Beyond The Game: Bilbao

We sent two Athletic Club fans from London on a UEFA Europa League VIP experience. A high-energy trip followed, in which they got closer than ever to their favourite club. Read the story by Iker below.


 

To outsiders, Bilbao is known for the Guggenheim and the best pinxtos (Basque tapas) in the region. To us, it’s more than a pretty port city; it’s the home of Athletic Club. The Lions, as we call them, are the football stars Jess and I have supported since our childhood. Now that we no longer live in Bilbao, it’s no different; we’re always with other London-based Athletic Club fans at the Mr.Pentland fan club. It’s a proper Basque club, with Basque players. So when Enterprise Rent-A-Car invited us for a VIP experience at the game, we were in heaven. The whole experience was both familiar and unfamiliar. We know every player, the stadium and the city, but never got quite this close.

For starters, little did we know that one of the greatest football trophies of all time was waiting for us in our hotel room. Once we had overcome the shock — and taken a shameful amount of selfies — we were ready to go on a little adventure. We took the car to Sopelena Beach, where wild nature is a great contrast to the buzzing city nearby. The white cliffs are coloured with age-old lava traces and partially overgrown with green. It’s a beautiful place, and when the weather is right, it’s fantastic for surfing, cycling and even paragliding. We decided to hike to an old civil war bunker, popular among locals for its rave parties. Rave or not, it was one of our favourite places for photos, with a beautiful view of the beach and ocean.

From here, it’s only a short walk to the Gothic centre of town. Crossing the footbridge over the river, we could already see signs of preparations for tomorrow's game. Red and white stripes were gaining presence. Kids were running around in team shirts, and flags were hanging from apartment windows. Hungry from excitement, we went to the small Beetle Bar, a great bar and deli where Jess spent the afternoon decorating the windows with a colourful local artist.

The next day started with yet another great surprise, as Enterprise Rent-A-Car sent us a car and chauffeur. As we were driving through the city, we spotted a growing number of Athletic Club fans and came to realise that we were on our way to the stadium. The Estadio de San Mamés, better known as The Cathedral, was finished in 2013. The iconic building was getting ready for the big match, and we were allowed a private tour.

Walking down the pitch, we had to pinch ourselves that we were now actually standing on the sacred turf of football. The place where tonight’s game was going to be played. It’s overwhelmingly big if you’re in it alone, and the few preparations that were still going on felt like silence before the storm. We walked down the sides, touched the grass of the gods — Basque football grass must surely be the world’s finest. Exiting the field through the same exit as our Lions would tonight was so magical. It raised the obvious question of how it would feel to grace the field as a player. Well, thanks to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, we got the closest you could without donning a shirt.

The game was more heated than we had ever seen on television, and that was not just our version of events. With missed opportunities by both KRC Genk and Athletic Club, the crowd was almost losing it when the second half was close to ending 0-0. Neither side was about to give up hope, and we took a deep breath for what was inevitably coming. Watching from the some of the best seats in the house gave us a spectacular view of the penalties that would determine a match full of penalties, in our favour. With a spectacular 5-3 win for Athletic Club, we blew off the roof and headed to Plaza Nueava for a glass of wine with our family of fellow fans. 

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