Top ten stadiums
From Craven Cottage to Camp Nou via The Chocolate Box, Matt Stanger's love affair with football stadia is a continent-spanning effort that takes in stops at Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Scotland and England
By Matt Stanger
Last Updated: 15/03/13 5:05pm
There is something wonderfully charming about Craven Cottage as it nestles on the bank of the Thames, away from the hustle and bustle of central London. There are bigger stadiums with better facilities and superfluously sized television screens, but there is much to be said for the understated beauty and tradition of Fulham's home since 1896.
On one side, the red brick facade welcomes supporters with narrow, old-fashioned turnstiles leading into the ground. The Thames peacefully flows behind the opposing stand and fans often enjoy a stroll along the river on their way to the game. It sounds so ridiculously twee, yet even football ruffians can't help but become misty-eyed at their first sight of the Cottage Pavilion and the...quaint statue of Michael Jackson.
Estadio Malvinas Argentinas
If you're from Britain, it's best to keep a low profile around the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas - or the Falkland Islands stadium as it would be known on these shores. The ground was originally called The City of Mendoza stadium, but following the Falklands War it was re-named to reflect Argentina's claim to the islands. It's quite a surreal experience to visit the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, with the 45,000-capacity stadium sunk into the ground in the middle of a huge forest. At night it almost looks like a meteor crater with the floodlights lighting up the pitch black sky all the way to the edge of the city. There was a real carnival atmosphere when I went to watch Chile take on Uruguay during the Copa America, with fans tightrope-walking between the trees and sizzling choripans on huge barbecues. When it isn't being used for international matches, the stadium is home to Primera Division club Godoy Cruz, managed by former Boca Juniors striker and infamous penalty misser Martin Palermo.
There are plenty of stadiums I regret not visiting. My dad has told me of the joys of Roker Park and the Baseball Ground when I've been sitting in Sunderland and Derby's modern new-builds, which are both enjoyable places to watch football but yet to gain their own history and sepia-tinted memories. In Europe, the stadium I wish I had been to the most is Athletic Bilbao's San Mamés, which closes its doors for the final time at the end of the season. Known as La Catedral to supporters, attendance to watch the latest products of the club's cantera is a ritual, with the tight concrete stands crammed with families on match days.
When I've tried to imagine the incredible atmosphere that the TV cameras fail to fully grasp, this paragraph from journalist John Sinnott often springs to mind: 'There is nothing disturbing about San Mames' atmosphere, though it is no less powerful, exuding friendliness but above all pride in a club that is the property of its fans and a symbol of the Basque region. That warmth was much in evidence when the young star of this Athletic side Iker Muniain was substituted after a show-stopping performance. The crowd rose as one to give him a standing ovation, the warmth of applause rippling down the stands in acknowledgment of a hugely energetic and skilful player who was developed by the club's cantera (youth development scheme) as if to say this is a player that symbolises everything which Athletic represents.'
As you walk out to Parkhead in the East End of Glasgow on a cold winter night, Celtic Park lights up the sky like the site of a spaceship landing. The surrounding area is rather bleak, and the noise from inside the high red-brick walls is carried for miles on the freezing Glasgow wind. I've only been to 'Paradise' - a nickname taken from a journalist's description of Celtic Park when it first opened in 1892 - on one occasion for a Scottish Premier League match against Hearts. Despite the small significance of the game, the atmosphere was captivating as the fans formed a sea of green scarves, flags and banners. It's one of few stadiums in which the sight of the crowd really makes you wish you were there when you're sitting at home watching on TV, especially when Celtic are battling to victory on one of their many memorable nights in Europe.
As a youngster, I always used to look forward to Arsenal away in the fixture list. The walk from the tube station to Highbury was one of my favourite stadium approaches, with the streets filled with the thrum of excitement before kick-off. There was a real buzz around the ground, with the familiar sounds of sizzling burgers and programme callers piercing friendly rivalry between fans anticipating the big game (big for Blackburn, at least). The Art Deco facade of the East Stand was the perfect place to soak up the match-day atmosphere and steel myself for another thrashing.
Inside, the pitch was always immaculate, and the seats were so close to the action that you could hear the players calling for a pass or berating a teammate for a mistake. Likewise, the players could hear the fans, and in 2001 an Everton supporter memorably jumped the barriers to try and swap shirts with Alex Nyarko during the Toffees' 4-1 defeat. Arsenal's rivals may have nicknamed Highbury 'The Library', but as a visiting supporter I always enjoyed the experience, and even more so when Kevin Gallacher was in the mood. Although the Emirates is a magnificent stadium, which has helped the Gunners to monetise their fanbase (shudder), it's still a shame that they out-grew their home from 1913 to 2006.
