Cathedrals of the Modern Age: In Praise of the Humble Football Ground

November 29, 2013 in Features by Emma Lucy Whitney

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To focus on football stadiums seems rather inauspicious this week of all weeks; whether it’s the ridiculous stories about what the new Qatari World Cup stadium is meant to look like, or the tragic news of the crane accident in Brazil which has claimed two lives, football stadiums are in the news at the moment, and for all the wrong reasons. It comes as a shock, I think, in these post-Hillsborough times, to hear about incidents such as the one in Sao Paulo, or the plight of Nepalese workers in Qatar; yet not that long ago, football grounds were always in the news, and that news wasn’t pretty. In these generally more enlightened times, the advent of all-seater stadiums, a decline in hooliganism and the promotion of proper policing have all ensured that things changed for the better, not just in England, but across the world. With this in mind, an article on the places where we go to worship, pray and hope week in, week out seemed rather apposite. A wise man once said football is a game of two halves; it’s also a culture, a game of plastic seats and standing terraces, of soggy chips and too-hot Bovril, of Kops and North Banks, Kippax Stands and far too many memories. Here’s to the cathedral of the modern age; the humble football ground.


The 'cathedral of football' according to Pele. Credit:

Old Wembley: The ‘cathedral of football’ according to Pele. Credit:

Cries of despair reverberated around the footballing world in 2003, as Wembley’s famous twin towers were finally demolished. So many magical footballing moments happened on that pitch, of course, leading to the twin towers coming to symbolise English football itself. Ironically, Wembley was never actually intended to be a permanent venue, let alone England’s spiritual home; originally known as the ‘Empire Stadium’, Wembley was built for the British Empire Exhibition in the early 1920s, and should have been razed once said exhibition was over. In football ground terms, however, even the old Wembley was positively a spring chicken; you have to travel much further back in order to find the oldest football grounds still in use.

Naturally, all are ensconced in the British Isles. Sheffield United can lay claim to playing in the oldest professional football ground in the world - like so many other early English grounds, Bramall Lane first opened as a cricket ground, way back in 1855, and saw its first association football match seven years later, between fierce South Yorkshire rivals Sheffield F.C. and Hallam. The oldest international stadium may surprise you; Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground hosted Wales’ first ever home international match in 1877, a good 46 years before Wembley stadium even existed, and still hosts internationals to this day.

Bramall Lane: The oldest professional football ground in the world. Credit:

Bramall Lane: The oldest professional football ground in the world. Credit:

Just like Wrexham’s curveball, the two biggest football stadiums are probably ones you’ve never heard of, if you’re a Euro-centric football fan like myself. The site of athletics and Arirang performances as well as footy, North Korea’s Rungnado May Day Stadium can comfortably seat 150,000 fans, making the next ground on the list look puny by comparison. The Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, India – a country famed for its love of cricket - has a capacity of 120,000, and as well as hosting Indian international matches, is also home to three separate clubs; Mohun Bagan AC, Mohammedan Sporting Club and East Bengal. The next largest grounds are both international stadia; the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia and the brilliantly named Estadio Azteca in Mexico City clock in with capacities of 110,000 and 105,064 respectively. Fifth spot belongs to a ground on the bucket list of every true football fan as a place they just have to visit; I’m talking about Barcelona’s Camp Nou, of course, which can hold a total of 99,354 spectators. Right behind Barca is another unexpected arena, depending, I guess, on exactly how much of a football hipster you are. The Azadi Stadium in Tehran, home to both Esteghlal FC and Persepolis FC, is also where the Iranian national team play their internationals, in front of a potential 95,225 capacity crowd.

Camp Nou: One of the largest - and most famous - football stadiums in the world. Credit:

Camp Nou: One of the largest - and most famous - football stadiums in the world. Credit:

Whilst an understandable pride is taken in having the oldest or largest stadium in the world, facts cannot be easily argued with. Opinion, on the other hand, can, which is why my next category may seem contentious. Which footy fan doesn’t secretly think that their own team’s ground is the best place on the planet, no matter how bad their view of the pitch or how dreadful the new stand looks? I find it hard to cherry-pick which stadia I find most aesthetically pleasing, but the Allianz Arena has to be in with a shout. The fact that it can change its external colour is cool enough anyway; the fact that the European Champions currently call it home helps, too. Only a fool would dismiss the almost perfectly circular Maracaña, a name so evocative in the annals of footballing history; I’m near certain that next year’s World Cup will only add to the legend of the stadium. A mention must go to Estádio Municipal de Braga, simply because it’s just so out there; literally hewn from the rock of the Monte Castro quarry, with just two stands connected by Inca-esque ‘bridges’ of steel string running either side of the pitch, this is a stadium unlike any other, and all the more amazing for it.

Estadio Municipal de Braga: Part quarry, part football stadium, all awesomeness. Credit:

Estadio Municipal de Braga: Part quarry, part football stadium, all awesomeness. Credit:

Ultimately, so much goes into football stadia that I’m barely able to scratch the surface of their power and hold over us in 1,000 words. These days, major grounds are not just remarkable feats of engineering and ingenuity, but beautiful works of architecture in their own right, too. The Wembley Arch, for example, is the world’s longest unsupported roof structure, and as well as helping to support the weight of the roofs, is swiftly becoming as iconic for a new generation as its predecessors, the twin towers, were for their parents. In this celebration of football grounds, there are dozens of stadia I should have mentioned – grounds with even more history and facts than the ones detailed above - but one category I’ve deliberately left is that of the ‘best’. Wembley or the Maracaña could vie for this, in my opinion, but I actually think the answer’s rather obvious. The best team in the land and all the world do play there, after all.

The Etihad: Home to everybody's favourite team, Man City. Credit:

The Etihad: Home to everybody’s favourite team, Man City. Credit: