Italian football’s stadium problem

Italian football has been the sick man of Europe. The phrase was once used to describe the Ottoman Empire, with which Italian football has similarities. Like the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, Serie A is living off past glories. Its Constantinople was the San Siro, where great Milan sides once battled it out, but now plays host to two pale imitations. The Ottoman Empire was behind the great powers of England, Germany and France, whereas now Italy is also behind England, Germany Spain and France.

Unlike the Ottoman Empire, which could not manage its various ethnic groups in the age of nationalism, Italian football was destroyed by greed and complacency. One of Italy’s major problems is its stadiums, a problem that can be traced back to the 1990 World Cup. Not only was it a poor competition, it was also a long term disaster for Italian football.

As with all World Cups, Italian stadiums were either built from scratch or renovated. Juventus and Bari both gained brand new stadiums – the Stadio Delle Alpi and the Stadio San Nicola respectively – while the San Siro was given an extra tier and a brand new roof.

This led to a myriad of problems, the first being the cost. The stadium guide estimated that the cost of renovating the stadiums was 84% over budget. This was felt most by city councils, who owned the stadiums at the time and, in the main, still do.

The stadium guide also argued that the rebuilding came at a poor time for football stadiums. The renovations came when stadiums were expected to have seats and little else. By the time of the construction of the Amsterdam ArenA and the Stade de France in the late 1990s, Italian stadiums were out of date. Due to the initial costs and council ownership though, Italian teams were stuck with their white elephants.

Take Juventus and the Stadio Delle Alpi. For most, if not all, Juve fans, the Delle Alpi was a monstrosity. A pointless athletics track, which was rarely used, made visibility all the more worse. Due to its design, fans could often be exposed to the weather. Average attendances hovered around 40-51,000 in the 1990s, declining to just under 26,000 by 2006. After 2006 the stadium was abandoned by Juventus, and was demolished in 2009, a short life for an ugly duckling.

Many of the stadiums are too big for their teams, such as Bari’s 58,000 seat Stadio San Nicola. The stadium was impressive to look at in 1990, but Bari are now a mediocre Serie B side, struggling to maintain their monster of a ground. This is also a problem for bigger teams such as Roma, Lazio, AC and Inter Milan. Those stadiums – the Stadio Olimpico and San Siro – look spectacular when full for their derby games, but less so when they usually perform to masses of empty seats. In a world where image is important, Italy’s half empty, out of date stadiums look shoddy compared to full grounds in England, Germany and Spain.

It is not just the traditional ‘big three’ leagues that have left Italian football in the dust. As France plans for Euro 2016, many French teams are getting new and improved stadiums – Marseille’s stunning, modernised Stade Velodrome and Lyon’s nearly built Stade de Lumieres being prime examples. Alongside the financial muscle of Paris St Germain, could France be the next country to overtake Italy?

Thankfully, the challenge is finally being met. It started with Juventus, who, as previously mentioned, demolished the Delle Alpi and built the Juventus Stadium, which they also own. With a reduced capacity of 41,000, it allowed Juventus to truly enter the modern game, and played a part in their four successive Scudetto’s. It has also led to a huge rise in match day profits. In the 2013/2014 season, Juventus earnt €41 million in match day revenue, €19 million more than second place Roma and more than double Inter Milan’s takings, both of whom play in bigger grounds.

The success of the Juventus Stadium has spurred on Juve’s rivals. Roma have begun work on a striking stadium called the Stadio Della Roma. With a reduced capacity of 52,500, Roma’s website has described the stadium as a ‘modern colosseum’, which will offer the best visibility and sight lines in the world, and should be ready for the 2017/2018 season. AC Milan are also looking at building a 48,000 seater stadium, but as has been reported their plans have run into the usual bureaucratic problems.

At the other end of the table, Udinese have also rebuilt their stadium. Once again they have reduced the capacity to 30,000, with three new, modern stands and the redevelopment its iconic arched stand.

Encouraging progress, but more needs to be done. All Italian clubs need to act like true Marxists and throw off the shackles of council owned stadiums and control the means of production. This would help with profits, and with the visual show of teams playing in modern, full stadiums.

This is all easier said than done of course. Many Italian clubs simply do not have the finances to contemplate such a course of action, and most of the clubs that have taken action are owned by more forward thinking owners. Perhaps things would only change if Italy was awarded a major tournament again. The sick man of Europe is showing signs of life, but is a long way from its mid-90s heyday. Owning stadiums would be a step in the right direction.

Author Details

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Jack Unwin

I'm a history graduate who is currently teaching English in Ulsan, South Korea. Nostalgia for Italian football in the 1990s had led me to try and write about Serie A.

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