FOOTBALL fans, by and large, are nostalgists, especially those that remember the days when pitches were muddy, shirts were not emblazoned with multiple sponsors, and football managers actually said something meaningful in post-match interviews.
Ask any non-league fan, for example, their favourite locations and they will invariably tell you the old wooden ground at Clapped-out Rovers is full of character and “proper”. At the same time, they will bemoan the plethora of “cookie-cutter” constructions that have sprung up in recent years.
On a personal basis, I love old grounds, but I also admire some of the new stadiums that are appearing all over Europe. There’s no denying that European football has its heritage stadiums, grounds like the San Siro, the Bernabeu, Munich’s 1970s classic, the Olympic Stadium and the Ernst Happel (formerly Prater) in Vienna. These have all hosted major club and international fixtures, and as such, they deserve a metaphorical blue plaque in recognition of their place in football history. The old Nep in Budapest, too, is worthy of mention in this category, even though it has made way for a new ground in the Hungarian capital.
As a child, I remember being fascinated by the geography of football and where nations played their international games. It fuelled an interest in travel and I was always excited about the prospect of moving around the continent to watch football in places like Belgrade, Prague, Paris, Brussels, Madrid and Lisbon. That early obsession with European football (which was not usual back in the late 1960s, early 1970s), has stayed with me to the present day but it was really only in the past decade that I have been able to realise my ambition of visiting all the major football grounds and clubs that I read about all those years ago. I’m still working on it, even as the UK tip-toes out of the European Union.
While it has been good to visit the homes of Ajax, Juventus and Real Madrid, most clubs have, of course, remodelled or relocated their grounds since the days when Johan Cruyff and his team-mates played at Ajax’s modest De Meer stadium. Ajax’s Arena is a massive, relatively new ground, not one of my favourites, but nevertheless, an impressive location. True, De Meer had that “character” stadium addicts enthuse about, but just because something is new does not mean it does not warrant praise.
I was recently in Madrid for the World Football Summit and managed to get to see Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and also take a tour of the new Atletico ground, the Wanda Metropolitano. While the Bernabeu is an imposing stadium and dominates the neighbourhood, Atletico play in an area close to the airport. It is a beautiful ground, has good access points and you can definitely “breath”. This is an aesthetic football home that is a “must-see”.
Similarly, another piece of “eye candy” is Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, which was built for Euro 2016. Frankly, this is the most beautiful stadium I have ever seen, designed by the famous architect firm Herzog & de Meuron. Along with another of this company’s creations, the Allianz in Munich, the Bordeaux stadium is a modern classic. Before Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, shelved plans for Stamford Bridge, these fellows were working on a quite spectacular rebuild in South-West London.
There certainly seems to be a trend to build “statement” grounds which become part of the image, brand and status of big clubs. In Britain, we’ve had lots of new stadiums over the past 20 or so years, many have a fairly antiseptic look about them, but they are certainly functional and have, in many cases, acted as the catalyst to improve clubs and spectator comfort. It is easy to get all misty-eyed about cow-shed stands, dreadful sanitation and leaking roofs, but there are many positives about the new breed of stadium, even if some of them do look like they have come from the same kit. Gone are the days of inner-city grounds, most new builds require a hike out of the centre, but in most cases, change has been a positive. Why? Because a versatile stadium, that can offer the community more than a fortnightly game, is a huge asset for a football club. That’s the world we live in today.
For me, if every stadium was like that gleaming white monument to football in Bordeaux, that world would be a much better place. That said, I also like to see old-style grounds with huge floodlights and rusty turnstiles. Don’t we all?
This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission