As any football fan would be, I was most excited at the prospect of watching the greatest football team of my generation, Barcelona. Not only was I twenty-four hours away from seeing arguably, the best team in the world at present, but I was also about to witness the most talented footballer in the world, Lionel Messi.
Despite all the excitement coming from watching Barca, I was also excited about Athletic Bilbao, one of the three Spanish sides never to have been relegated from La Liga and the runners up of the Europa League this season.
|The Vincent Calderon|
I was fortunate enough to find a pack of Bilbao fans who spoke very good English. They informed me about the different languages the two teams speak from their different areas in Spain, Athletic Bilbao - from the Basque country, and Barcelona - from the Catalonia part of Spain. The Bilbao fans were religious about their football team (like many) but believed their team were 'a way of life'.
The Bilbao fans started chanting outside the Calderon Stadium, so I thought it would only be polite to attempt to join in. As I began singing 'Bilbao, Bilbao!", I was soon corrected to sing "Athletic!, Athletic!" which was what the Basque fans prefer to be called.
The Athletic fans were quick to react when I mentioned I was from Southampton, England. A connection between the two clubs has been apparent since the club was formed, shipyard workers from Britain brought the game of football to Bilbao when transporting iron mines. The connection to Southampton Football Club became more relevant when I heard the following story:
A young student from Bilbao named Juan Elorduy, who was spending Christmas 1909 in London, was charged by the club to buy 25 new shirts, but was unable to find enough. Waiting for the ship back to Bilbao and empty handed, Elorduy realised that the colours of the local team Southampton matched the colours of the City of Bilbao, and bought 50 shirts to take with him.
After learning about the links with my local team, I felt as though I should support Athletic for the final, which was an hour from being played in the 55,000 seat stadium. The Basque supporters travelled four hours to Madrid, bringing 50,000 supports, including 270 coaches, the majority of fans would not watching the game inside the stadium.
As I began to walk closer to the ground I was greeted by a number of people who were trying to sell tickets outside, out of curiosity, I asked "how much?" the reply -"400 Euro!".
I was also shocked to see a flare, which was lit a few yards in front of me by Barcelona fans on the street, which seemed to be a normal thing on match days as I was the only person around who looked confused. In England, a flare lit in the street would probably cause a riot!
The stadium saw a sea of red and white across one side, with red and blue colours the other. However, it took just two minutes into the game for one of the sets of fans to erupt. The Catalans had scored early to dampen the mood for the Basque's, Pedro with the opening goal for Barca.
Despite the early set back, Athletic fans were still hopeful of winning the game, I was told by a local "We always believe". But he soon looked deflated, a second goal to Barcelona was scored by who else but Lionel Messi, the greatest player on the planet, a trademark goal as he showed composure and skill to score. The Bilbao fan to my left turned to me and shook his head, saying "Too good, Messi is too good", whilst the Barcelona fans bowed down to the star.
I soon saw another flare which had been lit, with Barca fans dancing and singing around it, almost like a party as they expected their team to win the game.
Athletic were constantly pinned back in their own half, struggling to counter attack as their most consistent player, Fernando Llorente looked outnumbered by the Barcelona defenders. Although every team would struggle against this side considering their manager, Pep Guardiola was managing his final game for the club after winning fourteen competitions with the team.
Before half-time, the game was all but over, a third goal by Barcelona sunk the people of Basque as they could only hope their team found a huge amount of luck in the second half, after Pedro scored his second of the game.
The match finished 3-0 to Barcelona, and was over by 11pm local time. As I met up with a Athletic fan, I was informed that the Basque supporters wouldn't be picked up until 4am before they travelled back to Bilbao, that is commitment at its best, any football club in the world would be proud to have supporters who travel that distance through the night for a game they saw on a television screen.