In December of 2017 I fulfilled a bucket list wish to travel Spain in search of soccer and other cool things. Here is the report from the “soccer” portion of that journey.
Bilbao 0 vs Formentera 1 – Copa Del Rey Round of 32 2nd Leg
My Spanish Soccer sojourn hits the ground running. Our plane from London touched down in Bilbao at 7:20 pm. By 8:20 pm we had successfully parked the car and arrived at the hotel. By 8:30 pm I was out the lobby door and on my way to San Mames to see Athletic Bilbao vs Segunda B side Formentera in the Copa Del Rey. This kind of behavior is not that unusual for me. It’s actually the third European trip I’ve taken where I went to a game the same day I arrived, though I’ve never gone even remotely this close to the wire before. Thank you Spain for your quirky abundance of 9 pm kickoffs!
The stadium is about a mile from my hotel, and as I get closer, the Christmas lights on the busy street and the Red and White clad Athletic fans make for a festive atmosphere despite the darkness and rain. Basque Country, although exceedingly beautiful, is NOT “Sunny Spain”. As a matter of fact, during my time in Euskadi it not only rained more than I’m used to in Seattle; it rained harder as well. In Seattle I know few people who own an umbrella. In Bilbao, it seems like everyone does.
It’s not exactly a cracking atmosphere inside the stadium. The combination of a later weekend kickoff, tickets not being available on line, and a result against the minnows from Ibiza being taken for granted conspire to keep all but about 12,000 people away. In the cavernous San Mamés it feels like far fewer. I’ve been to Chicago Fire games at Soldier Field that felt more crowded. (The next day, my Basque friends were all shocked by the small crowd. Of course, none of them had bothered to go, either!) I had borrowed a season pass from a prominent local soccer coach, and so predictably my seat was high in the upper deck behind one of the goals. Better for easy observation of all things tactical.
Formentera’s game plan is exactly what you would expect from an underdog in a second leg cup tie. Despite Athletic having the away goal advantage after a 1-1 tie in Ibiza, the visitors parked the bus, stalled for time, and generally sought to shorten the game before launching a second half push for the decisive goal. The plan works perfectly. Athletic Bilbao totally dominate possession and territory without creating much in the way of clear cut scoring chances. Iñaki Williams toils upfront in isolation, starved of service by the bloc of midfielders in front of him. At about the 65th minute, Formentera come out of the shell. They have done their job defensively and now both sides are faced with a 25 minute game. The pace and the entertainment value of the match immediately increase. Formentera start to mount pressure. They force a fingertip save from a corner kick. Athletic wastes the resulting counter attack opportunities. With seconds to go in injury time, an Athletic defender inexplicably dumps a ball over his own end line under minimal pressure. Corner kick. Everyone in the stadium knows what is going to happen next. Corner. Header. Goal. Whistle. Just like that, the game is over and Formentera have stolen the tie. They are onto the next round. I’ve seen a lot of late goals during a lifetime of watching live soccer, but this is the first time I remember a game being decided by the literal last kick of the game.
The streets of Bilbao are decidedly less festive on the walk back to the hotel in the pouring rain.
Barcelona 2 v Celta Vigo 2 – La Liga Matchday 14
I was expecting this to be the highlight of my soccer trip and the match did not disappoint. After a long drive from Bilbao the day before, My wife and I are firmly squared away in our Barcelona studio, which is, like our hotel in Bilbao, also a mere mile away from the stadium (“A coincidence”, I tell my wife. “These were the best available accommodations I could find. Honest!) There is a massive low front over Sicily and it’s turned down the thermostat on the entire Mediterranean! So we have “Sunny Spain” but by no means “Warm Spain”.
One striking thing I noticed in my time in Barcelona… I was all over different parts of the city, and although there were a few really super nice areas, I never came across any super bad areas. This walk to the stadium fits the normal city pattern of “apartments above and small shops below”. At first the sheer density of Barcelona can feel overwhelming if you live in the burns like I do. But after a while I started to like it.
Lots of Catalan flags featuring the blue star of the Independence minded are on show on the balconies, one of them planted an inch away from his neighbor’s Spanish Federal flag. Probably makes for some awkward meetings in the hallway every day.
The Camp Nou is every bit as imposing and impressive as you would expect it to be. An extra layer of security causes a crowd to back up on the streets as you make your way into the stadium. While I am waiting to get through, a vendor tries to see me a beer, sees the Seattle Sounders logo on my jacket, and starts going on and on about Marco Papa. “Eres de Guatemala?” I ask, already knowing the answer. Marco: You number one fan is selling loose beers on the streets of Barcelona.
