue is brought in at right-back, Ander Iturraspe replaces the suspended Mikel Vesga and 36-year-old top scorer Aritz Aduriz is restored to the starting lineup after coming off the bench in the 3–1 defeat at Celta Vigo before the international break.
Athletic had been blown away on the coast at Vigo, finding themselves three goals down after 26 minutes. A better start is vital here. The fans will support this club through good times and bad but there is still a sense that the players are capable of more than they are currently achieving and that inevitably leads to apathy from those on the outskirts of devotion. All the talk before kick-off was of this match’s importance yet the ground is only two-thirds full with 36,666 fans in attendance, a few thousand down on the average.
The home side do start well but confidence is low and they find that final pass, that final cross, that final shot, hard to craft. The home crowd appear cautiously optimistic that the breakthrough will come. Villarreal, sixth in La Liga, look threatening on the counter though in their distinctive all-yellow kit. They move the ball quickly from left to right, front to back and they appear well capable of playing through the tall Athletic holding midfielders Iturraspe and Mikel San José.
One such move ends with the diminutive left-back Jaume Costa knocking the ball past Iturraspe, who dives into a senseless tackle. Costa trails his leg, waiting for the contact. The referee hesitates before awarding Villarreal the penalty.
The whistles from the home supporters are deafening, directed at the referee, at Costa and at Villarreal’s stylish midfielder Manu Trigueros as he places the ball on the spot. Trigueros shoots but not accurately or powerfully enough. The penalty is stopped by Kepa, the ball squirming underneath the goalkeeper’s grasp before he leaps on it as it threatens to cross the line. San Mamés erupts with joy and relief. Kepa is hailed as a hero.
But Villarreal continue to pose danger. Soon the visitors’ right-back Mario Gaspar cuts the ball back for Trigueros to try a precise side-foot towards the bottom corner. The tall, wiry Kepa dives full-length to his left but cannot quite reach it. Villarreal lead. Trigueros punches the air with delight and Athletic fans slump into their seats at the thought of another damaging defeat.
The half-time whistle brings an oddly subdued response. No boos. No whistles. No protests. Is this resignation? Or simply patience? Athletic fans are known for their unceasing support at times when supporters of other clubs might begin to grow restless. On the second row, directly behind the goal Trigueros found with such accuracy, four older women carefully unwrap omelette baguettes from tin foil and dissect the first half. A promising start failed to materialise in a vital goal and Ziganda has a big job to rouse his players and convince them they can still win this match.
In the second half, Athletic look listless until the introduction of two substitutes — Mikel Rico in midfield and Ager Aketxe playing in an advanced role. The former brings driving runs and urgent prompting that was sadly lacking before his arrival while the latter demands the ball, playing quick passes with his team-mates and finding space.
All the while, there is the constant threat of Aduriz. The centre-forward has recently signed a two-year contract extension that will take him to the age of 38 in his beloved red and white stripes.
He made his debut fifteen years ago, left Bilbao twice only to return and has scored over 100 league goals for the club.
Even during the four years Aduriz was away playing for Mallorca and Valencia, Athletic had the gigantic Fernando Llorente to call upon. There is a long tradition of a strong centre forward leading the line at San Mamés going back to the 1950s when the club’s all-time leading goalscorer Telmo Zarra terrorised defences.
These days, it’s Aduriz. He’s waiting in the box for the left-back, Mikel Balenziaga, to cross to the far post. Aduriz finds space, the ball finds Aduriz, his header expertly guides the ball back across the motionless Villarreal goalkeeper Barbosa and the scores are level. There is a huge roar all around San Mamés but Aduriz has no time for celebrations. He acknowledges the accuracy of Balenziaga’s cross and marches back to the centre circle to resume the search for goals.
With moments remaining in the game, the Villarreal substitute Denis Cheryshev is sent clear and curls the ball just wide of the post. The entire Villarreal team throw their hands to their heads. It’s a golden chance spurned for the Yellows. The referee soon calls time on a match neither team are happy to draw.
And again the referee’s whistle brings near silence from the tens of thousands of Athletic supporters who had hoped to see a crucial victory. The next league game will bring Real Madrid to San Mamés. There will be plenty of noise for the visit of a team still associated with Franco, the brutal dictator whose regime conquered Bilbao, oppressed Basques and forced Athletic to change the name of the club to the more Spanish Atlético.
The history of the Basque country, of Bilbao, of Athletic Club is marked throughout the city. When the fans leave San Mamés, they cross the busy Avenido Sabino Arana — named after the man who founded the Basque Nationalist Party towards the end of the 19th century. It was Sabino Arana who coined the names Iñaki and Kepa, which were, in 1938, two of three names specifically cited as examples of those to be banned by a Francoist government decree. Now they are two of Athletic’s most talented and valuable young players, with Kepa in particular courted by Real Madrid.
Watching the performances of players like Iñaki Williams, Kepa Arrizabalaga and the accomplished centre-back Unai Nuñez, it is impossible to separate the short-term fear of relegation and the long-term consequences of losing players the club cannot easily replace.
The next six months or so are vital for Athletic, the city of Bilbao and all those who support this historic club. They must not slip any closer to the relegation zone. History and tradition demand it, the future too. Athletic supporters dread their most prized players looking down on Lezama from one of the jumbo jets setting off through the valley to a different destination.
This article was originally published on the author’s Medium page.