Just across the street from the Estadio San Mames sits the Santa Casa de Misericordia – a one time asylum for orphans and the homeless. Now a nursing home for the elderly it is an entirely 19th century building and remains an institution in this area of Bilbao.
Distinctive for its domes, arches and pointed turrets it was, at least until 2013, not the only building in the area distinctive for its shape and locality.
It was in that year of 2013 – after 100 years and 3,685 football matches – that the San Mamés, or ‘La Catedral’ as it was known, was dismantled and the baton of Basque football identity was handed over to the new Catedral – the San Mamés.
Founded in 1898 Athletic Club had originally played its football in the colours of blue and white. Based on local fields on the outskirts of Bilbao it was only when a plot of land next to the asylum became available that a start in life for the San Mames become a reality. By that time Athletic Bilbao played in the red and white colours that it is know for today.
By the 1920’s what was largely a wooden structure was hosting a Spanish Cup Final (Athletic defeating Atletico 4-1) and the international matches of the Spanish national team had come to Bilbao.
But like its counterparts in Madrid and Barcelona it soon became a structure hemmed in by the spread of urban development.
Bilbao had witnessed a spectacular financial blossoming during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The effects of this transformation seeing Bilbao become a thriving destination for those seeking work. The city grew at an extraordinary rate.
The 1950’s and 1960’s saw more redevelopment of the Estadio San Mames – most distinctive being the addition of the iconic arch above one stand – and this emblem of the former San Mames has now been integrated into the renouned Athletic Bilbao Lezama training facilities.
As Spanish football exploded on to the European stage further periods of stadia growth occured. Building work in the early 80’s culminated in the San Mames hosting matches during the 1982 World Cup.
With much of Europe 10 years ahead of the Spanish in terms of stadium redevelopment it was time for a giant of the Spanish game to catch up.
While the original San Mames had become a concrete fortress – home to a thriving matchday noise and fanatical fans – it was also a stadium not fit for the rewards of the modern global European game. Atheltic Bilbao deserved to be on that main European stage and the club directors knew it.
A little like Arsenal with Highbury the grandness and iconic symbols of the past could only take the club so far both on and off the field.
The planning and eventual appearance of the new San Mames could not have been timed any better.
In 2012 the club reached the Europa League Final after a mesmerising run to the final. Moreover the Final of the Copa Del Rey was reached with hopes of a win only stopped thanks to an strong Barcelona side.
Like a monument to former glory the new San Mames is built practically on the same site as its older relative and continues to be an indispensable reference point among the prestigious footballing fields of La Liga.
Like a medieval cathedral that has been polished, its shape and exterior lighting brings new meaning to stadium excellence standards and the nickname, ‘The Cathedral’.
The classic location now allows 53,000 spectators to breathe in a special football atmosphere.
Located closer to the River Nervion than its compact predecessor, the new structure overlooks the River from a high banked point.
While the location of the new ground speaks for itself the new ground has however failed in the enormous challenge of transmitting the qualities and specific values of the older stadium. The iconic arch is now located at the training ground and in truth the new San Mames just looks like any other new build stadium.
Its modern feel and almost perfect layout makes it for the club accessible, state-of-the-art, comfortable and marketable to UEFA’s markets. But for some fans things will never be the same again.
Despite only sitting some 2km from Bilbao’s medieval Casco Viejo area the new home of Athletic Bilbao has not been without its detractors amongst fans. Complaints have been made about the roof; allegations made about corruption as to financing while the cost of being a Athletic socio is higher than it has ever been.
Many feel there is a lack of atmosphere when compared to the more traditional and compact ‘old’ San Mames.
From a playing perspective the recent stadium roof extension has had a huge impact upon the ability of sunlight to shine on the pitch. To counteract this internal lighting modules are used to maintain the conditon and growth of the turf.
In response to fans who were resistant, the Athletic board point to the ample space that is now available to supporters in the surrounds of the stadium.
Moreover this year has seen the addition of rail seating at one end of the ground. This feature allows the clubs liveliest supporters to remain standing, singing and jumping throughout the game.
Two years after it first emerged the stadium attained a giant external video screen which measures (15.5m x 9.8m) and has been placed in a prominent position – at the same point where the original San Mamés featured a large club crest. The screen permanently communicates fixture news and club branding ideas.
Most importantly it is visible from the main city throughfares that run to the stadium from the heart of Europe’s most modern of city’s.
You can read the original Goodbye San Mames story here
Year Opened: 2013
Capacity: 53, 289
Average Attendance: 41, 983
Pitch Size: 105 x 68
Clubs Hosted: Athletic Bilbao, Athletic Bilbao B