On Wednesday, the quarterfinals of the Spanish Cup between Athletic Club and Atlético de Madrid made sport history for record attendance in Bilbao`s San Mamés stadium. 48,121 fans attended the game, and Athletic Club`s women`s team broke its own record of sixteen years ago, when 35,000 spectators showed up to cheer their team to its first Super League title against Híspalis. Bilbao`s women’s soccer attracts by far the greatest number of fans in Spain, and probably in Europe, as this new record shows. By comparison, the Spanish national team game against the United States attracted 9,182 fans in Alicante only a few days before.
There is much to celebrate about Bilbao`s penchant for women`s soccer in a country where men dominate the game.
“Twenty-first century Spain. You are born a woman, and you can become whatever you want: you can be a hunter pilot, a marine captain, a minister – but can you become a soccer player?” Cuestión de Pelotas, 2010
The question of a 2010 documentary on women’s soccer was rhetorical. That year, the film argues, women were still not granted professional status by the Spanish Football Federation. They were unable to make a living even if their clubs were willing to pay them, which lead to semi-legal minimum wage-like benefits for female athletes. “In Spain, things happened,” coach Vicente del Bosque said after the men’s national team won the 2010 World Cup. “We have become a modern country, and that is also reflected by our sport.” By men’s sport, that is. Women’s sports in Spain are still thwarted by institutional inequalities, social disinterest and almost no media visibility.
The 2003 game in Bilbao was a milestone for women’s soccer. It turned women’s play into a sport of mass spectatorship, and conquered fans. The prospect that women’s soccer can attract such attendance sent new energies through the frustrated ranks of this sport. Athletic Bilbao coach Iñigo Juaristi said that the turnout in Bilbao “should be a wake-up call for the Spanish Football Federation to take women’s soccer seriously.” La Puebla coach Isidro Galiot said that Bilbao “set the standards very high,” and contributed to the overall development of women’s soccer in Spain. Híspalis coach Sebastián Borras hoped that this was just the beginning of a new epoch in women’s sport: “I would like everyone in Europe to see what Athletic has achieved. I would like this not to stop here.” Fermín Palomar, then responsible for Athletic Club women’s soccer, spent that month responding to a flood of congratulatory phone calls and messages. “They want to know how we managed to attract 35 000 spectators for women’s soccer. I myself had to breathe deep not to break out in tears.” On Wednesday, Atlético de Madrid coach José Luis Sánchez Vera and his players left the field happy with their 0-2 victory, but even more perplexed by the crowd in the stadium. “This is a memory for all my life. It is something unforgettable to beat Athletic with 50,000 spectators on the stands.”
“It should be a medium-term plan that we play in San Mamés regularly,” Athletic Club player Garazi Murua said after the game.
There is perhaps one last thing for Athletic Club to kick off a new era in women`s soccer: play all women`s games in San Mamés. It`s hard to overestimate the legitimizing effect of place.
“How do you remember your great jump into the town square?” first ever female bertsolari champion Maialen Lujanbio was asked in an interview in 2009. “I started to be known by everyone,” she answered. “Because they put us… where we didn`t belong.”
Will San Mamés become the town square where female players belong for regular league games too? The magic of the Cathedral is such that it would turn women`s play into a serious adventure for those who still dismiss it as “anti-aesthetic,” or ni fútbol, ni femenino. In May 2003, when Athletic femenino debuted by winning their first Superliga title, coach Iñigo Juaristi was thrown in the jacuzzi. Eskerrik asko he said at the press conference, dripping with water. “This can only happen in Bilbao.” When Bilbaínos first turned up by the tens of thousands to cheer their women players in San Mamés, arguments that women’s soccer can’t mobilize masses no longer counted. Bilbaínos had always thrived on challenges, and now they sent a powerful message. They were ready for their greatest bilbainada yet: turning women’s soccer into a mass spectator sport in a country where men monopolize it. If anywhere in Spain or indeed in Europe, it could happen in Bilbao. And there would be yet another reason to call Athletic un caso único en el fútbol mundial.