Saturday night in San Mames, Sunday night in Anoeta. It's a hard life. I've just come out of the U2 concert in the latter stadium, and left the folks jigging up and down so that I can get on with writing this week's column. I must be getting old, but once they'd done 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' (ahem) I thought I'd better get on home. Besides, the light show was starting to make me feel sea-sick. At a place called vertigo, indeed. Give me a football match any day. Bono did mumble something about the World Cup at one point - something about the Irish not even getting to South Africa, but that 'you' did - by which he meant Spain, I suppose. Hello, hello! And I thought the chap was supposed to be politically aware?
Let's not go down that bottle-strewn path. Saturday night in 'the cathedral' was much more enjoyable, despite the filthy weather. The visit of Barcelona seemed to have clogged up the roads into Bilbao, but I persisted in my pursuit of a parking spot and was rewarded about ten minutes from the kick-off, which still meant an undignified run through the splashy backstreets up to the magnificent San Mames. And by magnificent I mean that you come upon the tubby sides of the stadium from a series of narrow, perpendicular streets, from whose windows washing hangs, people smoke and life goes on, just as it has done since the ground was built in 1913. The new stadium, for which the ground has yet to be broken, is to be built close by, but it will never mirror the throwback glory that is the original. So many of the new grounds that are being built in Europe focus on architectural aesthetics, but are almost always built out of town, away from the urban hustle and bustle that nourished the sport in the first place. It's necessary, but a pity nonetheless.
San Mames is in need of a lick of paint, its inner walls are crumbling and its toilets require a health warning posting on the doors (most people pee outside the stadium anyway, up against the old walls, in a sort of brotherly ritual), but that's a part of the charm. Once inside the vertical walls, the green baize under the sharp lights punches your senses and sets them all a-tingling, with the smoky curtain of rain twirling around the Barcelona players, like dry ice at a rock concert. No ground in Spain seems quite so aggressively close to the action. I'm high up behind Victor Valdes, and my hostess for the evening is Maria, surfer, teacher, and Athletic fan from birth. She wears the club shirt over her civilian garb and hands me a bocadillo wrapped in silver foil, the sign of Basque hospitality. The unspoken rule states that the object cannot be unwrapped until half-time, upon which the stadium will become a cacophony of silver-foil squeaking. Over to my right, a couple of thirty-somethings are rolling an enormous joint as if it is the most normal thing in the world, to enhance the sight of their team against Barcelona with a little substance support. The Spanish football authorities in general are remarkably relaxed and permissive about this, and you sometimes wonder if the referees themselves have been having a crafty pre-match puff, given their habitually hazy levels of perception.
The match is kicked off by 85-year-old Angela Hilton, the daughter of Fred Pentland, manager of Athletic during the 1920s and then in the early 1930s - an eccentric but visionary man whose habit of wearing a top-hat in the dug-out earned him the nickname 'bombin'. Pentland is important in Spanish football history because he basically changed its style, from direct and physical to something more cerebral, more tactically astute. Bilbao's consequent dominance of that period meant that Barcelona, the evening's opponents, borrowed the 'Pentland Way' in the 1930s after suffering the worst defeat in their history to date, 12-1 in San Mames in 1931. They never looked back. Tonight, possibly their greatest ever team watches on as the daughter of the man who inspired their modern style kicks off in the 2010 rain. They are probably unaware of this, as are most Barcelona fans, but the symbolism of the moment is perfect.
Six years ago, when Athletic were trying to fill up their new museum, the boss rang me up and asked me if I could find out if any of Pentland's children were still alive. I'd written about Pentland in my book Morbo, and the museum chap had read it. After a search worthy of a book in itself, I traced Pentland's grave to a tiny cemetery in an English village called Lytchett Matravers, and the barman at the Golf Club assured me that Angela Hilton was still alive and living in a village nearby. Having found her and spoken to her, I put the club in touch with her. Now she's down there on the baize, kicking off in front of a grinning Carles Puyol. Her father did the same, 50 years ago in a friendly against Chelsea, kicking off in front of Jimmy Greaves, who had very different hair from that sported by Puyol tonight.
