And so we reach the beginning of The End. It’s been approaching for one hundred years but now a body swerve into the arc of the final bend is being described and the home-straight is looming into view. Who knows how many episodes have been played out on the pitch. La Liga, Copa Del Rey’s, European Cups, World Cups and seen some of the worlds finest players stroll, stomp or caress it’s turf with more than a few leaving blood, sweat, tears and near-death experiences in their wake.
What will never be known are the trials, tribulations, trysts, triumphs and travails have taken place on the terraces and stands of an arena that symbolises a nations aspirations, it’s heart and – at one point at least, it’s single outlet for expression against the central governments malignancy.
I speak, of course about Athletic’ long-term home, San Mamés, which tonight hosts this seasons second instalment of the Euskal Derbia or Basque Derby against nearby rivals from Donostia, Real Sociedad. It will be the 76th occasion on which these teams have come face to face at San Mamés, also known as The Cathedral and, the last.
As a relative novice to the Spanish game I’d be hard pressed to dwell on the hundreds of thousands of moments that define this stadium and the fans who have had the pleasure to visit it, but perhaps the most famous was the prelude to the 1975 fixture that came shortly after the death of Spanish Dictator, General Franco. From 1939 to that day, display of the Basque nations flag, theIkurriña, had been outlawed under pain of being stuffed into a cell far about as far from the the Iberian north coast as it was possible to be and left to stew. For years. So, when La Real captain, Ignacio Korbarria accompanied by his Atheltic counterpart, the legendary goalkeeper Iribar, took to the field hoisting said banner between them, it became one of those moments when sport fused with culture, culture with politics and everything else that stokes national interest and became news. Front page news. Global front page news probably accompanied by the whirring soundtrack emanating from The Valley of the Fallen where a spinning Franco was just embarking on his big sleep.
The bravery of this act cannot be understated.The country was still in shock at the demise of the tubby Galician, in the background heavy jawed generals jostled for a piece of the paella whilst as the monarch and de facto leader Juan Carlos was busy thrashing out the constitution to ensure peace and stability. In that context, it was a brave gesture indeed and one continues to resonate to this day, playing no small part in the nascent post-dictatorial regimes realisation that, as Sam Cooke once splendidly sang, A Change is Gonna Come.
Obviously my scribblings do scant justice to the stadium, it’s history and aura. For that you’d be better-off clicking here and wallowing in a few stanzas of martial pomp and perhaps indulging in a moments sweet melancholy for Spain’s oldest Cathedral of the beautiful game.
Right. Slightly damp hanky back into pocket and copy of the famously impartial Marca sports rag in hand, let’s see what’s happening this week.
Athletic take on La Real tonight but I mentioned that, didn’t I? If this were Hollywood, a ghostly apparition looking like nineteen twenties Athletic legend Pichichi would materialise on the penalty spot in the last couple of seconds and nod in a winner. But we’re in Spain where Hollywood endings are scorned and the respective teams recent form would suggest that Athletic won’t be taking much from this as La Real look to ruin the party and gallop on toward Europe.
Saturday’s first game sees the point shy Mallorca host Getafe in the Yoko Ono Memorial Stadium – or whatever it’s called at the moment. If I were prone to understatement I’d say that the hosts need the points but as I’m not I’ll screech it – all the way from the throbbing discos of Magaluf in the south to the family friendly (hell-hole) beach heaven of Alcudia in the north, THEY NEED A WIN. After this Real Zaragoza welcome the Batmen from Valencia – who may have one eye on their Champions League tie in gay Paris rather than a mis-spent Saturday in grey Zaragoza. We’ll see.
Depor then take on Madrid. A loss – as seems inevitable – for the Galicians could put them eleven points from safety come Sunday with the immediate threat of the drop which could have dreadful ramifications on the future of the club itself – I’m not sure how Newco translates into Spanish but Os Turkos may need to learn this one soon. Madrid need the win to keep pressure on Atleti in second so, one assumes they’ll be going for it sparing Depor little mercy in the process.
Saturdays final fixture sees Sevilla in the Camp Nou. They’ll be the first team to test the mettle of the Catalans since the latters demoralising defeat against Milan in Italy. And they’ll probably be the first bunch to suffer the ire of a team that, after serving up meaty feast after meaty feast for so long that they were probably overdue a hiccup.
Sunday’s midday pre-lunch ‘what are we doing here/’ encounter involves Rayo and Valladolid. That this game has been relegated to the snooze spot is rather disappointing given the excellent form of both clubs. A Rayo home win will put them back in the Euro Mixer whilst should Valladolid prevail, they’ll have even more reason to consider the season a success. There won’t be a repeat of the six nothing home win by Valladolid last October, but there should be goals. Celta then welcome Granada. As ever, the Galicians need the points but should be wary of a neat Granada outfit who have a habit of winning these games.
Next up, Espanyol visit the Calderon. If I’d been pushed to predict this one a few months ago a home win would have been a dead cert. But now Espanyol are in Champions League form so I’ll go for a battling draw particularly in light of Atleti’s exertions in vain during Thursday night’s win against Rubin Kazan. On this subject – and I know it was chilly – but I ‘d just like to congratulate the hardy followers of the Russian outfit – all one thousand of them.
Sunday night has us back in Andalucia for a must win derby; Betis must win to claw themselves back into Euro contention and Malaga must win to cement their position in the Champions League spots. However, UEFA may have something to say about the latter after their ban on the Malaguenos entering any European competition due to financial irregularities. It shocks us to think that La Liga may be ridden with dubious financial shenanigans, but if UEFAs focus is sharpened on Iberia there may be a few clubs who need to get their accounts into order before the earth scorching wrath of Messieur Platini is unleashed.
Finally, Monday sees Osasuna travel down to Valencia to face Levante. This should be a home win but, again, Levante’s continued Europa League participation may have blunted their zest for the day to day. Probably not but it gives Osasuna a reason to believe.
Ciao for now, have a good weekend and see you on Monday.