In recent years there has been no better place to watch football than Camp Nou - the biggest stadium in Europe and 11th largest in the world - with Barcelona supporters spoiled by one of the greatest teams in history in one of the game's most iconic stadiums. As well as being the stage for Barca's stunning 5-0 win over Real Madrid in 2010, the Camp Nou was also the setting for Manchester United's last-gasp Champions League victory against Bayern Munich in 1999, in case Clive Tyldesley had allowed you to forget that night in Barcelona. The sun-ripened pitch is like a carpet on which many of the game's greatest players - Messi, Ronaldinho, Stoichkov, Ronaldo, Archibald - have entertained expectant supporters. But Camp Nou has more purpose than being merely a place to watch a game of football - with the seats spelling out Barcelona's motto 'Mes Que Un Club', it is also a shrine to Catalans and a place where they can express their independence to a global audience.
The home of Borussia Dortmund is currently known as the Signal Iduna Park following a naming rights deal signed in 2005 but, similar to the Sports Direct Stadium, it seems indecorous to refer the Westfalenstadion by its temporary name. With over 50,000 season tickets sold every year and a standing area - known as the Südtribüne - which packs in some 25,000 fans, the atmosphere is rivalled by few other stadiums across the world, with this video offering a glimpse of what it's like to attend a game (listen out for the brief but bizarre rendition of 'Jingle Bells'). The steep black and yellow stands are an imposing sight for the opposition, with the Südtribüne creating a bank of noise reminiscent of Liverpool's famous Kop.
The first thing that strikes you when you enter the Santiago Bernabeu is how incredibly steep the stands are. The second thing you notice is that there are heaters in the roof to keep the precious Madridistas nice and cosy. If only they were that considerate at Blundell Park. With an 85,000 capacity, the Santiago Bernabeu is a beast of a stadium, offering the perfect stage for Real Madrid's Galacticos to showcase their talents to the most demanding fans in football. "I've been fortunate enough to take the field at any number of stadiums, but the Bernabeu really takes your breath away," said Nicolas Anelka during his time in Madrid. "You can feel the history and the weight of the fans' expectations on your shoulders. When the crowd turns on you, it makes you want to get out of there as fast as you can."
Many of the game's biggest talents have been consumed alive in the cauldron in the Bernabeu but, while the Madridistas are often accused of being fickle towards their own managers and players, they are also renowned for symbolically showing their respect when they are entertained, with both Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho receiving standing ovations and the waving of white handkerchiefs in recent years.
It's also worth noting that Real's stadium tour is one of the best of its kind, with a tip of the hat to Madrid's excellent metro system.
Estádio do Maracanã
Currently closed for renovation, Rio de Janeiro's iconic stadium will host the World Cup final in 2014. In its early years, some 200,000 fans could squeeze into the Maracanã to huddle together and watch the Canarinhos or a Fla-Flu derby, but the installation of seating dramatically reduced the capacity to its current total of around 80,000. The statue of Cristo Redentor stands on the green hills beyond, looking down on the stadium as if to bless the beautiful game. But Christ mustn't have been supporting Brazil on July 16 1950, when Uruguay caused one of the greatest shocks in history by beating the World Cup hosts 2-1 in the final. Alcides Ghiggia's winning strike for Uruguay devastated Brazil, whose fans named the day Maracanazo, or The Maracanã Blow.
The first thing that hits you when you enter La Bombonera is the wall of noise from La Doce - Boca Juniors' 12th man. The fans are never not in full voice, but on a Copa Libertadores night the volume at The Chocolate Box is cranked up to another level, with supporters driven wild by the anticipation of the game. At least it appears that way before kick-off, but considering the displays on show during the match - huge tifos and well-orchestrated chants and drumming - it can seem that the fans are there to simply entertain themselves. As a visitor, they are certainly the main attraction, even more so than Juan Roman Riquelme strutting about the pitch, unperturbed by the madness unfolding around him. And madder than most is Diego Maradona, who sits pride of place in La Bombonera, using his finger to conduct to the crowd of some 50,000 in the steep concrete stands as they cheer him, Boca, themselves, and everything else on a frenzied night in Buenos Aires.
This article first appeared on Football365