The Inside of the Camp Nou is a little less impressive in terms of atmosphere. The concourses are a regular Tower of Babel. I hear French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Norwegian, Russian, and English tinted in North American, British, and Antipodean accents. Like me, people from all over the world are here to see the Greatest Player on Earth and the Greatest Team on the Planet. But like me, a lot of these fans are soccer tourists. Real Fans, for sure….. but not true Cúles. It makes for an enthusiastic but surprisingly quiet atmosphere. Like too many people are trying to soak in the atmosphere instead of trying to be a part of it. There are also quite a few empty seats and it seems that many Cúles are staying away. Most locals I talked to agree it has to do with dissatisfaction with the current board and their decisions on and off the field. Or maybe it’s too cold. Or maybe it’s too early. Or maybe it’s too expensive. Unlike the rest of the games I went to, Barça tickets are fairly pricey
The game is a real cracker though. With 1st place in the UCL sown up, there is no need to rest anyone for the impending game against Sporting. All the stars that I came to see are out there on the field… Messi, Luis Suarez, Iniesta, Busquets, Umtiti. But Celta are not star struck. They are here to play and take advantage of some comical defending to take a 20th minute lead, only for Messi to equalize two minutes later after some classic tiki taka one touch play in Zone 14. Suarez scores two brilliant goals, one of which is wrongly disallowed. On the goal that counts, Messi slide-rules a ball to the end line through an opening that didn’t seem to be there when he made the pass, and the only thought that comes to my mind is “Thomas Rongen just might be wrong about this boy’s lack of soccer intelligence”. Celta equalize on another piece of sloppy Barcelona defending, but I got what I came for.
Years after hearing the famous Vicente Del Bosque quote, I finally… FINALLY get my chance. I spend 15-20 minutes just watching Busquests, and as promised… I did “see the whole game”.
Girona 2 vs Alavés 3 – La Liga Matchday 14
My wife and I had wanted to scout out the Costa Brava on this trip, and we spent the day driving through the endless chain of beach resorts, many of which were absolute ghost towns on a December Monday afternoon. But the weather is again clear and a little warmer (at least in the sun), so it’s a glorious day. Twilight finds us at the top of Begur castle, sun setting behind the Catalonian hills and the lights of the town igniting one by one. My wife is an exceedingly good sport, so instead of driving back to Barcelona in the dark, I convinced her ahead of time that a better plan would be to spend the night in Girona so we could see the city the next day before driving back to home base. She agrees… and as luck would have it… (nudge nudge…) that very night Girona FC is hosting Alavés at 9pm just a mile and a half down the road from our hotel! “Hey Hon, since you like to turn in early and I tend to stay up late… do you mind if I go to the game? No? Okay. Guess I’ll be heading out…”
Walking out the door I look at the hotel events board…”Team breakfast at 10 am…”, “Tactical sessions in the ballroom at 3pm”… Deportivo Alaves is staying at this same hotel!
Girona’s stadium has a really temporary feel about it. The “main stand” is a pre-fab retrofit that overlooks the club’s former (and much smaller) main stand. I’m looking around this place and thinking “here is the skeptic’s answer to how a ‘Minor League’ team could survive and adapt to promotion in an open US Soccer Market. The bathroom facilities need some improvements though. One portakabin with three urinals and one stall for about five thousand people just doesn’t quite cut it.
Unlike Barcelona, where many people I encountered only spoke Spanish, Girona is very much Catalan. I’d actually learned enough Catalan to hold basic conversations, and this was my chance. When you speak Catalan to a native Catalan speaker, they will almost always rect in the following manner:
- Excitedly: “Oh! You speak Catalan!” ……followed quickly by……
- Mildly suspicious: “Why do you speak Catalan????”
I stuck up a conversation with the people to my left and found out some interesting things, such as that their son was serving as a technical Director for a youth Club in Virginia, and that Mariano Rajoy is not particularly well liked in Girona.
Another great game. Alaves dig in to defend and shorten the game, a strategy that leads to a halftime score of Girona 0, Alaves 0, Celsius 0. It’s cold! Only the warmth of the cigarette smoke is keeping us from going numb
Sidebar: Every other stadium I went to in Spain was joyously smoke free. A factor that actually raises Spain’s stock in the future Nelson Retirement Sweepstakes. After coming back from the Girona game I had shower twice and put all my clothes in a plastic bag that I hung outside the hotel window. A factor that lowers Girona’s stock in the Nelson Retirement Sweepstakes
In the second half Alaves’ plan unravels as half-man-half-bulldozer-whose-parents-couldn’t-spell Cristhian Stuani puts Girona in front and Juanpe quickly adds a header. Alaves goes out hunting for goals and immediately looks like a completely different team. Ibai Gomes scores a hat trick of conversation piece goals, including a goal that came from a move that looked offside, a penalty off an incredibly reckless goalkeeper challenge, and another literal last-kick-game-winner that came after some amazing determination by the Alaves winger who set up the play.
