Football, soccer, the beautiful game. It’s been called many things, but no one disputes that it is the world’s sport. Here in North America, we may not have fully embraced soccer (which is what we’ll call it here) but elsewhere there’s been unparalleled passion, history, and drama unfolding for over a century. We’ll explore the hosts of these moments by taking a look at famous stadiums from across the globe.
They are chosen for their history and the famous games played within, the success of their main occupant, sometimes-unique features, and location. In order to highlight how the beautiful game has made an impact all over the world, many incredible stadiums were not featured. But make no mistake; this list could be just as poignant by featuring 11 in Europe, or even just England. But before we get bogged down in semantics, lets take a look at some of the most iconic soccer stadiums in the world (sorted by continent).
1. FNB Stadium
South African National Team & Kaizer Chiefs – Johannesburg, South Africa
One of the newer stadiums on this list, the FNB Stadium (First National Bank) is also known as Soccer City or The Calabash. It shot to prominence after hosting the final of the 2010 World Cup between Spain and the Netherlands (1-0 after extra time or a.e.t.) as well as the opening match between South Africa and Mexico (1-1).
Though the stadium opened in 1989, it underwent an extensive redesign in the lead up to the World Cup. Some of the most famous events here don’t even relate to soccer directly. FNB stadium was the site of Nelson Mandela’s first speech in Jo’burg after being released from prison in 1990. Sadly, the closing ceremony of the World Cup here marked Mr. Mandela’s final public appearance before he passed away.
Though the soccer pedigree at FNB Stadium may be limited compared to others, the successful hosting of Africa’s first World Cup has helped the stadium make a permanent mark in the history of the sport on the African continent.
2. Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti
Argentine National Team & River Plate – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Otherwise known as River Plate Stadium or El Monumental, this is the marquee stadium in one of the best countries for soccer – Argentina. The stadium was opened in 1938, 37 years after the formation of River Plate (their principal occupant). River Plate is one of the two historical powers in the Argentine game along with bitter rival Boca Juniors. Many matches between them have seen El Monumental become a cauldron of boiling emotions.
The most famous event in the stadiums history was the 1978 World Cup final between hosts Argentina and the Netherlands. Argentina would go on to win 3-1 a.e.t. This being the national teams first triumph in a World Cup, the importance and history of El Monumental will forever be paramount in Argentine soccer folklore.
3. Maracanã Stadium
Flamengo & Fluminense – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
One of the most famous stadiums in the world, the Maracanã has seen many huge matches played within – including two World Cup Finals.
The stadium was opened in 1950, just in time for Brazil to host the World Cup. As the setting of the final match, the Maracanã was packed as Brazil played South American rivals Uruguay. At this time, the champion was determined by a round robin format, and Brazil needed only a draw to claim their first title on home soil – and many in the country were already ready celebrate. Despite Brazil taking a 1-0 lead after half time, underdogs Uruguay would go on to snatch two goals and the title. The defeat became so ingrained in Brazilian soccer psyche that the game is forever known as ‘the Maracanazo’, or ‘the Maracanã Blow’ in reference to the stadium in which it was played. The attendance is believed to have been over 200,000 – a record for team sports to this day.
Though the Brazilian national team rotates their home stadium throughout the country, many games are still played at the Maracanã. The stadium recently saw Germany beat Argentina 1-0 a.e.t. to claim the 2014 World Cup though it was spared having to play host to Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil in the round before. Next year, the Maracanã will also feature the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, thereby continuing to cement its legacy.
4. Estadio Azteca
Mexican National Team & Club América – Mexico City, Mexico
Opened in 1966, Azteca is commonly regarded as one of the most famous stadiums on earth. As far as size goes, it’s the largest stadium used specifically for soccer in the world. Azteca has often been regarded as a fortress for the home team. Smog and a high altitude (7,200 feet above sea level) help to make the venue extremely tough to play in for non-acclimated visitors. In addition, the roof traps the sound of over 100,000 screaming fans, making it extremely loud and intimidating for anyone on the receiving end. Mexico’s regional rival, the United States, has only ever managed one win at Azteca.
As far as big matches go, Azteca has more than its fair share. The first stadium to ever host two World Cup Finals, it has a permanent place in the history of the game. Among the most famous matches played at Azteca is the ‘Game of the Century’ between Italy and West Germany in the 1970 World Cup semi-final. Germany tied the score at 1 with a late goal to take the game to extra time. In extra time, an astonishing 5 goals were scored, with Italy emerging the victor 4-3.
