Everton, Milan, Real – football stadiums are back on the agenda

ON A weekend when Brentford will welcome another of the big six clubs to their home ground in the form of London rivals Chelsea, the club’s progress, allied to the opening of their new stadium, is a reminder that life has indeed continued during the covid-19 pandemic.

Brentford said farewell to their homely and atmospheric Griffin Park more than 12 months ago, but their arrival in the Premier League has been something of a breath of fresh air for the rest of top level football. The Brentford Community Stadium, a project that was talked of for some years, took roughly two years to build and cost £ 71 million, a fraction of some of the bigger Lego kits in football, but just about right for Brentford’s needs.

It’s good to see that the club was able to take its relocation to conclusion against a backdrop of confusion, economic disaster and social unrest. It is arguable that the realism of the club’s project enabled them to not only achieve their objectives but also generate success on the field of play. Brentford have already played host to Arsenal, Liverpool and now Chelsea – if anyone needed proof of the glamour of the Premier, the club has seen it in the first couple of months of 2021-22, and furthermore, they’ve only been beaten once in the league. 

Some stadium plans have floundered during the pandemic, or at the very least, proved more expensive or been rescheduled. Real Madrid have been working on a major refurbishment of the Bernabéu during the crisis and played their behind-closed-doors games at their training centre. This is a gargantuan scheme that will cost £ 700 million and include restaurants, a museum and a casino as well as retail outlets. It’s a project that will take three and a half years.

The 81,000 capacity stadium is aimed at improving efficiency, sustainability and provide more revenues streams. They wanted to include a hotel and shopping centre, but that didn’t get past the planners. In some ways, the pandemic has possibly helped Real push on as it was far easier to shift their games as spectators were not permitted.

Real Madrid are creating the ultimate digital stadium, which underlines that football at the highest level is warmly embracing new technologies. Already, some clubs have moved towards cashless stadiums, which makes sense for the transit of big crowds. KPMG Football Benchmark recently wrote about the speeding-up of the process of technology adoption: “Digitalisation not only improves guest experience but also helps these facilities comply with health measures by reducing human contact. Online ticketing, contactless entry, crowd control apps showing the fans the quickest route to their seats, pre-ordering food and beverages to your seat, among others, are here to stay in the long run.”

In England, the biggest transaction centres on Everton, who have started work on the proposed Bramley-Moore Dock stadium. The infill of the dock has begun, with sand collected from Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea and piped into the dock via a dredger. This stage of the build, a huge maritime engineering project, is expected to last up to four months. While some fans have misgivings about the move away from the club’s ancient home of Goodison Park, the new stadium, there will also be funds to support the transformational regeneration of north Liverpool and south Sefton. Everton have also been granted a £ 30 million loan to contribute to the overall project. Everton have forecast the new stadium project will boost the local economy by more than £ 1 billion and attract 1.4 million visitors to the city.

This is important as the local council have made it clear they are not investing in a football club, but in the regeneration of a region of the city that was in poor shape. Finding big backers has become harder, but Everton’s major shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, has provided £ 100 million of the cost and the club is also hoping to tap the capital markets in the form of stocks, bonds and securities, with the assistance of JPMorgan and MUFG.

The other high profile deal that is far from settled is the new San Siro in Milan. Actually, the Milan scheme is one of several in Italy. KPMG pointed out that the average age of Serie A stadiums is 69 years, some eight years younger than the English Premier. KPMG added: “Italy’s strict regulations in relation to preservation of architectural heritage, combined with the economic hardships caused by the pandemic, may significantly postpone the realisation of projects being planned. For example, Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MiBACT) recently ruled that Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi could not be demolished or undergo a major redevelopment due to its historic status.”

The delays with the San Siro are due to the local political calendar, differing agendas and council reticence, among other factors. There’s another issue that has emerged in recent weeks, and that’s the future of Inter Milan should San Siro go ahead. The new owners of Newcastle United, Mohammed bin Salman, has expressed an interest in acquiring Inter and a price of £ 850 million has been mentioned. If San Siro is rebuilt, opening the doors for greater revenue streams, the club becomes that more attractive. Apparently, Inter’s troubled Chinese owners, Suning, are looking for around € 1 billion. 

Meanwhile, the arrival of Saudi Arabian owners in Newcastle could mean St. James’ Park will undergo some refurbishment, along with the club’s training ground. This could merely be one of a number of major overhauls in the UK as a bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup is planned. 

