Grand design stadiums are fine, but what about the neighbours?

THE INFORMATION emerging from the Champions League final debacle becomes more revealing and disturbing by the day. As well as images of extraordinarily bad behaviour from the French police, there are stories of local gangs attacking both Liverpool and Real Madrid fans. So distressed were some Liverpool fans they have vowed never to follow their side abroad, and let’s not forget this is a club of passionate followers. The Stade de France may be a landmark stadium, but its location and surrounding infrastructure surely has to be questioned after such a shambolic evening.

Former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry did actually warn people about Saint-Denis, saying “you don’t want to go there” to a US journalist. It’s not the first time people have remarked on the perils of the neighbourhood, indeed, if you wanted further evidence, in the aftermath of the game, reporters were hassled by groups of young boys live on TV.

But more importantly, and more worrying, was the antics of large groups of youths assaulting Liverpool fans, despite the presence of thousands of people and a large police presence, who seemed unwilling to help.

The ramifications of this disastrous night for UEFA, for France and for the concept of pan-European club competition could be very significant. It also destroyed Emmanuel Macron’s aim of showcasing France’s ability to organise major sports events ahead of the 2024 Olympics.

One would hope UEFA will not use Stade de France for any future major finals and would deem the venue, in its current form, unsuitable for large groups of visiting fans. Why? Because spectator safety goes beyond what happens in the stadium and as hosts, French authorities have a responsibility to ensure visitors are safe. It’s surely a public order issue? The stadium itself may be fine, but clearly Saint-Denis is a place to be avoided.

Before anyone protests that what happens outside the location is not necessarily connected to the event, then think again. If this was a political summit, attended by VIPs, you would assume the police and emergency services would be on red alert. The hordes of “undesirables” would be kept well away from the venue, with an overbearing police presence and surveillance of potential flashpoints. Saint-Denis is renowned for its crime rate – among the highest in Europe, certainly in France – so surely the police were aware that football fans with money, mobile phones and other valuables would be a target of roaming and organised thieves? It is also an area with a high degree of poverty.

UEFA has to be more discerning about the choice of final venues. In the past 20 years, we have seen problems in Moscow where English fans were exploited by hotels and other businesses at the Champions League final and also the ludicrous situation where Arsenal and Chelsea played the Europa League final in, of all places, Baku. UEFA has to realise big cities with big stadiums are not necessarily the optimal sites for every cup final for a number of reasons – ranging from personal safety to logistics and economics.

We have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on?

The problem and the questions should go far deeper about the suitability of certain neighbourhoods for big occasion sport. When new stadiums are being planned, how often do the companies involved, be they architects, town planners, accountants and financiers, consider the suitability of the local environment from the perspective of people?

It’s great placing a shining new structure in an available plot, but does anyone calculate how 30,000 – 40,000 people arriving in the vicinity will affect local people and how will an area of high crime and social problems impact on a mass crowd? There’s a similar comparison in London in the form of Tottenham’s magnificent new ground, which sits in one of London’s poorest boroughs with a crime rate among the 10 highest in the city.

It is a truly remarkable construct, but it is surrounded by poverty, shabby retail outlets and down-trodden estates. It is not difficult to imagine some resentment stirring, although the club and those responsible for the building of the 60,000 stadium hoped its arrival would be the catalyst for regeneration.

There is another aspect to consider. Ever since UEFA (and FIFA) introduced their “fan parks”, the movement of supporters may have increased substantially. According to some reports, there were 150,000 Liverpool fans in Paris for the final, the majority of which has absolutely no chance of getting a ticket. Perhaps the idea of attracting greater numbers to be part of the occasion has created an unintended consequence? UEFA has to dispense with the idea of exploiting the occasion in favour of what is realistically achievable.

