In May they will seek to win the competition for the 24th* time, the first since 1984, and this may be the last Cup game that this old historic ground sees. It is almost certainly the last really big Cup night: never again will San Mamés be the gateway to the final. Preparatory work on the new stadium has already begun, immediately alongside the current site; the dismantling of the existing stadium starts at the end of the season.
The send-off was fitting -- fitting for Athletic and even for Mirandés, themiraculous opponents. Mirandés were handed a standing ovation at the end of the game; the two goals they scored -- the only two Athletic have conceded at home in the competition -- were applauded too. There had also been an ovation for the visitors' captain Pablo Infante -- the Pichichi of the Cup -- when he laid a bouquet of red flowers in front of the bust of Pichichi before the game. Pichichi was the legendary Athletic striker who played between 1911 and 1921 and the man who lends his name to the top scorer award.
The symbolism was intense, as it always is at San Mamés. From the approach to the ground along Calle Pozas, narrow and straight, bars all along the way, red and white flags from every balcony -- a tunnel toward the ground with Athletic's badge painted big and bold in on the side, pulling you in; to the hundreds of photographs in black and white, sepia and colour and the stuffed lion that prowls the directors' box, brought back from Tanzania (Athletic are nicknamed the lions). From the men on the gate in their traditional Basque berets to the careful attention to detail in the club's museum, nowhere exudes history -- or pride, or identity -- like Athletic's stadium .
They call San Mamés 'The Cathedral,' in almost reverential respect. Its stands are uneven, crumbling in places, and old-fashioned. They are steep, but close to the pitch. It is a proper soccer ground, like something from a different era; it is also part of the action. It is often said that soccer is like a religion: in many ways it is, and that is not always a good thing. Other times, the phrase is an empty cliché. At Athletic, it feels more just somehow. "Sometimes," noted Robert Basic in the Basque newspaper El Correo, "you can touch the sentiment."
The liturgy of San Mamés is unmatched by any arena in the world. There is a hint of it at Anfield, with the sign in the tunnel, the Kop and its hymn, You'll Never Walk Alone. But even that is not quite the same. This is a community of the faithful, and the communion between players and fans is palpable. Yes, it is easy to get emotional and misty eyed, to exaggerate or see meaning where there is none; but it is hard to visit San Mamés and not feel it. On nights like the Copa del Rey semifinal, it is impossible.
"I had been told about it," said Marcelo Bielsa, the coach, "but it is one thing to be told, another to experience it. It was wonderful. I had never seen a stadium so involved, so influential, so joyous. It is a lovely sensation when football produces such emotion."
All of it is underpinned by that identity: Athletic Bilbao only plays with Basque players (even if, as discussed here before, that definition is often elastic). That policy may well have stymied their chances of winning competitions in recent years -- 28 years is a long time to wait to win the Cup competition, and Athletic still may not even do that -- but the connection that players feel to their club is, for the most part, greater than elsewhere. Sure, players leave. But, uniquely, they return too.
Take the two centre-backs who made it to Real Madrid -- Rafael Alkorta and Aitor Karanka. They left, they won things, and they came back. Athletic was still their club. And perhaps an alternative argument can be made: rather than Athletic's policy forcing them to underachieve, could it be that it has helped them to overachieve? Those that stay, those that play, have something else, something extra. Intangible though it may be, it is there. Plenty of clubs can offer what Athletic cannot. None can offer what Athletic can.
Recently, Fernando Llorente has stated again and again that he is at a big club. The rumours will not go away. Mostly, people have dismissed his protests: no, they insist, but when will you go to a big club? Llorente has certainly contemplated going elsewhere: his representatives have met with English clubs. But maybe he has a point. Athletic is a big club. From an emotive perspective, there may be none bigger. As Llorente himself said, "Seeing this madness makes you feel like staying here for life."
If on top of that Athletic can offer success, the mix is powerful indeed. Yes, the league is impossible, but Athletic have now reached the final of the Copa del Rey, they are still in the Europa League, a Champions League place is a genuine possibility. Bielsa has them playing some of the most exciting football in Spain and, although the style is theoretically different to Athletic's traditional identity, there is something very Athletic about the intensity of their game. It feels right. It feels theirs.
Llorente insisted: "you don't live an atmosphere like this in many places." He could easily have said 'any'. He may leave Athletic but Athletic will never leave him. Wherever he goes, wherever any of them go -- and how long will it be before rumours start about Iker Muniaín? It will not be the same. It will not match San Mamés on nights like last night. It never does. Nothing ever does.
*In 1904, Vizcaya, the predecessor of Athletic, won the competition. Some consider the total to be 24, therefore, not 23.