The creation of bigger and more diverse stadiums may become more pressing as clubs move out of crisis mode and the damage of the pandemic is fully assessed. But where will the money come from? It has already become clear that alternative investors have become more interested in the game, such as hedge funds, private equity and family offices, but all come with a cost that can exceed conventional bank lending rates. Banks are less likely to lend to clubs in the current climate, but as we have seen in the case of Everton and Milan, they can still be accessible for the really big deals. And it should not be forgotten that a major US investment bank was instrumental in the aborted European Super League. Ultimately, stadiums represent assets that can be leveraged, financed, mortgaged and securitised. Money to be made.

Stadiums: Learning to love the brutal building

APPARENTLY, the architectural style “brutalist” is making a comeback and people are reassessing a much-maligned school of design. Football fans, generally, are nostalgists, so the older the better as far as most are concerned. The favoured materials, for years and years, have invariably been corrugated metal and wood. Concrete, all function over form and strictly utilitarian, is a substance few people warm to.  

When I first went to the Camp Nou, over 20 years ago, I walked out onto the arena and was quite underwhelmed. “It’s a concrete bowl,” was my reaction. Brutalist in places, there didn’t seem to be anything remarkable about the Barca ground other than sheer size and the fact it was almost totally open to the elements. This underlined the belief that what really makes a stadium is the people in it, not the leaky barn-like stands that litter you with rust. 

The same observation could be said about some of the world’s greatest and most fabled stadiums – the Maracana was a vast brutalist bowl that was all about making the world’s biggest football ground and sending a signal to the world that Brazil, in 1950, was a modern, go-ahead country. Yet it was concrete and people actually sat on the steps, there were no seats as such. Luckily, Brazil has never been a wet night in Stoke-on-Trent. 

Having worked in the City of London and in the midst of the ultra-brutalist Barbican complex, I had a close-up of the buildings and grew to appreciate and like them. The post-WW2 world wanted to embrace modernity and shortly after 1945, the space-age (whoever uses that term any more?) was upon us. Concrete, which had been widely adopted in the 1930s, had a poor image, one with damp stains and plagued with erosion. Certainly, some of the art-deco inspired constructions from the pre-war era had not aged well.

However, the boldness  of some of the designs created some spectacular, if often derided, buildings around the world. In Britain, a lot of social housing developments were created, some not very attractive at all and a lack of care and attention to detail caused them huge problems. I also worked opposite one in the Russell Square area of London, the Brunswick Centre, which still looks very imposing after undergoing a major refurbishment and you can now buy a small apartment for a cool £ 700,000!!

The Maracana doesn’t look like it used to, but the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, which was seen as modernity encapsulated when it hosted the 1968 Olympics and 1970 World Cup, still has some brutalist glory about it. The San Siro, which I used to refer to as a giant multi-storey car park, also has unashamed brutalist features. In fact, only when I visited the stadium itself did I fully appreciate just how unique it is.

They’re not all about the distant past, these brutalist football arenas. The Estadio Monumental in Lima, opened in 2000, is one of the most notable of recently-constructed stadiums. It is not only Peru’s largest ground, but also South America’s biggest. One of the best examples is Sporting Braga’s Municipal Stadium, which won awards for its design and was literally built in a quarry. This is one of the most spectacular stadiums in Europe thanks to the wall of rock behind one goal.

The communist era of the Soviet Union and other eastern bloc nations gave us the socialist concrete bowls, most of which have passed into history. From Poland, the enormous Stadion Dziesięciolecia was the most imposing and startling and had an eerie history as it was built with the rubble from wartime Warsaw. Opened in 1955, the English name was the 10th Anniversary Stadium. It was eventually abandoned and became a flea market.

Such stadiums in eastern Europe must have been a challenge for the fans, though. They’re arguably more suited to warmer climes where the sun can bounce off the concrete. And, for some strange reason, very few had any cover – in countries where the winter can be harsh.

To be frank, though, spectator comfort has never been a priority, even in the most expensive of football grounds. Most roofs were pitched in such a way that the first dozen rows still got wet in the rain, which has as much to do with the angle of seating as it does the top of the ground. And the temperature – there’s one thing worse than standing in the cold and that’s sitting in the cold. Occasionally, you read of plans to have warm air pumped around a ground (Chelsea’s infamous East Stand, the one that almost caused their demise in the mid-1970s, was originally planned to have such a luxury), but it has never really been on the agenda.

No, the football experience still requires a test of endurance, especially on cold midweeks. I recall trying to write a report at a game once and my hands were so cold I simply couldn’t hold my pen. Now that’s what I call a brutal experience, especially when you have to file 500 words on the whistle in an ice-bound stadium!

@GameofthePeople

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine. Reproduced with permission.