Ni Barça, ni Madrid, ATHLETIC!
On paper this simple phrase doesn’t look too power. But, have 40,000 crazy soccer fans scream it around you, and the chant will be ingrained in your memory forever.
Last Sunday, I found myself in the third row of San Mamés Stadium, watching Athletic Club Bilbao play FC Barcelona. This was my first time seeing both a professional soccer game and major European sporting event. And what an exhilarating experience was it!
Now, going into the game, I knew there would be a lot of die-hard fans. However, what I didn’t realize was that every person was a die-hard fan. There was no half-heartedly cheering at any point. Every fan wore their teams’ colors or logos. Every fan chanted at the top of their lungs. And, every fan was attentive and extremely passionate about the game.
For instance, there was this adorable little girl who was probably around 6/7-years-old that was locked on to the match, never missing a kick. Every so often, she’d get up on her father’s shoulders, hold up her scarf, and sing along to the Athletic fight songs, knowing every single word. Just from watching her and her expressions, I could see how emotional and strong the support was for the local Bilbao team.
Athletic Bilbao operates a little differently from the rest of its La Liga counterparts. All the players for the club are Basque, either natives of País Vasco in Spain or the Basque Country in Southern France. No foreigners are eligible to play for the team. That being said, Athletic is completely homegrown, with every player being a local. The team truly represents the Basque Country, whereas with most other professional sports teams, only a few players may be from the region in which they play. I think sharing this same background brings the players, the fans, and the community that much closer together.
And it’s obvious that the Basque people take a lot pride in their Basque team. During the match, Xabier Etxeita, a defender for Athletic, was given a red card for a penalty against the famed Luis Suarez. Normally, when red cards are issued the crowd just yells obscenities until the game continues, but not with Etxeita. As the Athletic player was walking off the field, the entire stadium stood up and calmly applauded him. Even though his exit from the game pretty much signified Athletic’s impending loss, the fans still supported him. It was as if the crowd was thanking him for playing.
Now, I understand why Spaniards are so fanatical about soccer. The energy within the stadium is unbelievable. Blood’s pumping; adrenaline’s rushing the entire time. Being accustomed to SEC football games, I thought Americans got into their sports, but the Spaniards were way more intense. The energy was that of the Super Bowl, except this was just a regular season game. Just being part of the crowd was extremely fun. The exciting game was an added bonus!
As with any experience abroad, there were some other aspects of attending the match that surprised me. First, there was almost no security to get into game. All I had to do was scan my ticket and enter. Unlike in the United States, there was no bag security check or anything. In fact, almost everyone brings large bags or backpacks filled with snacks, beers, and other drinks into the stadium with them. The stadium’s concessions only served non-alcoholic beer and popcorn. Then at half time, literally every person, besides me and my friends, pulled out a sandwich on a baguette wrapped in aluminum foil to eat. I missed the memo on that one! So, I’ve learned for the next game I attend to bring my own snacks and sandwich!
Another surprise to me, was that the chunk of seats reserved for Barcelona fans was enclosed by sheets of plexiglass\clear plastic. For as passionate as the fans are, I definitely can see the barrier keeping people out of fights or throwing their baguettes at each other. The seats next to this section were the only sparsely occupied section in the stadium. One of my friends told me, that to buy tickets for the adjacent sections was extremely hard, requiring people to show passports or other identification to secure them. This is done in order to keep the extreme fans from sitting there just to harass the visiting team’s fans.
The game itself was a blast to watch. I got to see some of the biggest names in soccer play right in front of me: Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr., Luis Suarez, Xavi, and many more. With an end score of 2-5, I saw a lot of action as well.
Overall, attending the game surpassed all my expectations. I highly recommend to anyone who visits Spain to attend a professional soccer game. It’s such an easy and exciting way to experience Spanish culture.
Although I’ll always love cheering on my Rebels back home, I’m a full-fledged Athletic Bilbao fan now. I’ll definitely be back in the San Mamés stands again, except next time I’ll be singing along with the rest of the crowd!