Inner city stadiums became very passé in the 1990s and the logical thing for football clubs to do was sell their grounds for a handsome profit to developers and move to an out-of-town or less expensive site. In the UK, this has proven to be quite successful, even though supporters are often dragged out of the ancestral home kicking and screaming. But while transport links are uppermost in the developer’s mind, there surely has to be a discussion around security. Saint-Denis may not be typical of many major stadiums in continental Europe, but it would appear to be unwelcoming for vast crowds of visiting fans. Furthermore, we have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on from the days when supporters were treated with disdain by police?

UEFA has apologised to Liverpool and Real Madrid fans, but the French authorities remain stubbornly in denial, about what happened and also about their own rising crime rate. UEFA’s response should be a [temporary] ban on French football grounds staging finals as a neutral host. The Champions League final has shown they are reluctant to be accountable for what goes on under their jurisdiction. As for stadium builders, there must be some lessons to be learned from May 28 2022.

Football’s lost empires

SOME 10 years ago, I was involved in doing some work for an old Victorian music hall based near the Tower of London. This gem of a place had been boarded-up for decades, almost unknown to people in the neighbourhood. Inside, as ramshackle as it was, there was a hall, a bar, two floors and many period features. The music hall played host to a lot of stars of the era but some preservation groups had seemingly ignored the role of music hall as crucial entertainment for the ordinary folk of London. In some respects, football used to be largely overlooked as an important part of British culture. Fortunately, academics and commentators now accept the game as an integral part of social history.

A lot of old football venues have either disappeared, been demolished or become part of housing estates, hardly surprising given the growth of urban development and the original placement of many football grounds. What we have lost many significant sites where football may have been played in the game’s nascent years, and some of these were actually very prominent locations that have hosted FA Cup finals. 

Take, for example, the Lillie Bridge ground in South-West London, just a goal-kick away from Stamford Bridge. This forgotten arena was opened in 1866 and in 1873, staged the second FA Cup final between the Wanderers and Oxford University. It was a multi-purpose ground, holding bicycle races, hot-air balloon events, cricket, wrestling and athletics. Wanderers had the choice of grounds for the final as they were defending holders and because they had no home of their own, opted to play at Lillie Bridge. For three years, Middlesex Cricket Club played at the ground between 1869 and 1872, after which they moved to Lords. The ground was closed in 1888 after a riot and became a coal yard for the railway and then was used as a car park for Earls Court before being consumed by housing development. The 1873 final was won by the Wanderers, who included Arthur Kinnaird and Charles Wollaston in their line-up, who both won the competition five times in their careers. 

The early cup finals were played at Kennington Oval but in 1892, Surrey Cricket Club decreed no more football would be played at the ground. Fallowfield athletics ground and velodrome in Manchester was chosen for the 1893 final. This proved to be an unsuitable place to hold such a big event as over 60,000 were reputed to be present for the final between Wolves and Everton. The official capacity was 45,000 but there were a number of pitch invasions and overcrowding was evident from the moment the game started. So disruptive was the encroachment that Everton demanded the game was replayed. It wasn’t and Wolves won the cup with an all-English team. Today, the Fallowfield site has been buried under Manchester University’s student accommodation.

Some of the game’s early giants played at grounds that have long gone. Aston Villa, for example, used the uneven pitch of Wellington Road in the area of Perry Barr in Birmingham. Villa moved there in 1876 and 12 years later, just months before the Football League was inaugurated, the ground had its record attendance of close to 27,000. However, this game, against Preston North End, was interrupted by crowd disturbances. As football became more popular, the crowds increased and Wellington Road, which had hosted FA Cup semi-finals in 1890 and 1896 and an England international in 1893, was no longer fit for purpose. There’s no trace of the stadium to be found today.

In some cases, you might find remnants of football grounds of a bygone era. I once worked with somebody who claimed their sister-in-law had bought a house and discovered some strange concrete steps in their garden in South London that were later identified as being part of Woolwich Arsenal’s stadium. How many people had stood on those pieces of terracing over the years?

What’s really thought-provoking and a little eerie is that on sites where a ground once sat, you might be standing in a spot that once had 30,000 people crammed into a collection of wooden stands and crudely-constructed concrete terraces. And when you think hard about it, football has always been one of the few events that have so many people crowded in a single space. In most towns around Britain, football has attracted more people than any other pastime. Surely, if nothing else, that warrants recognition as a site of important historical interest?

