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. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here and Part 2: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian is here.
Our third and final game of our trip to northern Spain would take us back to Bilbao and a La Liga game between Athletic Bilbao and Levante.
One would think a game scheduled for an early Sunday evening in the top league in Spain would not be expected to be heavily attended, especially as the opponents are one of the country’s smaller football clubs.
But, surprisingly, navigating the process of acquiring tickets proved to be harder than usual. In the end, the concierge at our hotel in San Sebastian was able to arrange for us to have VIP tickets in Bilboa, which as explained to us, “included a welcome reception, refreshments and free WI-FI.”
Neither Poe nor I were particularly excited by this description of the “VIP experience,” or the uptick in ticket prices, but in the end we consoled ourselves with the fact that we definitely had tickets and we were excited for the game. We did do a little additional Internet research to understand that the “VIP experience” was something that the club had added as part of the new stadium the team moved into in 2014.
As usual, football Sunday arrived and we headed out to the pintxos bars with the masses for snacks and cocktails in the streets before heading for the stadium. This process always requires a delicate balance as a few too many drinks during pregame may result in having to sit through a 90-minute match buzzed and without more drinks available, as most European stadiums do not serve alcohol inside during the game. So we did our best, with Poe testing the limits of her tolerance, and we eventually headed to the stadium well-lubricated to cheer on our adopted Spanish team.
After a trek to the Will Call window and VIP entrance, an elevator dropped us on the level of our “VIP” experience. Here we were met with a large room lined by a bar, soft comfortable seating and high top tables for mingling and snacking. We quickly approached the bar to find complimentary beer/wine and even gin and tonics, and made ourselves at home at a high top table. The room was enclosed by glass on one side and looked into the stadium over six rows of seats separated from the other sections of the stadium.
What we learned during our visit was that the team built a section/level of six rows of seats around the entire perimeter of the stadium–all backed with the VIP areas, including bars, restrooms and catering facilities. It was like a group private box where you could sit in the seats outside or stand behind the glass and enjoy the game from general warmth and comfort. The VIP tickets also entitled you to an assigned outdoor seat, and refreshments and drinks before, during and after the game.
As we sat enjoying our VIP beverages, it became clear that Poe was in need of a snack to soak up her wine from the pre-game pub crawl. A steady stream of servers carrying trays of food towards various areas of the VIP section kept walking by, but none of them were near us.
But when in a foreign country, the next embarrassing cultural incident is just around the corner, so we waited patiently for some snacks to be dropped off near us. As time passed, trips to the bathroom were made, a small bowl of mix nuts was discreetly devoured, and I started in on another cocktail.
After what seemed like ages, a server carrying a nice tray of meats, cheeses and other snacks appeared and was walking toward us. As she approached with a friendly smile, she raised the tray towards Poe–who delirious from hunger and too much wine–reached out her hands to take the entire tray of snacks from the server, only to be met with a disapproving head shake and a vanishing smile. Poe quickly changed course, swiping three or four of the snacks to a napkin as she turned away from the server and what she thought was her loot of snacks for the taking. After a few sheepish minutes of snacking, a new strategy was devised–move tables in hopes that a new server could be lured into the trap being laid by Poe.
While no entire trays were captured, a few more satisfying snacks were had and we moved outside to our seats for the first half. Despite several chances to score, neither team was able to convert in the first half and time expired with the score tied at zero.
During halftime, we again headed inside to warm up a little and grab another cocktail and snack. While neither Poe nor I were particularly excited about the VIP experience initially, it really turned out to be quite nice. Plenty of food and drink was available, no lines to the bathroom, and overall, it added a pleasant little way to pass the half.
I will acknowledge that, right now at least, it seems like only a few people have begun to embrace the idea of the VIP experience. I would suspect that at a sold out game or as popularity grows that the experience may become a little more hurried and not seem quite as exclusive.
Before long the second half kicked off and we returned to our seats. Athletic Bilbao started the second half strong and it was not long until the team scored their first goal and really looked to be cruising towards a victory. A second goal late in the second half sealed the deal and Athletic Club went on to win 2-to-0.
As we left our seats and headed back into the inside VIP area, racks of chocolate treats and small deserts had been set up and the bar was again open for patrons to sit and enjoy one last drink before leaving the stadium. While our ticket entitled us to stay for up to an hour, we decided to head back into the city center and grab one last cocktail among the fans.
Quite honestly, leaving San Mames stadium is a great experience as roughly 40,000 people all depart on foot into the streets of the city. Celebrating the win, the crowd is happy and boisterous, chants still emanating as families quickly stop to pose for pictures, and the diehard fans head back to the bars for more pintxos and vino.
Poe and I made our way to a local waterhole focused on gin, where we sat trying new gins among the local fans as they enjoyed the rest of their evening.
After our drinks, Poe and I made one more stop before the hotel for donner kebab. Yep, that’s right kebab–the trusted food of the partier everywhere. Greasy mystery meat, ranch dressing and spicy sauce all on a flat bread. Yes, there are better things to eat in Spain and most of the world, but sometimes a kebab is just what the doctor ordered. I would be lying if I claimed the doctor had prescribed me donner kebabs only once on this trip, but hey, I love them.
As I wiped sauce from my chin, I smiled and reflected on having just enjoyed another great night of the world’s sport in Spain. And just in case Poe somehow decided to keep the party going, I grabbed a couple of extra Radlers to take back with us on the walk back to the hotel.
In the end, three more European football games seen in person and a multitude of new experiences had. Poe and I had an amazing soccer experience the first time we saw a game in Bilbao. We were always worried that that experience could never be recreated, and while great experiences are hard to duplicate, our games in Spain this trip were all equally great and created a new set of memories that we will be talking about in the future. So next time you are on the road, pick a new experience, cheer yourself on with a “gumbate,” and enjoy.