lunes, 16 de enero de 2012

Spain’s most extraordinary Stadiums : Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames

Chris Clements from Estadio de Espana shares his amazing stories about Spain’s most extraordinary stadiums, starting with the home of Athletic Bilbao – San Mames.
Guest Writer – Chris Clements from Estadios de Espana

San Mames - The home of Athletic Bilbao

Mine is a peculiar ailment, but I know that I don’t suffer alone. In fact, I would wager that practically every football fan has, at some time, developed the symptoms. You’ll recognise them. It’s a dull game that is drifting towards a goalless draw, so you start to look around the stands. Then it hits you. This stadium is special. It’s been here for years and will outlast your star striker, the latest manager and the egotistical Chairman. These bricks and mortar are at the very heart of your club. In recent years, my obsession has developed some very specific symptoms, notably a fascination with Spanish stadia. So it’s rather convenient that those nice people at ISF invited me to talk about the five most extraordinary stadiums in Spain.

To start with I am going to look at the most atmospheric stadium in La Liga, the home of Athletic Club de Bilbao. Athletic is a symbol of Basque pride and at the centre of that intensity is the fans place of worship, the magnificent San Mamés Stadium. So it seems only appropriate that the stadium also goes by the name of La Catedral. Opened in 1913 when the club was in the middle of its first golden era, San Mamés was special from the start, costing an unheralded 89,000 pesetas to build. It was the first major purpose built stadium in Spain. For their money, Athletic got a magnificently ornate red & white wooden stand that sat atop a grass bank. In front was a narrow strip of terracing, either end of which were flower beds. Opposite the main stand was a crescent shaped wedge of terracing, a shape that the current east stand still follows. The 10,000 capacity was completed by thin strips of terracing behind each goal. 

Artist Ramiro Arrue's 1913 painting of San Mamés
The next 40 years saw few changes at San Mamés. The terracing behind the goals had been extended and a basic cover was erected over the north terrace. The crescent-shaped East Terrace had also been extended, but it was no longer the leading stadium in Spain. The fields that had surrounded San Mamés had long been swallowed up by Bilbao’s urban sprawl making it impossible to redevelop outwards. So they focussed on rebuilding their main stand and went for a form of construction that was new to stadium design – a giant arch. To start with, two five-storey screening blocks were built, on top of which sat the huge steel arch. Beneath the arch a flat roof hung over a 12,000 seat double-decker stand. Work began in February 1952 and took just over a year to complete. The San Mamés arch quickly became a popular image in Spanish football, while on match days the supporting corner blocks, which now featured balconies, would be crammed with supporters – a sort of 1950′s private box!

San Mamés in the 1940's. The city was so drab, these fotos might as well be in colour
In the early 1960′s work commenced on the north and south ends of the ground. Each featured a two-tiered stand, the roofs of which were supported by props. The stands were irregularly shaped due to the surrounding streets. These were linked to the new east stand in the early 1970′s, which followed the shape of the old curved east terrace. Again, this was a double-deck stand with a supported flat roof. With little room remaining, floodlights had to be mounted on squat little gantries atop of three roof corners and along the roof of the new east stand. San Mamés was now totally enclosed and a veritable lion’s den, which considering that St. Mammes had been thrown to the lions, seemed entirely appropriate. 

1970 and La Catedral awaits the east stand
The stadium was chosen to host three group games in the 1982 World Cup and the redevelopment would see the main stand link up with two new double-decker stands at either end. Athletic were adamant that the arch should remain, but since it was held up by the huge corner blocks, another way of supporting the arch had to be found. The conundrum was resolved with a brilliant piece of engineering. First, cantilevered brackets were inserted into the back of the stand underneath each end of the arch. Then, as massive cranes took the whole weight of the arch and the roof, the corner blocks were demolished. The new brackets were then edged into position to accept the weight of the arch and its roof. Throughout the whole process, the roof and arch were in danger of buckling under and sensors were needed to ensure that the new concrete was at the correct temperature throughout. When the process was finally complete and the arch was resting on its new supports, it was found that the whole structure had shifted only 5mm. 

San Mamés in 1989. Add a few seats here & there and it could be 2011

Whilst the main stand was undergoing major surgery, work continued on the north and south stands. These were basically cantilevered versions of the earlier structures and were clad with moulded white roofs. These were illuminated from the rear by windows and ran from the main stand to the east side. The east stand got a new roof and seating was installed in the lower tier. The floodlight gantries were removed and new floodlights were installed along the roofs of the main and east stand. The new San Mamés had a raised capacity of 46,000, of which 36,000 were seated, but it came at cost of 1,100 million pesetas.

San Mames at present

Not a great deal has changed in the past 30 years, but San Mamés is still one of my favourite places to watch a match. Its days are however numbered. In 2006, the club announced plans to build a new stadium on land between the Rio Nevrion and the back of the west stand. Work started in May 2010 on the 160 million euro, 55,000 capacity stadium. Alas the new stadium will not feature an arch and once complete, the old stadium will make way for a new residential area. As for the arch, well there is talk of it becoming the supports of a bridge that will link the new stadium with the north bank of the Nevrion. The new stadium is to be initially called San Mamés Barria and whilst it may not have the distinctive features of the old stadium, Athletic can count on one thing. The club’s fanatical supporters will still come to worship at the new cathedral.