Athletic Bilbao's iconic home closes in May and an emotional defeat there to la Real left relegation looming larger
Xabi Prieto had never won at the Cathedral and he was not alone. Real Sociedad's captain, a midfielder born in San Sebastián who began his career at the club and will end it there too, Prieto is in his 10th season in the first team and is closing in on 400 appearances but had never won the game la Real most want to win. Only one player in the 25-man squad had experienced victory at the home of rivals Athletic Bilbao – and that was Chori Castro when he was at Mallorca and they were not rivals. This was their last chance. Not a literary last chance; literally a last chance. Ever. The last Basque derby at San Mamés.
There were tents pitched outside Anoeta and there were tents pitched outside San Mamés: less than 1,000 tickets put on sale, more than 1,000 people wanting them, fans from both teams queuing through the night and the cold. They didn't want to miss a unique occasion in a unique stadium, except that "stadium" doesn't really work: San Mamés is more a ground: the oldest in the Spanish first division and one that's different, nicknamed the Cathedral with a kind of reverential respect and with good reason. Nowhere has quite the liturgy, the community that San Mamés has. And, fear the fans, nowhere else ever will.
From the stuffed lion in the directors' box, brought back from Tanzania, to the roar from the stands; from the statue of Pichichi, flowers placed there by every new team to visit, to the smell of the grass and cigar smoke; from the arch to the black and white photos everywhere. And to there from Pozas, the narrow, tight street, long and straight, that until the last tiny stretch is not pedestrianised but on match days might as well be; the street where every doorway is a bar, Athletic flag hanging over its entrance, photos on the wall, one that feels like it has a gravitational force all of its own, as if San Mamés, with its roughly-painted Athletic shield on the side, draws you in, as if it is impossible to end up anywhere else.
Above the Athletic badge at the moment is a huge sign, celebrating San Mamés's 100th year. It is a ground that feels old too: there is nowhere quite like it, with such a profound sense of history, uneven and crumbling stands cramming in 39,000 people to face a team with a famously unique identity. When it comes to the historic, emblematic images of Spanish football, few have provided so many as Athletic. If there is one team that aspires to compete with them for that Basque identity it is Real Sociedad: the club who broke a Basque-only approach when they signed John Aldridge in 1990 and a Basques-and-foreigners-but-no-Spaniards approach when they signed Boris in 2002; a club that felt they were forced to do so by Athletic's greater financial and political muscle.
The first ever Basque derby at San Mamés was in February 1914 and the last was on Friday night. In between times, la Real's first victory – 80 years ago now and with two Englishmen on the benches: Freddie Pentland and Harry Lowe – and Athletic's favourite victory, when in 1984 they clinched the league title by beating la Real. That was the fourth league title in a row that stayed in the Basque Country, two for la Real and two for Athletic, and was celebrated with Athletic sailing down the Nervión on a barge. From next season, Athletic will move into a new stadium – and this time stadium is the word – right next to San Mamés. Some Athletic fans would argue that the biggest game is Real Madrid – certainly the one with the greatest tension – and others that the final day will not arrive until the final day arrives, against Levante at the end of May. But it was going to be an emotional night.
On the radio, El Chopo Iríbar, the greatest goalkeeper Athletic have ever had, trying not to dream it's over, sitting before the microphones of Al Primer Toque and remembering the days as he looks out on the pitch. On stage at a city theatre, two teams, one from Athletic and one from Real Sociedad, competing to see who could come up with the most original and funniest lyrics: derby day marked with a Basque sing-off. On Pozas, crammed in, bar windows open like serving hatches, fans on the street – from both sides. Amongst them, Joseba Exteberría, the Real Sociedad player who became one of 16 players to play for both when he defected to Athletic, provoking one of the few moments of real tension between the two teams.
Not far away, former la Real winger Javier de Pedro pulling on an Athletic top. "I was trying it out for my brother," he explains, laughing. In the stands, blue and white and red and blue. Together. As the Basque joke goes: why would Athletic and la Real fans argue if they can resolve their differences with a [footballing] fight? It is packed and there are flags everywhere and shirts, old fashioned scarves, berets and rattles. And behind the west stand, a line of fans clamber up, hanging from the corrugated metal barriers to peer into the stadium below. Not the current one but the new one; a U taking shape, open at the end where the current stadium still stands – the two pitches, while turned at 90 degrees, will overlap; a goal will stand where the touchline and the tunnel now are. The ritual will, they hope, remain: Pozas will still be the gateway, an Athletic-lined portal transporting them there. As for the arch, that's still to be decided but somehow, somewhere, they hope to preserve it.