This article appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.

Best stadium of 2021? Osasuna’s Estadio El Sadar

STADIUMDB has named a La Liga football venue as its stadium of the year for the first time, and it’s not one of the league’s blue riband clubs. The award, which was the outcome of a user poll, goes to none other than Club Atlético Osasuna, the team from Pamplona, a city renowned for its Running of the Bulls festival.

Despite the pandemic, geopolitical problems and rising concerns about climate change, stadium building continues around the world. There has been a rise in construction of sports venues in Turkey, Qatar and USA,  in fact these three countries account for 14 of the top 23 stadiums in the survey.

In addition to new builds, a number of clubs are embarking on redevelopment or expansion of their existing arenas, such as Liverpool, Manchester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa. And in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona are at various stages of refurbishing  their iconic stadiums.

Osasuna’s Estadio El Sadar has a modest capacity – 24,000 – compared to the homes of the Spanish giants, but it has a very striking appearance. The cost of building exceeded the originally estimated € 16 million and eventually came in at around € 23.3 million, largely due to the inclusion of a roof that covered all corners of the ground. 

Architects OFS effectively won a beauty parade, their design, which made use of the club’s red colours, was called Muro Roja, the red wall, and appealed to the fans. The financing of the project was assisted by a loan from the Navarra Province.

The Estadio El Sadar is named after the river that runs alongside the stadium, it is located in the southern part of Pamplona and 2.5 kilometres from the city centre and 4 kilometres from the railway station. 

A notable aspect of the Osasuna stadium is that it was the cheapest among the contenders for the StadiumDB award. The average investment of the nominees was € 136 million, working out at € 4,000-plus per seat. The El Sadar’s cost, € 23.3 million, represented less than € 1,000 per seat.

Coming in behind the El Sadar was the Estadio Único Madre de Ciudades in Santiago del Estero, Argentina. The 30,000 capacity stadium is the home of Central Córdoba FC, who play in the top division in Argentina. The construction of such a site during the country’s deep financial crisis was heavily criticised, especially as the region in which it is located has one of the worst unemployment rates in Argentina. Nevertheless, the new stadium went ahead on the Dulce riverfront where Santiago meets neighbouring La Banda. The area has good new municipal rail connections and easy access to other major transport hubs.

Another South American stadium, Estadio Banco Guayaquil in the province of Pichincha, Ecuador, was placed third in the StadiumDB poll. This is the home of Ecuadorian champions Independiente del Valle and has a capacity of just 12,000. This was built with private money – the total cost was around US$ 12 million – raised by Banco Guayaquil, the third largest bank in Ecuador.

Fourth was Stadionul Steaua, the home of CSA Steaua, a club that has been grappling over its identity for some years. Based in the Ghencea district of the Romanian capital, the new stadium replaced the tired old ground from the communist era. The neighbourhood, which was once dominated by plastic and textile industries, has a poor infrastructure although this doesn’t stop fans from all over the city attending games. The Stadionul Steaua cost around € 95 million to build and has a capacity of 31,300.

The top five was completed by the Europa Park in Freiburg, Germany, which has had to overcome a number of hurdles to reach completion and to become fully operative. Owned by the city of Freiburg, it has a capacity of 34,700 and cost € 76 million. There were issues over the nearby airstrip and the ability of light aircraft to land, noise pollution complaints concerning the hosting of matches and other problems around conservation. These have largely been dealt with, so Freiburg now have an impressive new home.

One thing that seems to be clear in modern stadium development is the desire to create visibly stunning designs that not only please aesthetes but are also complementary to the environment. This is a trend that will surely continue as architects and clubs try to be more sympathetic to the broader environment. Furthermore, football grounds are increasingly local landmarks and tourist attractions. Nostalgists might rue the passing of wooden stands and crumbling terraces, but the state-of-the-art football grounds springing up across the globe really do represent the game of the future.