Basque Groundhopping 15: Athletic Club Vs Real Sociedad, No Ordinary Derby

Club name: Athletic Club

Stadium: San Mamés

Level: La Liga

Ticket Price: Can be anything upwards of 30€, mine was 50€

How to arrive: Get the metro to San Mamés and take the exit of the same name or do a 4 hour pub crawl through the city.

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It’s December 16th 2017 and the day after my birthday. More importantly, it’s the day of the Basque Derby so I’m going to treat myself to a little pre-match pub-crawl through the city I live in, Bilbao.

First of all, I head to Casco Viejo (The Old Town), the atmosphere there is always great on match-days. I take the metro from Sarriko to Casco, taking the exit for Plaza de Unamuno. Upon leaving the metro station, I head into the bar on the immediate left of the exit, they do fantastic Croquetas de Jamón. After my first croqueta, I walk the short distance to Plaza Nueva. Fans from both teams are already starting to congregate. There’s singing, chanting, cheering, drinking… general match day hype. I see Bar Sorginzulo over in the corner, I go there, I’m a big fan of their mini-hamburgers. I order two and my first caña (the more continental and diminutive version of a pint). I wait for my mates here, and when they arrive I order one more burger before we leave, for the road.

Basque Groundhopping 15 Athletic Club Vs Real Sociedad Dec 2017 Pintxos
A common image upon bar tops in the Basque Country, Pintxos

We cross the river leaving the old town and enter the more modern, central neighbourhood of Abando, to Calle Ledesma, to be more specific. It’s a long pedestrian street full of bars and restaurants with some of the finest pintxos in the city. “Me pones un trocito de tortilla de patata y una caña, porfa?” My favourite Spanish phrase. The bars are filling nicely now, fans of both sides are stood around, mostly gossiping, discussing tactics and their respective club’s recent misfortunes.I soak up the atmosphere as the tortilla de patata soaks up my second and third caña. There’s something strange going on here, I realise. Isn’t it El Día del Derbí? The great Basque Derby? The mightly Athletic Club of Bilbao versus the slightly less mighty Real Sociedad of Donosti? The Basque Country’s oldest and most successful clubs from its largest and most renowned cities. Something’s missing. Where are the riot police? The horses? The looming threat of violence? These fans are stood together, drinking together, laughing together… some are literally holding each other’s hands. We must be too far from the stadium, surely it will be kicking-off over there. Onwards to Pozas!

Basque Groundhopping 15 Athletic Club Vs Real Sociedad Dec 2017 Derbi Vasco

Pozas, short for Calle Licenciado Poza, is a long and busy road that runs right through the very heart of Bilbao with its conclusion being the magnificent and historic footballing ‘Catedral’: Estadio San Mamés. The road, which is narrow and busy, is difficult enough to navigate on a normal day, today it’s nigh-on impossible. It’s nothing but a sea of blue-and-white and red-and-white stripes. There’s large groups of fans stood outside the roads famous bars; there’s groups of Athletic fans, groups of La Real fans and groups of fans together. They’re discussing, bickering, and more often than not bragging about their clubs but that’s the extent of it, never fighting.

Basque Groundhopping 15 Athletic Club Vs Real Sociedad Dec 2017 Pozas

The time is now, kick-off is not far away. We squeeze our way through the crowd, hoping for a breath of fresh air as much as a sight of San Mamés but as we progress it draws ever closer. We make our last pit-stop where we pick up our final caña and the obligatory half-time bocadillo, the pub crawl/culinary tour is over. We go to the stadium and head to our seats. Mine, not surprisingly, is next to a La Real fan from Zarautz. Luckily we arrived just in time to hear that famous roar “ATHLEEEEEEEEEEETIIC!”

Here we go, game on.

The unique atmosphere of this derby never ceases to amaze me. Yes, there is a clear rivalry, a clear desire for your team to win and put one over the other team, and it is fierce and, at times rowdy, but never violent. It’s a pure celebration of football. The fans let their players do the fighting and the squabbling. They do no more than watch the game whilst occasionally shouting indecencies: at the referee, at their players, at their manager, at the opposition manager, at the Spanish… at the English kid wearing an Athletic top sat next to him.

Basque Groundhopping 15 Athletic Club Vs Real Sociedad December 16th 2017 Basque Derby San Mames

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