The noise is intense. So, to start with, is the match. Athletic screech out, the ball whipped round, skidding across a pitch that seems different too: greener, somehow, wetter. Sometimes, you sit so high at games that it seems so simple, slow. Here, cramped in, low down, the speed is startling, almost breathless. Ander Herrera, a visitor to San Mamés as a kid, is at the heart of it all; speed of touch, speed of thought. "Go to San Mamés at midnight and you'll find Oscar de Marcos doing laps of the pitch," Iker Muniáin once joked. He's doing them here. And then Ibai Gómez smashes in a volley, whooshing into the net. This story is going to end the way they want it to end. There is a penalty turned down and more chances; Aritz Aduriz puts one just wide. "We suffered," la Real coach, Philippe Montanier, says afterwards. Athletic are flying.
But the lead lasts only four minutes. Castro crosses and, all alone, Antoine Griezmann heads an equaliser. Then, on 66 minutes, a simple free-kick. In goal, Raúl Fernández has recently replaced Gorka Iraizoz. There are doubts and it is his first derby. One newspaper notes that Athletic basically used only three goalkeepers in half a century; now they have used 18 in three decades. The ball drops in front of him and he drops it. Imanol Agirretxe scores. Now it's all la Real. Asier Illarramendi takes control, classily. The life drains out of Athletic, relegation moves closer, the nerves. Then Carlos Vela is played in by David Zurutuza and calmly slides the ball past Raúl. 1-3.
In the Real dressing room they celebrate the first win at San Mamés for everyone bar Castro; a first for the club at San Mamés in over a decade and the first league double in 24 years. It is also the first time they have come from behind to win at San Mamés in 60 years and only the second time that la Real will finish above Athletic in the league in 16. This morning Athletic are three points off relegation, la Real are only two points off the Champions League places.
At Athletic, the reaction could hardly be more different; they know what this means. The collapse was coming but it's getting worse. Even playing well, in patches at least, does not help. One player embraces a friend sadly. "I'm scared, we're in a bad way," he whispers. It is Athletic's third consecutive defeat, their sixth at home this season. "This is frightening," runs the cover of El Correo Vasco; a cartoon in Deia shows a proud lion in a Basque beret, its silhouette projected against the wall. There, it is just a skeleton, nothing but bones. No roar, no muscle, nothing. AS plays on Vela's name being the word for candle: "Eleven candles at a funeral," runs the headline. "I feel responsible," Marcelo Bielsa says.
Before the game, Xabi Prieto is given a stone replica of San Mamés, a memento of the night and of the stadium; a Cathedral to keep. After it, he is beaming. "We'd been many years without winning here and this is very special," he says. "The fans were incredible: not as many of them came as would have liked to but those that did got their reward." Two hours later, clock ticking towards 3am, they're back on Pozas, singing still. They're not going anywhere yet. They waited a long time for this; their last chance.
• Now, that's how you make up for an own goal. Jordi Amat headed into his own net to give Valladolid a 1-0 lead at Rayo Vallecano. So, a solitary minute later he scored the equaliser … from 50 yards. Not that it was enough: Manucho got a winner for Valladolid with 10 minutes to go and Rayo slipped to eighth.
• So, Celta's No2 is not qualified fighter jet pilot Salva Ballesta after all. He was halfway there – and Málaga to Vigo is some drive – when he got a call from the Celta president telling him that he was not welcome. Celta's fans have mobilised against his appointment because of his political views and forced the club to backtrack. Abel Resino decided that, despite losing his No2 (who in any case had not been entirely his choice), he was going to carry on and take the job. And this weekend he got a debut win, 2-1 against Granada.
• What, you might be asking, about Real Madrid and Barcelona? What about them?
• OK, OK, both trailed 1-0 and won 2-1. Madrid came back to beat the team with the worst defensive record at this stage of a season for 31 years and Barcelona scraped past Sevilla, securing a result that was hailed as the kind of comeback that they want against Milan. Also securing a result, incidentally, that would see them go out against Milan. David Villa scored, which despite everything he does tend to do. Lionel Messi scored too: his 38th of the season. Gonzalo Higuaín scored too and so did Kaká. Oh, and Angel di María managed to get two yellow cards in 12 seconds. Which poses only one question: was he on a bet with Sergio Ramos, or what?
• Joke penalties, joke handballs, joke red cards. La Liga has a serious problem. Yes, yes, another one.
• Dear Espanyol fans, etc and so on.
Results: Athletic 1-3 Real Sociedad, Mallorca 1-3 Getafe, Zaragoza 2-2 Valencia, Deportivo 1-2 Madrid, Barcelona 2-1 Sevilla, Rayo 1-2 Valladolid, Celta 2-1 Granada, Betis 3-0 Málaga, Levante-Osasuna, Monday night.