Snow top on the mountains, rivers rushing through valleys, cows and sheep grazing on the green hills. It could easily be a scene from the Alps, but we aren´t in Switzerland, we are in Spain, in the northern region of Asturias to be more precise. Asturias is famous among Spaniards for its unspoiled nature, its friendly people, its milk, its cider and its stomach filling fabada. In sporting terms, Asturias is perhaps more famous for its racing driver Fernando Alonso than for its football teams but to those who follow Spanish football more carefully the name Sporting Gijón conjures up images of a northern club known for its loyal and dedicated support.
The train journey up to the northern coast is a memorable experience. After several hours travelling through the deserted plains of Castilla y Leon you are suddenly thrown into the mountain valleys of Asturias. Some may believe the boundaries between the Spanish regions are artificial but here they couldn’t be clearer.
If you only have one day in Asturias, as I did, then you have to try the local food and drink. Spanish regions are known as much for their food as for anything else and each region has its specialty. In Asturias it’s fabada, a type of stew with beans. To wash the fabada down, you need some strong Asturian cider which is poured in its own special way. With a stomach full of fabada and cider you are both full and drunk enough to enjoy the Asturian winter weather.
The game I was in town to see was between Sporting Gijón and Villareal. After avoiding relegation on the last day of last season, Sporting have started this season quite well and went into the match sitting just outside the European places. Whether Sporting can maintain this good form is questionable but what isn’t in doubt is the joy of the town at being back in La Liga.
Gijón, like Bilbao, has the feeling of a football town. The Asturians, like the Basques, are proud people and you can’t help get the impression that the whole city is behind their football team. Wearing a Sporting top is not just about what football team you support but it’s about who you are and where you come from. Compare this with someone wearing an Arsenal or a Chelsea top and you might see what I mean.
The Sporting supporters, known as Sportinguistas, are considered among the most loyal in Spain and there is hard evidence to back this up. Despite spending the whole of last season fighting relegation, Sporting had the 5th highest occupancy rate in their stadium with an average of 85% of seats occupied. This figure puts them below Athletic Bilbao but above Barcelona. For that reason, attending a Sporting match guarantees atmosphere.
The atmosphere inside the 25,000 El Molinon stadium was similar to that of San Mamés or Vicente Calderón which led me to think that it might have something to do with teams who play in red and white. The Sporting Ultras were in good voice and kept the singing going for almost the entire 90 minutes. This was an impressive feat as the game itself created little entertainment to get excited about. In the end it was decided by a penalty, awarded to home side and converted at the second attempt by Sporting‘s Croatian forward Billic. The result was enough to keep Sporting’s good start going and give the supporters something to cheer about.
After the match there was a nice walk, past the beach, back to the city centre. The Sporting fans weren’t getting carried away and the conversations focused mainly on how many points were needed to stay up. The Sporting fans are realistic. For them, football is more than fancy signings and winning trophies. They know they can’t win the league but they support their team with a pride and passion not found at every football club. Again, compare this with a Chelsea or an Arsenal fan and you might see what I mean.