How do African football stadiums stack up against each other?

Do we take for granted how huge the 2010 FIFA World Cup was for Africa? It was the first-ever time an African nation hosted a World Cup. Over a billion people watched a part of the tense final between the Netherlands and Spain.

New memories were made, and a new chapter in African history was written. As part of the festive occasion, foreigners assimilated into local South African culture. Vuvuzelas were common, and South African architecture was on display everywhere. South Africa got a chance to prove it when constructing the World Cup’s stadiums.

The clean aesthetic of the Cape Town Stadium, the breathtaking size of the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, and the majestic beauty of Soccer City all combined to create an unforgettable World Cup.

It will not happen in Africa again for at least 20 years if Morocco’s ambitious bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup fails. Despite the countless Africa Cups of Nations and high-profile friendlies, Africa still lags behind Europe in stadiums.

A new generation of stadiums can change that.

As mammoth stadiums rank highly in lists of the biggest football stadiums, African architecture is evolving. The stadiums’ growth, paired with the development of African football in general, is stunning to see. The stadiums give viewers an expectation of African leagues, so officials and leaders must try to make a first impression. South Africa stunned many at the 2010 World Cup. Many African nations can take a page out of the Bafana Bafana‘s book to become well-known.

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FNB Stadium

Affectionately called Soccer City, FNB Stadium took a starring role in the 2010 World Cup. The stadium saw Luis Suarez’s infamous handball and Andres Iniesta’s late extra-time winner in a memorable World Cup. While not only leading South Africa’s sporting infrastructure, they also host renowned side Kaizer Chiefs and present South Africa’s classic Soweto Derby. With a capacity of over 90,000 fans and even attracting artists like Ed Sheeran and One Direction to its venue, the FNB Stadium is one of the core parts of South Africa. Architect and writer Coby Lefkowitz sang his praises on The Calabash and its beautiful design.

From a user experience perspective, FNB Stadium seems to get a lot right. The seats are close to the pitch, without crowding over it, creating an intimate atmosphere. The stadium’s lower bowl rises gradually, lending favorable views and perspectives of the game. The higher bowl, though steeper than the lower one, is sited that it does not give the impression that most upper seats of stadiums tend to do, namely that one must strain their eye to see just what is going on below. It seems like a great place for one to catch a game, a thoroughly modern venue that only lacks the worn-in charm and history that older stadiums earn over time.

Borg El Arab Stadium

The Borg El Arab Stadium has not been unveiled to the world like its South African counterpart, FNB Stadium. Originally constructed as part of Egypt’s bid for the 2010 World Cup, which South Africa won, the Borg El Arab Stadium became the home ground for the Egyptian national team. Additionally, the Borg El Arab Stadium regularly hosts Egyptian side Smouha SC and sees the likes of Al Ahly and Al Ittihad take its pitch at times. Yet the air-conditioned, 86,000-seat stadium mainly caters to The Pharaohs. The El Geish Stadium may see some action if Egypt’s 2030 World Cup bid succeeds. But all signs imply regular friendlies and qualification matches in the stadium’s future. As the Borg El Arab Stadium’s future remains foggy, Coby Lefkowitz critically eyed its design and ability to interact with the crowd.

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Borg El Arab Stadium is quite a different experience than FNB. Though it was built in 2009, the same year FNB was upgraded for the 2010 World Cup based in South Africa, it looks as though it is far older. It fans outward into the hot North African sun, offering little relief save for one covered area spanning perhaps a quarter of the circumference. It makes the stadium look incomplete.

Instead of fostering an intimate environment where fandom can excel, the seating areas feel exposed, removed, and secondary to the experience. This is partly because of the wide track that separates the field from the stands. To generate the best atmosphere possible, a rule of thumb to be followed is to never have a running track in a soccer stadium. Though it may allow for more utility of the stadium, it diminishes the experience for the most prominent events for which the stadium was constructed. The track creates three zones within the stadium; the field, the track, and then the stands. The players on the field and the fans in the stands are very disconnected. It will always limit the atmosphere a venue can generate.

This is mitigated somewhat by the scale of the stadium, which has a capacity of 86,000, the second-largest in Africa (behind FNB), and the 27th largest stadium in the world. I cannot help but think the potential of this ambitious structure is being limited due to its form and certain compositional elements.

African architecture excels and evolves

With African clubs bursting onto the global scene thanks to the shocking tifos and captivating matches, the stadiums will be central to making Africa… Yet Lefkowitz wants to encourage African architects to forge their own paths. “Every country has different calibre stadiums, but those that must adhere to Champions League, or top-five league standards certainly are of a higher quality than those that are not. This is primarily due to revenues and the size of the clubs that play in these types of stadiums. There are some big clubs in Africa, and clubs that get to play in national (or World Cup) built stadiums, which will be of a much higher quality than the average pitch,” he began.

“The goal should not be to have stadiums that all look like one another across the world. Local architects, designers and city planners should ensure that the stadiums are reflective of the clubs that play within them, and the values of the cities/countries they play for. Things get rather boring when everyone is trying to become like everyone else. It is the idiosyncrasies that lead to dynamism and identity,” he contended. “My club, Fulham FC, have one of the most unique stadiums in England. It is known as Craven Cottage for the cottage that occupies the corner of the Johnny Haynes Stand, which is a pavilion where dressing rooms are located (below), and families sit in for games. It creates a really intimate and unique experience, one that is unparalleled in England! Once you see the cottage, you know it is Fulham. I would like to see clubs around the world lean into idiosyncrasies like this.”

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From the mammoth constructions of Casablanca to the avant-garde stadiums of Johannesburg, some of Africa’s biggest stadiums are different. The urge to follow Europe’s well-worn path to creating innovative stadiums will be great, and some architects can take a page or two out of their books. Yet creating an exact duplicate of the Camp Nou or the Etihad is a line Africa should not cross. Additionally, Africa’s attempts to create beautiful works of art should not disconnect them from their own cities.

“Architects need to integrate stadiums more into the existing fabric of cities and communities where the teams play. Some of the best soccer stadiums in the world are firmly set within neighbourhoods so that they feel a part of the community, not set away from it. Many of the new African stadiums are built at quite a distance from the main core of cities, which makes them difficult to access, and feel separated from those places they are meant to represent,” Lefkowitz asserted.

Finally, Lefkowitz notes that African architects are getting many things right, one being fan culture. “As I’m not too familiar with many African stadiums, I do not have a ton of context to draw on,” he acknowledged. “But I will say the fan culture that stadiums allow for is wonderful. Fans are at the heart of any sport, and this is particularly true for soccer. Of the African stadiums I saw, there seem to be great spaces for fans to come together to cheer on their teams, and this should be maximised wherever possible!”

The Author

Deolu Akingbade

I'm an African football analyst who loves cheering for the Super Eagles and Atletico Madrid. I am 13-years-old and am featured in WorldSoccerTalk as well.

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