Ghosts of San Mames – Bilbao’s original La Catedral

Baina nire aitaren etxeak iraunen du, zutik
(But the house of my father will remain, standing)
― Gabriel Aresti, 1963

Sunday is a day of perfect bliss for the devout; a day on which many seek refuge in the house of God; a day that rejoices the hearts of many a Christian. But 26th of May 2013 was no such blissful Sunday for the Athletic faithful.

Once again they had gathered in the holy ‘Cathedral’ to see their ‘Lions’ take to the field. The atmosphere was the same as it had been for one hundred years – petrifying. But there was something about the place this time that made the evening a different occasion.

There existed an aura of sorrow mingled with the usual fierce pride about the supporters. They knew this would be their last visit to their old ground; one last Sunday to savour in La catedral.

The assembled were well aware that  next season their adored Athletic would have a new abode, albeit in the same place and with the same name. The match that evening against Levante was the last official one to be played at the old San Mames. The scenes prior to kickoff will have touched every spectator around the world.


The fans, young and old alike, were on their feet clapping and weeping as were the players entered the pitch. What beautiful moments of pure, unadulterated emotion; what catharsis. They were bidding farewell to a venue that had given them a century of epic memories; goodbye to their sacred sanctuary of the last one hundred years.

San Mames stadium, better known as La Catedral (The Cathedral) among the local Basques in Bilbao was home to Athletic Bilbao from 1913 to 2013. It was originally designed by architect Manuel Maria Smith, and was the first football-specific stadium built in Spain.

Athletic Club’s socios (club members) were aided by a number of Bilbaoan industrialists in mustering 40,770 pesetas, a not too unsubstantial sum for the early 20th Century.

The stadium’s first stone was laid on 20 January 1913, and seven months later it was ready for use. San Mames was inaugurated on Thursday, 21 August 1913 at 5:15 pm. Athletic Club’s first opponents at the new ground were the Spanish champions, Racing Club of Irun.

Five minutes into the match, the very first goal in the arena was scored by a pacey, skillful Athletic striker – Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, known as Pichichi (Little Duck). Seve Zuazo, Pichichi’s strike partner, provided him with the assist, and such was how the stadium embarked on its century-long odyssey of mythical depths.

Initially, San Mames had a capacity of seven thousand spectators. When it was leveled in 2013, San Mames could house forty thousand observers. The stadium went through a number of modifications down the years.

In February 1952, San Mames underwent a major structural reform which included a revolutionary metal structure allowing the absence of columns, and thus a significant improvement in visibility. At the time, the stadium was considered an architectural masterpiece; it was the first time that an arch construction had been utilised for sporting purposes.

The stadium’s name has a compelling story behind it. The name comes from Asilo de San Mames (San Mames asylum) which was situated adjacent to the stadium back in 1912. Saint Mammes of Caesarea was a Christian martyr of the third century whose parents were Christians executed for their faith.

The legend has it that during his childhood and before being enslaved by Romans, Saint Mammes took care of a lion cub. The cub was nursed back to health by him, and returned to its pride.

Years later when Saint Mammes was fatefully thrown to the same lion pride by the Roman Emperor Aurelien, the lions refused to attack him and sat around in appreciation. For that reason, and in token of the legend of Saint Mammes, Athletic Bilbao players are called Los Leones – The Lions.

The ferocious atmosphere generated at the ‘old’ San Mames was, arguably, unrivaled around the world. Walking down the tunnel at ‘The Cathedral’ before a match sent shivers down the spine of even the most imperturbable. Wearing txapelas (traditional Basque berets), the vociferous Basques never ceased to sing “Beti Zurekin, Athleti Beti Zurekin”, “Always With You Athletic”.

Former Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa once said:

San Mames is a box containing a feeling that will resonate for all eternity.

Michel, a former Bernabeu great, once ventured as far to say that nowhere on earth compared to San Mames on a match day, not even the famous Anfield of Liverpool.

