The 1986 FIFA World Cup was supposed to be held in Colombia. In late 1982, the prospective host withdrew from its commitment, citing ‘economic difficulties’ (read as asymmetric internal armed conflict) and Mexico was awarded the privilege in their place. From the perspective of the sport, the tournament went on to be a great success – the collected images of Diego Maradona are some of the most iconic of the sport – but it’s been said that the physical infrastructure was found wanting. The fact of the matter is that Mexico wasn’t afforded the time to adequately prepare for the job – just three years. Most of the venues dated back to the 1960s; some were even older. Throw a major earthquake into the mix, a mere eight months before the competition was due to start, and one begins to think that maybe the Mexican Football Federation pulled off quite a coup. Moreover, despite their age, some of the stadia were actually very impressive: the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, completed in 1952, is an extraordinary building, while the mighty Estadio Azteca, opened in 1966, is one of the most imposing structures of its kind.
Such tribulations were unlikely to befall Italy’s preparations for hosting the world cup in 1990 (although it is a place vulnerable to seismic activity). Not only did the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) have the more usual six years in which to prepare for the tournament, but Serie A was the preeminent league of its day. There was a sense that this might be the greatest world cup ever.
The Italians elected to use the same number of stadia as the Mexicans. Of those twelve, two were new-builds (the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin and Stadio San Nicola in Bari), another two may have well been (the Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris in Genoa and Rome’s Stadio Olimpico), while the remaining eight were enlarged, reconfigured and refurbished. This posed various problems, and architects came up with various solutions ranging from the ostentatious through to the very subtle, by way of the ingenious, with varying degrees of success. But it was never about volume: what the FIGC was paying for was architecture.
In the end, the quality of the actual football was disappointing. The tournament saw the lowest goals-per-game average for a world cup and what at the time was a record of 16 red cards. More to the point, it wasn’t always pretty. There was mention of the ball – the Adidas Etrusco Unico – being unfavourably light, harder to control. Such talk is de rigueur these days, but back then you felt there might be something in it. Try and find some match footage from Mexico ‘86 – Brazil v. France will do – and see how comfortable the players look in possession of the ball. Then watch Brazil v. Argentina from Italia ’90 and count how many shots fly high and wide.
But I digress.
A number have problems have since arisen. For one, the quality of the original construction work was not always of a very high standard. Within just a few seasons, terracing that had been completely refinished for the world cup was crumbling underfoot, and reinforced concrete supports were starting to spall. Second, Serie A is no longer Europe’s wealthiest league: it’s the fourth behind England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga and the German Bundesliga. Less money to spend on players means less success means dwindling attendances means less revenue to spend on the upkeep of the stadium. Finally, the oval stadium format which permeates throughout much of Italy has slowly become redundant as European clubs have embraced the rectangular ‘English style’ of stadium, which deems a running track an encumbrance. (Italian football grounds have historically been built using public funds. For this reason, local authorities have quite reasonably insisted that they cater for athletics.)
In 1990, the Stadio delle Alpi and Stadio San Nicola were admired for their architectural adventurousness. Today, the former has been demolished and the Juventus Stadium erected in its place, whilst the latter presents a sorry sight, many of its Teflon roof sections blowing in the wind or ripped from their fastenings entirely. To be fair, the grounds they replaced also had athletics tracks; however, the Stadio Comunale and Stadio Della Vittoria were smaller stadiums. At full capacity, a running track isn’t so much of a problem. The Stadio delle Alpi and Stadio San Nicola were/are never full to capacity.
It’s not so much that the Italian authorities made a mistake but missed an opportunity. It’s a moot point as far as Verona or Bologna or Napoli or Cagliari are concerned, because Verona and Bologna and Napoli and Cagliari didn’t have new grounds built for them. The only cities that really benefitted, in that they were left with stadiums that anticipated the emerging trend, were Milan and Genoa.
When the Giuseppe Meazza – or plain ‘San Siro’ as it was called up until 1980, whereupon it was renamed after the former AC and Inter player, who died the previous year – was built in 1925, it was unusual for not encompassing a running track. The reason why is because the San Siro was privately funded by a consortium headed by A.C. Milan’s then president Piero Pirelli – of the homonymous tyre company – enabling them to build in any style they pleased. They opted for the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ comprising of four rectilinear stands, including a covered main stand, and space for 35,000 spectators, 20,000 on seats (the remaining 10,000 stood upon parterres situated in front of the three uncovered tribuna). Possibly because of its configuration, the ground proved very popular and, up until the inauguration of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in 1937, was the venue of choice for the national football team. Realising its financial potential, in 1935 the local council purchased the ground and set about increasing its size still further. By 1937, the smaller goal-end terraces had been extended and all four stands connected by way of four curved corner sections, allowing for a capacity approaching 65,000. In 1947 local rivals Internazionale became tenants, ushering in a period of Milanese semi-domination with four of next available eight scudettos ending up in the city, honours even. (The 1949 Superga air disaster certainly had something to do with this, wiping out the Grande Torino who’d dominated Serie A since the end of the war, and to an extent before it).