Equally memorable is the 1986 quarterfinal between Argentina and England. This was the game in which soccer legend Diego Maradona scored the ‘Hand of God’ goal where he leapt and beat the much taller English keeper Peter Shilton by hitting the ball in with his left hand. The goal stood and Maradona quipped during a post-match interview that the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. He later followed that goal up with ‘The Goal of the Century’ where, from starting in his own half, he dribbled through numerous English outfield players and Shilton before slotting it home. Argentina would go on to win the game 2-1 on route to their second World Cup title. Maradona’s second goal is often voted the best of all time in numerous polls and lists.
5. Allianz Arena
Bayern Munich & 1860 Munich – Munich, Germany
Allianz Arena is neither one of the oldest or the biggest stadiums on this list. It was completed in 2005 and is only the third largest in Germany (behind the Olympiastadion in Berlin and Westfalenstadion in Dortmund). What sets it apart however, is the unique exterior and its principal resident.
The outside of the stadium is covered with ETFE plastic panels, which can have their colour modified. Depending on who is playing at the time, the colour of Allianz Arena changes, creating quite a sight especially at nighttime. If the German National Team is playing the outside will be a bright luminescent white, it’s lit up blue for 1860 Munich, and red when Bayern Munich is the home team.
Speaking of Bayern Munich, the club is far and away the most famous and successful in the German Bundesliga with 24 national titles (its closest rival has nine). Today they are regarded as one of the top teams in the world, featuring many members of the German World Cup winning squad as well as stars from other countries.
Allianz Arena was home to the opening game of the 2006 World Cup, where Germany beat Costa Rica 4-2 as well as the France/Portugal semifinal (France won 1-0).
6. San Siro
A.C. Milan & Internazionale – Milan, Italy
Officially the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, this Milanese stadium was opened in 1926, though it has undergone renovations in both the 50’s and 80’s. The stadium is particularly fascinating because two bitter rivals who also happen to be two of the best teams in Italian soccer history share it. Though the Turin club Juventus is the most successful (30 titles), A.C. Milan (often known as just Milan) and Internazionale (often just known as Inter) are both tied on 18 each. This means that the San Siro has seen decades of history unfold for not one but two great clubs.
Beyond the two Milan teams, the San Siro has also hosted three Champions League Finals (Europe’s premier club competition) and will host a fourth in 2016. Several matches during the 1990 World Cup were also played here, including five featuring the eventual winners West Germany. There is a possibility in the future that one or both of the Milan teams could move to a new stadium, which would ultimately close the book on one of the great venues in the game.
7. Santiago Bernabéu
Real Madrid – Madrid, Spain
Opened in 1947, the Bernabéu is home to one of Europe’s most famous and most successful clubs – Real Madrid. On the international stage, the stadium hosted the final of the 1964 European Nations’ Cup, which Spain won 2-1 over the Soviet Union. More recently, Italy beat West Germany 3-1 in the final of the 1982 World Cup. Most, but not all, important Spanish National Team matches are played at the Bernabéu these days.
However, the main draw is definitely the resident club. Real Madrid have won a record 32 Spanish league titles as well as becoming champions of Europe a record 10 times, which is known locally as La Décima. Since the turn of the century the club has been known for the Galácticos policy. This refers to the club policy of consistently buying superstar players known as Galácticos (often at least one per year). Among Real Madrid’s stars both past and present are Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (from Brazil), David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and many many more.
8. Camp Nou
FC Barcelona – Barcelona, Spain
After opening in 1957, Camp Nou (or The Nou Camp in English) has undergone several renovations and developments in accordance with the success of their home team – FC Barcelona. The capacity was marked at over 120,000 during the 1982 World Cup where it hosted five matches. Due to the relationship between Catalonia and Spain as a whole, the main focal point of the stadium is and will always be its hometown club: FC Barcelona
Though the club was often second in Spain after Real Madrid, FC Barcelona has grown massively since the late 20th century. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff took the manager job in 1988 and assembled the so-called ‘Dream Team’. Using both home-grown players from their renowned academy La Masia and international stars, Cruyff fashioned a superpower. Today, Barcelona is the most followed team in the world (at least on social media) and is home to some of the biggest soccer stars on the planet. Foremost among them is Lionel Messi, considered by many to be the best player today (along with Cristiano Ronaldo) and perhaps the greatest of all time.
Recently, the board rejected the option to build an entirely new stadium and will focus on expanding the Nou Camp to 105,000. At its current capacity, it’s already the largest in Europe, but this should guarantee that this famous stadium continues to be home to many more great moments in soccer history for years to come.
