The closing of the San Mames in June of 2013 was, perhaps, the saddest day in the history of Athletic Club. La Catedral opened in January of 1913, seeing 100 years of football, and had experienced countless wonderful moments as the home of Athletic Club. From the 4-1 Copa del Rey final victory over Atletico Madrid in 1921 to the 2-1 win over Manchester United in the Europa League in 2012, the San Mames was a magical place.
Those in attendance at the official game at the San Mames remember it well, myself included. Long before the hymn began or the players took the field, the fans were in the stands. It felt like every single drop of rain that had ever graced the blades of grass were hanging heavy in the air. I remember standing and just taking it all in. Like most Athletic fans, I knew and understood that the new stadium was a good thing and that it needed to happen. The club had broken ground on the new stadium in 2010 so fans had time to prepare themselves. Still, like many others, it felt unbelievable that the San Mames would be torn down. I fought back tears while waiting for the game to start.
As I looked around I saw many faces and all of them seemed to be thinking what I was thinking. This is it, isn’t it? I saw some standing tall with their heads held proud. Others interlocked arms and swayed. Some had arms around shoulders and were signing the Hymn over and over again. Parents told their children memories of the beautiful stadium. Some openly wept. As the entire team and fans clapped to celebrate the 100 years of the San Mames, no one could hold back the tears any longer. It was like end of one giant family reunion where everyone was saying goodbye. The fans were the real stars in the final game at the San Mames and they are still the stars that make the new stadium intoxicating today.
In the end Athletic lost 1-0 to Levante, but the score really didn’t matter. As everyone filed out of the San Mames for the last time, you just couldn’t help looking over your shoulder to gaze upon the Cathedral one more time. It still didn’t feel real. The goodbye celebration was full of fireworks and was basically a giant party. Here there were smiles and laughter celebrating 100 years of football history and tradition. To honor the memory of the stadium, Athletic played a friendly match against a Bizkaia team on the 5th of June and several legends, such as Julen Guerrero and Jose Angel Iribar, featured in the game. The following day, the San Mames was demolished.
The next season Athletic opened their brand new stadium in September of 2013, 102 days after the final game at the original stadium, against Celta Vigo in a game that will always be remembered. Originally dubbed the San Mames Barria, fans refused to call it anything other than the San Mames, which never died. To make things interesting, the stadium was not even completed at the time. The far goal stands were unfinished due to the fact that they had been built right up against the original stadium and were not able to be constructed until it was demolished. There a banner bearing the name of the stadium hung behind the goal. Going into the game many fans said it just wouldn’t be the same, that it would never be home. Once everyone began to enter the stadium, that all changed. The magic that had made the original San Mames so special had been carried in the hearts of the fans and brought into the new stadium. When the Hymn began, it immediately felt like home.
Celta Vigo took an early lead, but goals from Mikel San Jose and Andoni Iraola pulled the Lions back ahead. Finally, a third goal from Benat finished the game with the Basques winning 3-2. It was a magical night full of energy that sparked a season to remember. How fitting for Iraola to score to put Athletic ahead and for Benat, who had played in the ceremonial last game at the original stadium, to have the winning goal.
The more Athletic played at the new San Mames, the more it felt like home and that first season was one for the history books. There were amazing moments like beating Barcelona 1-0 at the San Mames and holding Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw thanks to an unbelievable volley from Ibai Gomez. The Lions played well enough to finish 4th in the table and qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 16 years, in front of their own fans. In the end, Athletic Club managed to lose just three times at the San Mames across all competitions. The Cathedral was quickly turning into a fortress.
Next year, the Lions would play their first ever Champions League game in the new San Mames. Like the first La Liga match, it would also end in a comeback victory in thrilling fashion. Athletic hosted Napoli who took a lead early in the second half before Aritz Aduriz scored a brace. The match ended 3-1 and saw the Basques through to the group stage of the European tournament. The following year, Athletic defeated Barcelona 4-0 at the San Mames which helped them go on to lift the Spanish Super Cup; the first trophy in decades for the Basque giants.
This season has become eerily similar to that first memorable campaign. So far, Athletic Club has played 25 games at the San Mames and has managed to win 19 times. In fact, the Lions have only lost twice, to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. Their plus 26 goal difference at The Cathedral is absolutely remarkable and has them seriously challenging for a top five finish in the La Liga table.
Despite being a completely new stadium, the San Mames is the San Mames. The wonderful fans have carried the magic and energy with them into their new home and that is exactly what is it – home. For over 100 years the San Mames has represented the Basque Country’s identity and rich tradition. It has been the pinnacle of Basque sport, life, and culture and the history and magic grow with every kick of the football. Athletic Club continues to represent the ideology of all of the Basque Country and this is their Home. The Fortress. The Cathedral. The San Mames.