I’m wondering if I can make a career as a good luck charm for visiting Spanish League teams, as my appearances have now coincided with two last second wins and an improbable draw for the visiting teams. Hey Spanish teams… DM me!Let’s talk!
Barcelona 2 v Sporting Lisbon 0 – UEFA Champions League Group Game 6
From a competitive standpoint, I kinda expected that this game might not be very compelling. Barcelona had already won the group after the previous game vs Juventus. And I could pretty much tell when Cuadrado scored for the Old Lady against Olympiacos because the Sporting fans who had smuggled their way into the general population and were scattered around us gave out a sudden collective groan in the 15th minute (I’d sorted them all out earlier…they were the only ones trying to smoke). Game officially meaningless. As you would expect, Barcelona rested a lots of players in this game, though Suarez started and Messi came on in the second half. The standouts displays of the night were the surprisingly competent performances of two players you would expect to suck… Thomas Vermaelen deputizing for the injured Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu for Sporting. Of course, just as recognize him and am thinking about how much better the ex-Barça man looks in green and white hoops, he promptly puts the ball into his own net. Not the last kick of the game, but the fourth injury time goal I have seen in three games. But the home team won, diminishing my claims of being a talisman for Spanish away sides.
In truth, the best thing about this game was I got to spend it with my wife, Kirsten. She’s not much of a soccer fan (it’s a wonder she doesn’t hate it, to be truthful) so it was special for her to come with me to the home of the Best Club on the Planet, and to see the Best Player in the World.
Walking back, I reconfirmed an initial impression about Barcelona. The place feels incredibly safe. Game day or not, there are always little kids and old people wandering about on their business at all hours, and nobody bothers anyone else or even looks even slightly menacing. “if you want crime at night”, I was told “Go to the Ramblas. But if anyone causes you trouble it will probably be another foreigner”
Alavés 2 vs Las Palmas 0 – La Liga Matchday 15
This game was memorable both for the match experience and the sometimes white knuckle drive to get there. Back in the Basque Country, we found ourselves in Lekeito, a small and beautiful fishing village on the Atlantic coast. It is central to everything and close to nothing. Although a mere 30-40 miles away from Bilbao, Viktoria, or San Sebastian, it can only be reached by incredibly windy two lane roads (think “Road to Hana with sheep”) Also problematic as I set out alone into the pitch black rainy Euskadi night for another 9pm kickoff: the car’s sometimes genius-sometimes worthless GPS couldn’t seem to find the Mendizzorota Stadium, not even when I fed it the latitude and longitude coordinates manually. So instead I am using Google Maps on my phone, which is fine as long as service doesn’t drop on those remote country roads, and as long as I can keep the phone from falling off the dashboard as I navigate one hairpin turn after another.
50 minutes of pitch black driving has taken me exactly 20 miles from Lekeitio, and my GPS has spit me off the hillsides and smack dab into…. Downtown Eibar! I wouldn’t get to see the famed underdogs play on this trip, but thanks to the fact that I did not blink, I did see their town.
From Eibar I jumped on the Tollway. If you drive in this part of Spain you will recognize two things:
- If you want to drive anywhere in a hurry (or even at a reasonable pace), you need to pay for the privilege.
- It is SO worth it. At least you are paying for well built, well surfaced, and well signed and marked roads. In Basque country, you are also paying for the countless tunnels that cut through the endless series of mountains and valleys.
Almost two hours after setting out, I arrive at the Mendizziota Stadium to find a phenomenon never encountered before or after during my time in Spain: A destination with simple and easy parking. Whether there is simply no parking available (Montserrat Abbey, The Game of Thrones Stairs, and all of Girona), or it’s 20 flights of steps from where you want to go (The Basque Seaside villages, the GOT Stairs… again) or the parking spot is exactly 2 inches wider than the width of your car (our accommodations in Barcelona and San Sebastian) or the ticket machine won’t take your credit card because you have no resident Tax ID Number (Bilbao… hint…M12345678 will work) parking is always an adventure in Spain.
But not here! The approach to the Stadium is on a wide access road with free street parking all along. Just pull up, park, and walk 5 minutes to the stadium! It was simple enough to make me paranoid. I half expected my car to be towed for some unknown infraction after the game, but no… it was right where I left it.
