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Official Review by Gary Foxall, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Estadio San Mamés was the home of Spanish La Liga club Athletic Bilbao and, until 5 June 2013, Spain’s oldest built stadium. "La Catedral", as the stadium is nicknamed, is in the process of being demolished as I write this report and will be replaced by the new San Mamés Barria stadium being built next door. San Mamés is steeped in history and was a venue for the 1982 World Cup, where it hosted three group games. In its one hundred years, the stadium has grown from a small venue to one that became one of Spain’s major stadiums. Major redevelopments took place for the 1982 World Cup when a steel arch was erected over the main stand, one which became the stadiums symbol for the last thirty years.
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The only thing that let the stadium down was its catering facilities, although this is not uncommon amongst Spain's older venues. Sandwiches, crisps, chocolate, coffee, and San Miguel beer were the offerings from the stadium's concourses. The move to the new stadium, though, will bring a new brand of catering service to the supporters.
I had heard so much about the San Mamés atmosphere that it was a must do stadium, and thankfully I made it for the last ever game. The stadium's farewell game on 5 June was a truly emotional night, one that will live long in my memory and one that I was privileged to be in attendance at. The world has to move on, and the new stadium will bring its own atmosphere to the table. But when crowds gather to watch the bulldozers move in, and the stadium's closing makes national news, you know that the world has lost a stadium and a piece of football history that can never be replaced.
Bilbao is the capital of the Basque area of Spain which, for many years, has campaigned to be a country in its own right. The city has much to offer, and with San Mamés being located in the heart of the city, there are a wide selection of hotels, bars, cafes, shops, and museums to occupy the visitor before attending a game. Most bars offer a selection of beers and tapas and are the best value for a pre-match meal. The San Mamés Hotel right next to the stadium, and a short walk to the centre was cheap and clean and ideally located by the bus station. The city centre has all the modern department stores, but the short walk over the river to the old town is highly recommended to complete your trip.
In world football, there are only around fifty clubs where it can be said that the club's supporters are the twelfth man, and Athletic Bilbao supporters come into that category. San Mamés had a capacity of 40,000 and with around 39,000 season ticket holders, getting into a game is extremely difficult which inflates prices with ticket touts. With the new stadium having an extra 15,000 seats, at least more supporters will be able to gain entry.
San Mamés' central location makes it easy to access. The old and new stadiums are located directly opposite the city's bus station, which has connections to Spain's other major cities. The city's two railway stations are also within a fifteen-minute walk. Parking is slightly more difficult if travelling in by car, and San Mamés is reached by taking the A8 motorway to the city. Bilbao Airport is no more than a twenty minute and €1 bus ride away and is served by some of Europe's budget airlines.
Tickets for any La Liga games are not cheap, and prices rise again when Barcelona and Real Madrid are in town. However, La Liga, along with the English Premier League and Germany's Bundesliga, is now top draw, so be prepared to pay between €50-€100 to attend a game at Bilbao. This was well worth it to sample the San Mamés atmosphere, and with improved facilities at the new Barria, the return on investment will increase again.
Match day programmes were available free of charge upon entry to the stadium. San Mamés did have a small club shop by the main ticket office, and again one would imagine that this will become a club superstore at its new premises across the road.
Having attended final games at other stadiums, Athletic Bilbao have to be congratulated on giving San Mamés the sendoff it deserved. Its finale was a truly remarkable event, and one that will live forever in the minds of those that were there. Ex-stars were paraded before the game, and after the whistle, a forty-minute fireworks and lighting display, together with video clips of past matches, were shown in candle light with the floodlights turned off. A two-hundred strong choir sang the evening out, and at the end, it was fitting to watch supporters walking through the city with souvenirs that they had taken away before demolition started the next morning. "Agur, San Mamés"; the memories will live forever.
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