The hostility inside the arena was doubled when Real Madrid were in town. In a way, Athletic fans learn to loathe Real Madrid whilst still in their mothers’ wombs. Quite conspicuously, the noise was more boisterous every time The Lions took on the team from the capital.

It seemed as though years of unresolved anguish under Franco erupted through their throats as they incessantly gave their favorite team support.


Throughout its history, San Mames had seen many memorable matches on its turf. La catedral was the only stadium that had hosted all Primera Division matches since the Spanish top flight began in 1929. It was the first stadium that accommodated the Spain national football team, in a match against Belgium in 1921.

On 16 August 1979, Euskadi, the Basque Selection, played Ireland at San Mames. The match took place four years after the death of General Franco and the first time that their national selection had been in action on Spanish soil since the late 1930s.

During the game, Jose Angel Iribar received perhaps the most thunderous ovation in the history of San Mames, and the reason was clear – it was he who had carried out the defiant gesture of carrying the ikurriña, the Basque flag, onto the pitch at a time when it was banned from public display.

In the 1982 World Cup, San Mames hosted England’s games against France, Czechoslovakia, and Kuwait. In the match between France and England, The Cathedral was witness to one of the fastest goals in the history of the tournament, scored by Bryan Robson from close range after 27 seconds.

In 2012, on one of the proudest nights in the stadium’s history, Los Leones defeated Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United by two goals to one in the second leg of the UEFA Europa League Round of 16. The victory served to avenge Athletic’s defeat against the Red Devils in 1957.

In the semi-finals of the same edition of the Europa League, Athletic de Bilbao emerged triumphant in the return leg at San Mames against Sporting Club de Portugal to reach a second European final in their history. It was a match that current Athletic captain Carlos Gurpegi described as ‘one of the most memorable’ he had experienced in the Cathedral.

The rapturous roar heard upon Fernando Llorente’s eighty-eighth-minute clincher was the loudest the stadium had heard in some time. Martin Atkinson, the English referee, could barely hear his assistants as he headed for the tunnel.

Doubtless, the grandeur of the event in the eyes of Athletic supporters cannot be duly depicted in words; suffice it to say that the night went down as yet another glorious tale in the incredibly rich folklore at San Mames.

San Mames gave birth to some truly astounding players. Pichichi with his famous habit of wearing a white handkerchief on the head whilst playing, his tremendous shot that earned him the nickname ‘rey de shoot’; Telmo Zarra with his goal-scoring prowess, and his long-standing, now-broken record of 251 Liga goals; Jose Angel Iribar with his heroics between the posts during his 18 seasons with Athletic; Belauste with his big frame, physicality and loyalty; Goikoetxea, nicknamed ‘The Butcher of Bilbao’, for his notorious lunge on Maradona that left the Argentine legend in agony from an open leg fracture, and many more whose names would make the list endless, have all been worthy sons of San Mames.


When the Basque priest, Manuel Ortuzar consecrated the construction site of the stadium in a ceremony on 20 January 1913, hardly did he fancy the place to breathe quasi-religious air in one hundred years’ time.

Historically, Basques are a fiercely religious people, but their belief in independence has always been the most exalted religion of all for them. Indeed, San Mames gave them the perfect means through which to express their sentiments of autonomy and self-identity.

After all, they are a sturdy race that even Romans could not tame into full submission. For a nation so much steeped in proud patriotism, San Mames was an effervescent source of faith, passion, and commitment; it was a quaking Basque version of the Colosseum where unalloyed, Basque warriors fought for a cause beyond football.

In 2013, San Mames zaharra – the old San Mames – was affectlessly pounded to pieces. Sadly, the fabulous fortress’s only remnant is the famous arch which was transferred to Athletic’s training facilities at Lezama. San Mames Barria – The New San Mames – is a modern, five-star, state-of-the-art stadium, but one wonders if it will ever engender the kind of ardour that La Catedral did for so long.

The old San Mames may be gone now, but every Sunday the Athletic faithful feel solace at the thought that just meters away, calmly rests the spirit of their beloved ancestral house; agur San Mames.

The Author

Farzad Amirmahani

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