Real Madrid’s trophies are no replacement for the friendliness of the old San Mamés

icon spursground30 November ~ There’s something special about a football club when its stadium, empty, is still one of the most atmospheric you’ve ever been in. Since I visited Bilbao, in the summer of 2007, Athletic have built a new, ultra-modern home. I’ve accessed a lot of grounds on non-matchdays, usually during foreign holidays. But the old San Mamés, so intimately ramshackle it resonated even on non-matchdays, also provided the only official stadium tour I’ve ever enjoyed.  

The Stade de France, Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the Nou Camp and the Bernabéu: my collection of stadium tour stubs, like anyone’s, is necessarily glamorous but thankfully small. I’ve seen the trophy room at my own club’s ground but won’t hurry to visit our dressing rooms or technical area. For me, perhaps childishly, they remain sacrosanct. And rather than tour a display cabinet version, I’ll live our uncensored history.

But I might never be back in Prague, Vienna or Oporto. Affordable as EasyJet and Ryanair have made foreign travel, briefly nipping inside their ground during a holiday is the closest I’ll get to most continental sides. Frustratingly, the more renowned the stadium, the more chance I’ll only get in via the type of sanctioned visit which gives tourists a good walk while compounding football’s economic rift. More people probably pay to walk down Old Trafford’s tunnel each season than go to watch Bury.

One morning this April, holidaying in Spain, I visited Real Madrid. Three windows in the wall chewed through a never-ending queue, straight off the tourist coaches, paying €19 (£13) per Tour Bernabéu. The ticket declared “Siente cómo tus emociones entran en juego” (feel your emotions come into play). Specific brand messaging confirms the stadium tour is now a separate industry. Home dressing room, directors’ box, every stand – the tunnel, pitch and technical areas; this was more than €19 worth of access. But somewhere around the middle of the world’s most prestigious trophy room it began going wrong.

Some of the trophies and souvenirs on show were replicas. Fair enough. But being told the one-off Alfredo di Stéfano Ballon d’Or, specially commissioned for legendary Real striker Alfredo di Stéfano, had only ever been awarded to, erm, Alfredo di Stéfano was one tautological embellishment too far. Huge brass hearing horns proffered Bernabéu crowd noises in the diluted steam punk vibe of Heineken’s Champions League ad campaign. Feeling like a tourist in the queue outside was one thing – feeling like a tourist in the same room as the European Cup induced an identity crisis.

I wasn’t expecting a display of bottles hurled at opposing goalkeepers while speakers played the ten most racist chants of the Ultras Sur on a loop. But any football lover knows their fascist hooligans were part of the “real” Real Madrid experience. Despite such access major characteristics remained concealed.

At San Mamés we sat outside until enough people gathered to justify a tour, gawping at the iconic arch which probably inspired Norman Foster’s new Wembley motif. The bloke taking our money gave the tour, in whatever language was required. The stuffed lion in Athletic’s directors’ lounge was more regal than the Club World Cup trophy at the end of the Bernabéu trophy room. Sitting by the famous bust of former Athletic goal machine Rafael Moreno – “Pichichi” himself – you realised Athletic want friends rather than acolytes. 

The reaction when, upon exiting, I stumbled through “eskerrik asko” (Basque for “thank you”) was infinitely removed from the presumptuous self-regard of the Bernabéu, where the only human interaction was harassing you into a photo alongside a cardboard Ronaldo. There was an almost vulnerable openness at San Mamés.

After their support, most clubs’ identities are contained in how their ground greets you on non-matchdays. Usually I slip in unannounced, through an open service gate or past a surly but obliging groundsman, peek at the stands and catch a club without its makeup. The Bernabéu always has its face on. The scale is dizzying but its pristine uniformity borders on the sterile. Old San Mamés, however, was rightly known as La Catedral. Football’s cathedrals often outshine its palaces. And true places of worship touch your soul more than your wallet. Alex Anderson

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