Happy New Year to you all and I hope you all had a great time over the festivities. I’m TonyBilbao1actually writing this on 6th January, which is Spanish Christmas Day. This is the day that most Spanish children receive their Christmas presents from the Three Wise Men (Los Reyes Magos). The biblical story has been jazzed up somewhat and the three wise men leave presents in the children’s shoes. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this, for me Christmas is a distant memory by the 6th.

Anyway, just before Christmas I received one of my best presents ever, a trip up to Bilbao to watch Athletic Club. Regular readers will know how much I’ve regretted not going to Bilbao when United played them in 1995. So I make no apologies that this blog is all things Basque.

Athletic were playing Rayo, another team I have a lot of time for, and the game was on a TonyBilbao3Sunday evening. I travelled north with my two sons and we arrived in Bilbao, via a flight from Madrid, on early Sunday morning, giving us plenty of time to look around AND more importantly find tickets. I’d been told that tickets for Athletic matches this season were like hen’s teeth and that we’d be lucky to get some.

Stories like that have never put me off going to games but I was I bit concerned I have to admit. The problem is that Athletic demolished the old San Mames last season and the new ground currently only has three sides that and holds around 37,000, Athletic have more Socios (members) than that and many Athletic Socios haven’t even been in the new stadium yet.

Before I went up there I’d watched two great documentaries about the old ground on Spanish TV and I was delighted that in both of them United’s game there back in ’95 was classed as one of the special games, with regards to the excellent relationship between the two sets of supporters. The excellent Spanish journalist, Guillem Balague, has also put a great reportage together about the stadiums, for SkySports in English, and you can watch it here.

Bilbao and the Basque County has fascinated me for a sometime and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed with what I found up there. The city itself has a very similar industrial heritage to Newcastle and Tyneside. Shipyards, steelworks and other heavy industry once lined the banks of the River Nervión as it did the Tyne and in the surrounding areas were mining communities that mined iron as opposed to coal in North East England. In a similar way to Tyneside this industry attracted many from outside the area and amongst those were the English. The English, along with some Basque students that had studied in Britain, are said to be the ones who introduced football to the city, hence the very English name Athletic.

Bilbao, again like Newcastle, has undergone regeneration over the past few years TonyBilbao2and many of you reading this who visited Bilbao back in ’95 wouldn’t recognise some of the newer landmarks, like the Guggenheim Museum and a skyscraper called the Iberdrola Tower. Both of these are symbols of modern Bilbao but I preferred the old town to be honest, it has some great bars and tapas called pinchos.

Onto the game itself, Athletic beat Rayo 2-1 and continued their great start in their new stadium and we were lucky as we got into the match. Click here for some footage

Some tickets went on general sale at €80 a pop (I know #AMF and all that) but we only had to buy one. The other two we received free from a mate of a mate. One of the lads at CAP Ciudad de Murcia has friends in Bilbao and one of these lads, Edorta Garcia, through his family and friends arranged for us to use two season tickets of lads who weren’t going to the game. I’d like to go on record and say a massive thank you (eskerrik asko) to Edorta and his family and mates who made us feel very welcome in their city. In general I found the people to be really warm and even more so when they found out where we are from, that game in ’95 really did leave a lasting impression.

As most of you know Spanish football takes a break over Christmas but whilst in Bilbao I TonyBilbao4noticed some posters advertising a game between the Basque regional team (national team to some) and Peru, at the new San Mames. These games usually attracted quite large crowds and can also act as a platform for the many Basques that want independence from Spain. The team actually entered the field of play carrying a banner calling for the football authorities to recognise the team as a national team and to let them play in official international competitions. The Basque team smashed Peru 6-0; maybe at least from a football point of view they have a point. See some footage here

Before the match there was a demonstration in remembrance of a Real Sociedad fan, Aitor Zabaleta, who was stabbed to death outside of Atletico Madrid’s El Calderon Stadium in 1998. Aitor ,who was with his girlfriend, was murdered by Ricardo Guerra who was a member of the far right ultra group Bastión, and many people say Atior was killed for simply being Basque.

Politics and Spanish football tend to go hand in hand and many of the left wing Spanish fan TonyBilbao6groups display the Basque flag, the ikurrina, at their games. This is a show of solidarity with the Basques and many of the left leaning fans believe that the Basques should have the right of self determination. The Basque conflict is hard to get your head around and I’m not going to try and do it on here but last weekend some former militants from the Basque group ETA have expressed their regret for carrying out acts of violence in the past. You can read about it at the BBC here  if you are interested.

So to finish the Basque theme then, last Sunday there was the Basque derby, in the Basque TonyBilbao5coastal city of San Sebastian. Real Sociedad played Athletic; the two teams are currently battling over a Champions League place.

Sociedad won the game 2-0 and as I watched the match on TV the game got me thinking about our own derby and the current controversy over the “bubble”.

Both Basque clubs and cities are very proud and are fierce rivals. However, the crowd was mixed with very little segregation both inside and outside the ground. I don’t know, maybe it’s a shared political viewpoint that helps with this? In any event maybe we could learn something from the Basques in this respect?

Until next time …..agur!