At the dawn of the twentieth century, Athletic did not play on proper football fields but on actual country fields. The first field as such was Lamiako (Leioa), followed by Jolaseta (Getxo). But the greatest illusion of Athletic was to build a field of its own and, if possible, in Bilbao, since the fields of Lamiako and Jolaseta were very far away from Bilbao. The illusion began to become reality after the rental of a plot next to the San Mamés asylum.
Lamiako can be considered as the first field in which Athletic played. They competed vigorously on this field, sharing it with other clubs, from 1901 to 1911. The field of Lamiako was the first to see an international match, with paying tickets for Athletic, or the future classic rivals of Madrid and Barcelona (in 1904 and 1906, respectively).
In 1911, due to the Cup championship which was being organized by our club, Athletic moved to Jolaseta. The field of Jolaseta was a milestone and a great step forward in the football of Bizkaia. For the first time a pitch had a covered grandstand for the fans, with one added extra (two rows of benches running out in front of the grandstand), and one general (the rest of the area around the field was occupied by standing spectators).
After years of negotiations, in 1912, the Directive Board presided over by Alejandro de la Sota found a lot located on the extension of the Gran Vía road, adjacent to the San Mamés asylum. For the construction of the field it was estimated that it would take around 50,000 pesetas (€ 300.51) that Athletic did not have. After the exhibition of the project to personalities who loved the club, sufficient monetary support was achieved. On December the 10th, 1912 the club members gathered at an Extraordinary General Meeting and unanimously approved the construction of the new field. Not only that but, a large number of members, voluntarily contributed funds, from 1000 pesetas (€ 6) to much more modest amounts, for a total amount of 40,770 pesetas (€ 245.6), allowing works to begin very quickly on January 20th, 1913, following the project of the architect Manuel María Smith.
The field had a capacity for more than seven thousand spectators, three thousand of them, comfortably seated in a magnificent light wood coloured grandstand, where the various services for the public and players were installed. The ladies had a separate facility with access from the same platform. On each side of it on slopes of grass dotted with flower beds, terraces extended down to the dominating playing field. One of these terraces, in turn, had a canteen and a bar. The grass resembled an immense green carpet, topped with a simple, light fence to prevent the public from entering the field and visible from everywhere the Club flag waved majestically on a large mast.
On Thursday, August 21st, 1913, at 15:30, the doors of San Mamés were opened for the first time to the public, and five minutes before the start of the game, it registered its first full capacity crowd. At 17:20, Seve Zuazo put the ball into play and just five minutes later, Pichichi scored the first goal in The Cathedral, ‘La Catedral’.
The field initially rented from the heirs of Pedro Novia Salcedo for ten years, reached the length of a century. The field initially for 7,000 spectators constantly underwent various remodeling and alterations, the main one, the one of 1952, which incorporates the Arch, and the last one, which was done for the World Cup of 1982, where it reached its maximum capacity with 45,000 spectators. In 2013, after 100 years and 3,695 games, San Mamés, La Catedral, handed over the baton to the new San Mamés.
On December 31st, 1946, at 12:30 in the morning, President José María Larrea signed the deed of purchase for the land of San Mamés field, over a period of twenty years, with a 4% annual interest rate, and without any down-payment being required. After the purchase, a structural transformation was planned, for which a contest was offered and published in 1951, which was consequently won by the architects Domínguez Salazar, Magdalena Gayán, De Miguel González and the engineer Fernández Casado, mastermind of the arch, an icon of the Club and the architecture of the industrial Bilbao. It was inaugurated in 1953 as a fundamental part of the new Main Grandstand and its visual impact was enormous, rising 40 meters above the pitch, 56 counting the arch itself, much more than any of the surrounding buildings.
Of the cable-stayed type, in reality there are two large arches of 115 meters which are braced with 16 complete Saint Andrews crosses, and 4 half crosses, two in the top of the dome, and one at each end. Currently, the arch presides over the facilities of Lezama.
The last major alterations of San Mamés took place on the occasion of the 82 World Cup, as Bilbao was one of the headquarters. It was the first remodeling that affected the whole field in a joint way, providing a sense of constructive unity. The project of the architects Luis Pueyo, Javier Salazar and Imanol Abando, roughly consisted of knocking down the two end goal stadiums and the box towers on which the arch of the Main Grandstand rested, and reconstructing them with continuity in the curves of the corners, to configure an uninterrupted space. On the outside, all the facades were covered with white metal sheets, except for the main Grandstand, giving, for the first time, a sense of unity.
The 2012-13 season was the last of the old San Mamés. Although on a sporting level there were no outstanding events, on an emotional level, the change of course created an unforgettable atmosphere. During the whole campaign the visiting teams received a memory of the old field while the fans counted the remaining matches at the stadium.
On May 26th, 2013 the last official match of Athletic was played, unfortunately a defeat in the League by 0 to 1 against Levante UD, and on June 5th, 2013 the last match of The Cathedral was played. It was a tribute to local football, a family farewell against a selection of players from Bizkaia, who won by 0 to 1.
The new field was built practically on the same site and continues to be an indispensable reference among the prestigious football fields, reaching the excellence standard for its inherited nickname, The Cathedral. For both its modern, innovative, spectacular architecture and its classic location which allow its 53,000 spectators to breathe a true football atmosphere. The essence of always adapting in a harmonious way with the new times.