9. Old Trafford
Manchester United – Old Trafford, England
Also known as the Theatre of Dreams (nicknamed by club legend Bobby Charlton), Old Trafford was opened in 1910 between a canal and a railway. An imposing feature in the industrial heartland of Britain, the first game was played at Old Trafford on February 19, 1910 between Manchester United and Liverpool. During World War II, the army used the stadium as a depot, which would eventually result in much of the arena being destroyed. Since then, Old Trafford has undergone renovations, refurbishments, and expansion to become one of Europe’s foremost club grounds.
The stadium is divided into 4 separate stands: the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand (formerly the North Stand or the United Road Stand), the South Stand, the East Stand, and the famous West Stand or Stretford End. This is where the most vocal and passionate United fans are usually located, and the most noise can be heard from this section of the stadium. Along with hosting games during the 1966 World Cup, Old Trafford has seen many important club matches, both in the English and European game.
Manchester United, the club that calls Old Trafford home, is one of the most famous and successful clubs both in England, Europe, and worldwide. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United cemented its status as the most successful team in English game with a record 20 titles – two more than archrivals Liverpool. In addition, United have been champions of Europe three times (though these finals didn’t take place at Old Trafford). Some of the best and most well known players in England and the world have plied their trade with Manchester United including David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney.
10. St. James’ Park
Newcastle United – Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Sometimes called ‘The Cathedral on the Hill’, St. James’ Park – unlike many other stadiums – sits in the Newcastle city center. As a result, it is one of the most accessible stadiums in England and in Europe, and, perched on a hill overlooking the city below, it dominates the landscape. Although the host team Newcastle United have not enjoyed the success that the passionate fans desire (and some would say deserve) the stadium played host to the English Premier League’s most prolific goal scorer – Alan Shearer. Shearer scored 283 premier league goals and turned down lucrative offers from more successful teams like Manchester United in order to continue plying his trade at his beloved hometown club. Built in 1892 but in use since 1880 (making it by far the oldest stadium on our list) the stadium is distinct for its ‘lopsided’ appearance, two sides of the stadium tower high into the air while the the opposing sides are significantly lower. This design gives fans in the Leazes End a view of the city and river below but is not intentional, rather it is the bi-product of local zoning laws. The truss cantilever roof above the Milburn/Leazus end is the largest in Europe at 64.5 meters – 6.5 meters taller than second place Old Trafford.
Sir Bobby Robson, one of the most beloved and successful English managers of the modern era was also most at home at St. James’ Park, and his words aptly describe both St. James’ Park and, to some extent, every stadium on this list:
“What is a club in any case…It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
11. Wembley Stadium
English National Team – London, England
This one is kind of cheating, since I’m talking about two different stadiums, both named Wembley. The original Wembley Stadium (officially Empire Stadium) was finished in 1923 and was one of the most historically important and well-known soccer stadiums in the world. As the national stadium in the birthplace of the sport of soccer, Wembley was also going to have some extra importance. Brazilian great Pelé once said, “Wembley is the cathedral of football. It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football.” The famous twin towers of Wembley were an icon for the sport, both in the domestic English game and worldwide.
Wembley was not (except in very rare occasions) the home of any club team. Instead, the famous matches played there were decades of FA Cup finals (the domestic club cup competition in England) as well as European matches. One of the most famous games at the Old Wembley was the 1923 FA final between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United – which was the first game played at the stadium. It’s estimated that in the pre-match chaos around 300,000 fans gained entrance to the stadium. The terraces overflowed and many fans instead went on to the pitch and playing area. Mounted police, and famously one on a white horse, clearing the crowds became the enduring image of the game – which Bolton went on to win 2-0. The Matthews Final (1953 FA Cup Final) is also well known due to Blackpool winger Stanley Matthews almost single-handedly helping his team overcome a deficit to win 4-3 against Bolton Wanderers.
Last, but certainly not least, Wembley also hosted the final of the 1966 World Cup, which remains England’s only triumph in that competition to this day. England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time thanks to Geoff Hurst’s hat trick (the only one in a final). The winning third goal for England was particularly controversial and there are debates to this day over whether the ball actually crossed the line. One legend (though there is no evidence) purports that the Soviet linesman later replied “Stalingrad” when asked why he gave the goal. Whatever the reason, the 1966 final is the most successful day in England National Team history.
To the consternation of many, the original Wembley Stadium was demolished in 2003 so a new one could be built. The new Wembley Stadium, opened in 2007, is a modern marvel with an impressive arch towering overhead. It’s hosted the Champions League Final twice (in 2011 and 2013) and will be host the semi-finals and final of the 2020 European Championship (for national teams). The stadium is one of (if not the) most impressive in the world, though it remains to be seen if the new Wembley will claim its place in sporting history alongside its predecessor.
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