If 25-odd years ago you’d asked what my favourite book was, with complete sincerity I would have told you this: The Football Grounds of Europe by Simon Inglis. My reading then was more usually a means to an end – school work, which bored me – but this book was something else: it satisfied both my appetite for sport (football in the main) and a passing interest in architecture.
A substantial hard-backed tome, it covers in great detail the stadia selected, built or modified for the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy, and many more besides (but not British football grounds – Mr Inglis had written a separate book on that subject a few years before). No mere glossary, the history, architectural detail, and cultural and social relevance – where it applies – are all explored, and there is substantial photographic coverage too. It really is a wonderful thing, and its author invoked great jealously in me. As research, I do believe Mr Inglis toured Europe extensively, making notes, taking pictures, asking questions. He would go on to write a column for World Soccer magazine, and he now stewards a website called Played in Britain that concerns itself with chronicling, and where possible preserving, sporting sites of historical and cultural significance and interest – these aren’t the sort of jobs you’ll find advertised anywhere much.
My interest in stadia persists and I make a point of journeying to them when I travel abroad: am often thwarted by geographical limitations, time constraints, and the lack of interest on the part of whoever accompanies me. I should try harder, but many a ground can be found on the periphery of its host, involving convoluted and time consuming journeys to reach them, although I have travelled farther for less.
Other more normative and diminutive stadia have been chanced upon: the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Siena, and Prague’s FK Viktoria Stadion for instance. Where I have made the effort I’ve only sometimes gained entrance, normally at football grounds deemed worthy of being granted entrance to: Barcelona’s Nou Camp, Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu, Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla. (Does this say more about the nature of Spanish football or my personal touristic habits?). With others, I’ve had to make do with inspecting their exterior, with varying degrees of satisfaction: Bulgaria’s Vasil Levski National Stadium is barely discernible as being such; the San Siro in Milan could be little else; Istanbul’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium appears like an industrial building of the sort found near motorways and airports. The fact of the matter is that a lot of football grounds aren’t very pretty, were never intended to be. That is not to say they don’t have character or charm, but sometimes it can be hard to tell from the outside. Like I said, I’ve not often gained entrance to find out either way.