About the Medizorrota: of all the stadiums I went to in Spain, and compared to all the stadiums I have been to in England and Germany, this little gem and the little club who play there make more noise per capita than any other I have been to. The fans are loud and they never. Ever. Ever. Stop! As luck would have it, I was very close to the Alavés socios section, and they were awesome. No soccer tourists. No artificial plastic capos. No craft beers or garlic fries. This was the real deal. And unlike in many stadiums I’ve been to in England (Liverpool excepted) the fans in the main stands were not chiefly made up of the “Prawn Sandwich Brigade” that Roy Keane so detested. These folks were jumping up and down and singing with the socios, including the 70 year old lady next to me who invited me to sit next to her when she saw that I was sitting in the only seat in the stadium that had a leaking roof above it. She told me (in halting Spanish, it was not the native language for either of us) that I was in her son’s seat. He stayed home because the kids were sick and the wife has on call at the hospital.
The game on the field was top notch. Both these teams were in the relegation zone and the level of play was so much better both tactically and technically from what I see week in, week out from the Sounders and MLS. Anyone who says that MLS teams could compete with the lower half of the La Liga table… well, they are dreaming.
Two random notes about Las Palmas:
- By the end of the game, their gray and yellow away kits had really grown on me
- On the way out I passed the Las Palmas team bus, resplendent in team logo and colors. Might they be doing better in the league if they flew from the Canary Islands instead of driving?
The drive back was much easier than the drive in. I knew where I was going, plus at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night, the roads were empty. The only time Spaniards seem to be in a hurry is when they are driving, so it’s nice to have the roads to yourself instead of having someone crawling up your backside and qacing their hands in the air because you aren’t touching bumpers with the car in front of you.
Real Sociedad 0 vs Malaga 2 – La Liga Matchday 15
The last hurrah. San Sebastian is a beautiful city and we found a cozy Little hotel about two miles from the stadium but only a ten minute walk to the old town (don’t let anyone tell you I am a bad husband). I headed off under cloudy skies for what was unusual on this trip: An afternoon kickoff. The club website would not take my credit card for some reason (If you are reading this, Real Sociedad; I’m still waiting for customer service to reply to my email!) so I left quite early to try and snag one of the few remaining single tickets that the website had teased me with.
It was a long but easy walk along the river. No matter how many times I do this, it never gets old. I love approaching soccer stadiums on foot, especially for the first time. I love to watch the locals going about their game day routines. Arguing with friends in the cafes, stopping for a newspaper, wandering with their kids in tow….. Love it.
Once inside I realized one reason tickets were scarce: One entire stand behind a goal was completely missing! (They had played Zenit midweek. I know the Russian fans were hardcore, but this was too much!) The guys next to me explained that they are rebuilding the stand one side at a time, adding seats and eliminating that scourge of soccer stadiums worldwide: the running track. Apparently it has caused a lot of confusing and displacement among the season ticket holders, and at least three people challenged me as to whether I was in the right seat or not. (I was. Go find your own!)
Real Sociedad, who were in fact the highest placed team in the table that I saw on this trip apart from Barcelona, put in the worst performance I saw while in Spain. Mind you, I am not forgetting my first match where a La Liga team conspired to lose to a Segunda B team at home! Other than the handy right back, a local boy whose last name, Ordiozola, was a typical Basque mouthful, this team laid one big giant egg (Maybe… just MAYBE on the day an in-form MLS team could have come away with something here). Poor in all thirds of the field against a Malaga team that was very happy to play the “smash and grab” role on the road, Sociedad put themselves in trouble time and again with the only poor play out of the back I had seen in Spain. Play out breakdowns led to one penalty goal and one rebound off a penalty goal, and Malaga enjoyed a rare away win (or, if you like, simply a rare win). My road warrior talisman credentials were on the rise once again!
While not the loudest fans in general (I think the new stadium will help in this respect) the folks in San Sebastian can certainly whistle the loudest of any fans I had ever encountered.
So that is it… The soccer portion of my 12 days in Spain. I have been on similar soccer trips to Germany and England. All were incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. But in terms of the pure soccer, I have to say that Spain is now at the top of the pecking order for me. The technical and tactical ability were second to none. None of the stadiums are anything fancy. No fan zones, no restaurants, team stores that are closed by the final whistle… but you can’t smoke in most of them and if you are in Basque Country you have that much needed roof overhead. What else can you ask for?
A trip like this is a “must do” for any coach or fan of the game and I highly recommend it. For me, the late kickoffs in Spain were an extra bonus, as it eliminates the “soccer or tourism: conflict you can otherwise run into.
I will be back.