The Athletic fans have no particular problem with Barcelona, despite some bad blood in the past in the wake of the infamous on-field punch-up after the Copa Del Rey final in 1984, and of course the strained relations between the two clubs that were a result of the historic foul by 'Butcher of Bilbao' Andoni Goikoetxea on Diego Maradona in 1983, still described as the worst tackle of all time. But now all is going well, Athletic are troubling their Messi-less visitors with their direct style and enthusiasm until the bastard son of Goikoetxea (figuratively speaking), Fernando Amorebieta, loses control of the ball and runs into Andres Iniesta as the little Spanish hero tries to gain possession. Iniesta goes flying, and Amorebieta takes a walk to the changing-rooms, minute 33.
Centre-back Amorebieta is statistically the second naughtiest player in Bilbao's history, and has now been sent off eight times in his career, one less than the legendary Josu Urrutia. However, where Urrutia took 348 games to accumulate his nine red cards, Amorebieta has managed his 8 in 144 games, which is impressive going. As they say, his reputation goes before him, but at half-time the San Mames faithful turn their ire on the departing visitors, and give Iniesta a particularly hot reception, presumably feeling that he has overdone the wounded soldier act. As one chap to my right hollered (not the one smoking the weed), "Ya sé que quiere decir Mourinho!" (Now I know what Mourinho means), referring to the Special One's midweek controversy-conference where he opined that the referees were too easy on Barcelona and the Spanish FA, too, for allowing Sporting de Gijon to field practically a reserve side against them on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the game still has to be won, and Barcelona come out in the second half playing a higher line, and proceed to run poor Athletic dizzy. It's a while since I've seen Barcelona in the flesh, but the football is suddenly fantastic to watch. Xavi simply stands in the centre orchestrating proceedings as if he has all the time in the world. 'Stands' is not quite true because he is always in motion, moving off as soon as he has the ball and constantly changing direction, making it impossible to challenge him. Indeed, Athletic give up the fight, and fall back to defend in numbers, to no avail. The excellent Keita scores a simple goal, and after numerous chances go begging, Xavi scores a second with a banana shot, which Gorka Iraizoz below me completely misjudges, although it seems to take a deflection. The crowd is numbed into uncharacteristic silence, broken only when some wag stands up and exhorts someone to stop Iniesta from further running riot with the phrase "Dale una hostia!" (Kick his ass!), before the World Cup hero is finally brought off by Pep Guardiola. Last week he was applauded from the field by the Atletico Madrid fans. Tonight he receives what the Spanish call "una pitada monumental", which is basically the opposite of what he got in Madrid. Funny what a difference a week makes.
Barcelona's football is exquisite, with Dani Alves running riot down the right and some of the one-touch stuff just mesmerising. And all this without Messi. Then David Villa gets himself sent off and Athletic sense a chance after Igor Gabilondo pulls a goal back, on practically the one time that Athletic have approached Valdes' goal in the entire second half. Then Sergio Busquets scores on the counter-attack, and it's all over for another week. It's difficult to judge the two teams accurately on the basis of the game, but Athletic were simply starved of the ball for so long they were made to look like amateurs. The visitors have played against ten men but done it as perfectly as it is possible to do.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid continue to stutter in front of goal, failing to dispatch newly-promoted Levante (0-0) while early leaders Valencia continue to emit good vibrations, with a 2-0 win at Sporting. Their Champions League game at home to Manchester United on Wednesday now looks a tasty prospect indeed. Sevilla's sluggish start and poor midweek home draw with Racing saw their manager Antonio Alvarez sent to the gallows, which seems a tad harsh, but the modern game's all about impatience. An ex-player for the club, he had been working there since 1995 in various guises; he qualified them for the Champions League last season and won them the Copa del Rey, but this season's inability to pass through the qualifying stage and the poor start to the Europa League campaign has done for him. Gregorio Manzano takes over, which should be interesting, and his debut on the bench will be at home to high-flying Atletico Madrid.
Breathless stuff, as ever. I'm going to Germany this week, but will try to take a longer look next weekend at why Valencia are doing so well, so far.