GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: UEFA in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain, and we’ll be posting them throughout the week.  

While this installment of ThePoeLog may not be geared to the usual audience searching for cat stories or reality TV updates, it may let you in on a little secret about maximizing experiences during travel.

The key here is to understand that ThePoeLog coach-for-life XFE, loves a little soccer or “football” as it is known to the rest of the world. This does not just mean the occasional game, but a true following of our adopted team–the Tottenham Hotspurs in the English Premier League (EPL)–and a general desire to witness soccer festivities around the world. To date, we have seen games in Ireland, Italy (3 games), Sweden and Spain (4 games). An upcoming trip to London will take us to two EPL games, both for our beloved Spurs.

tottenham hotspur logo

What is great about a football match–or any sporting event truly loved by the home country–is the people and the passion. There is no single more fundamental and direct way to appreciate the people, passion and culture of a city or country than sport.

Take for example, our trip to see sumo wrestling in Japan. Seven very out-of-place Americans had box seats for the second day of the Winter Sumo tournament in Osaka. We arrived early to the festivities, learned that we should have brought our own food and drink, and relied heavily on a printout from Wikipedia to understand the spectacle we were witnessing.

However, despite clearly being out of place, the small Japanese grandfather in the box next to us was quick to lean over and offer us his sake as an introduction to his culture and the sport of sumo. As the afternoon wore on, we smiled, drank sake and yelled “gambate,” the traditional sumo cheer, which roughly translates to “try your best.” An experience and memory that resonates with me today despite having been almost eight years ago.

So as our trip to the Basque region in northern Spain developed, the opportunity to search out football games began. While it originally looked like our schedule had us just missing games in our planned destination cities, the stars aligned and it turned out that not only would we be able to get to one game, but three, all in different “competitions” or “tournaments” over the course of our 10 day trip.

First up was the UEFA Europa League match between the home team Athletic Bilbao and AZ Alkmaar from the Netherlands. Scheduled for a 9:00 pm start on our day of arrival in Bilbao, we both knew it would be a great way to stay up and fight the jet lag to get set on the new time zone.

While accurate thinking in theory, the execution is always a little more challenging and Poe may have grabbed a quick cat nap sometime during the first half, but our first game of the trip was an experience not to be missed. Soccer in Bilbao is special. We have been before and having the opportunity to go again was amazing.

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Poe took the pictures, which might account for their blurriness.

We headed out from our hotel after a quick siesta in search of some of the same great bars and tapas places we had visited almost three years prior. We walked through the park towards downtown streets which became more familiar as the red and white striped colors of the home team hung from doorways and on scarves around the necks of our fellow fans. We visited a couple of familiar spots and found a few new ones, sipping on glasses of wine and enjoying fresh pintxos as we went.

Bilbao bar scene on soccer night

One great thing about a Europa League match, which we had not experienced previously, is that fans from the away teams actually travel to see their team play. What better excuse for a group of friends to take a 90-minute flight to a far off city for a couple of days then a soccer match. New country, new experience, and an excuse for a quick vacation.

So it was at one bar where we ended up seated across from a Spanish-speaking barman next to a group of non-Spanish speaking soccer fans from the Netherlands. What ensued was why I love going to soccer in Europe.

Our new friends from the Netherlands were enjoying Spanish culture by the plate–but more importantly wine bottle full–and it was clear that the significant others that may be waiting back at home were not high on the priority list during this “boys” trip. So when the buys decided to try to ask the bartender where the local “strip” club was for after the game, it was Poe and her broken Spanish that were called into action. Translating poor English from the Netherlands into broken Spanish required not only words, but sign language, whereby Poe pretended to be lifting her shirt and dancing for the barman all to the howl of our friends form the Netherlands.

And guess what? It worked! The bartender knew exactly what the guys were looking for and drew them a map for after the game. While not exactly an international peace treaty, at the time, this was the most important issue being addressed by the representatives of these three countries.

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Bilboa’s new stadium, San Mames.

Major international issue completed, the crowd continued growing in the streets as locals prepared for the game. Glass after glass of wine was ordered and passed to revelers as they filled the streets in front of bars on the way to the stadium. Then, finally, about 20 minutes before kickoff, the crowd seemed to move as a single unit towards the gates and seats of the stadium. As we took our seats in the stadium we were surrounded by fellow fans and enjoyed 90 minutes of sport while cheering and chanting for today’s home team, who went on to tie 2-2 after conceding a late own goal.

ab score

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A far less jet-lagged group of supporters, no doubt.

After traveling overnight the evening before, partying into the night was not on the agenda and we quickly returned to our room for some well-deserved sleep.

Check back later this week for my post on the Copa del Rey cup in San Sebastian.

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