The next phase of development happened in 1955 and would come to define the stadium. The plan initially was to raise the capacity to 150,000 by way of two additional tiers. Perhaps realising the sheer ambition of the scheme – or the cost – the plans were retrenched. Instead, a single, continuous freestanding tier was built around the existing structure, completely enveloping it, making enough room for a mere 82,000 spectators. Nothing particularly innovative going on here – Real Madrid had put together something similar eight years earlier at what was then known as the Nuevo Estadio Chamartín – except architect Armando Ronca had carefully considered the question of access, the economy of space, and aesthetics. Nineteen 200 metre long helical ramps were attached to the stadium’s exterior, each rising gradually to a height of nearly 20 metres. These parallel walkways led directly to individual vomitories providing access to the second tier at equidistant points, thus displacing the crowds that would otherwise have gathered outside. More than that, it gave the stadium a visual identify to set it apart from other football grounds; it became a thing of architectural interest in its own right. Ronca’s most recognised work is probably the Eurotel in Marano (1958-1960) which appears to have taken its inspiration from Le Corbusier’s Unité d'habitation. It should be appreciated that in Italy the difference between architetto (architect) and ingegnere edile (building engineer) is often indistinct. The San Siro is at once modernist and utilitarian, which often amounts to the same thing.
Italy’s winning bid for the 1990 world cup brought with it terms and conditions. If the Guiseppe Meazza, as it was now called, was to host the opening game (restitution for the final being played in Rome) then it would need an all-seated capacity of at least 80,000, two thirds of which would have to be under cover. The Milan Municipal Administration decided against building something bespoke and they awarded the architects Ragazzi, Hoffer and Finzi the task of surmounting these obstacles by way of refurbishment.
The issue of space was dealt with in the same way it was 30-odd years earlier: a single freestanding tier was built around the existing structure, completely enveloping it. Ostensibly, this upper gallery is a continuation of the one already in place, but it rests upon eleven cylindrical, reinforced-concrete pillars aligned to the stadium’s curved rectangular perimeter. These colossal towers have their own ramps, spiralling upwards in accord with the existing architecture. It should be noted that this third tier is incomplete: the stadium is hampered on one side due to the presence of the racecourse – hence the odd number of supporting pillars – and so the east side of the ground remains as it was. An all-seated capacity of 85,700 is achieved nonetheless.
As well as propping up the third tier, the four (larger) corner towers support four perpendicular steel girders, their ends protruding horizontally beyond the polycarbonate fabric of the roof itself, which hangs above the stadium like an open-sided pavilion. The burgundy-matt finish of the steel complements the pale grey patina of the reinforced concrete, the effect accentuated against the backdrop of a cloudless azure sky. It’s a readily attainable perspective: San Siro – the area from whence the stadium first got its name – is suburban, low-rise, remote, and to the west of the ground lies a vast expanse of concrete from which the sheer scale of the building becomes apparent.
The parallels between A.C. Milan and Genoa C.F.C. are manifold. Both clubs began life as sort of English expatriate associations with a side-line in cricket. In each instance, the English orthography would prevail: Milan rather than Milano, Genoa instead of Genova. Milan Cricket and Football Club proceeded to privately build an exclusively football orientated ground, and so too did Genoa Cricket and Football Club. These same grounds were subsequently sold to their respective local authorities and were also renamed after bygone players. And just as A.C. Milan would end up sharing grounds with their local rivals F.C. Internazionale Milano, in 1946 Genoa C.F.C. invited the newly formed U.C. Sampdoria to play at theirs.
Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris began life in 1911 as the Campo di Via del Piano (also known as Campo Marassi) and was then little more than a green surrounded by a horse racing track overlooked by a single stand with a gable in the middle. In 1928, the pitch was rotated by 90 degrees and work began on what would become the Stadio Comunale. By the time Brazil and Spain faced off in the first round of the 1934 World Cup, the ground’s capacity had risen from a notional 28,000 to a substantial 51,000 and had been entitled in honour of former player (and engineer) Luigi Ferraris, killed in action during the Great War. At this point, the stadium wasn’t too dissimilar in aspect to the San Siro in Milan – rectilinear terracing with a vaguely neo-classical façade – but whereas the stands at San Siro were being joined up to form a coherent hole, the work at Comunale Luigi Ferraris displayed no overarching strategy. Cantilevered roof extensions were later added to each end of the main stand and spiral walkways providing access to the goal-end terraces, achieving a symmetry of sorts. In 1951 an open double-decker stand was erected along the stadium’s east side, facing the covered single-tiered stand opposite. The ground as it then was could accommodate 55,773 spectators, 40,000 of them seated, which is quite impressive given the physical impediments that surround the site: housing tenements, the Villa Mussi Piantelli, the Bisagno River, even a prison.
If the Luigi Ferraris had been a stadium in Mexico in 1983, it would have been left very much alone and may even have gone on to host a quarter final. Had it been located anywhere else in Italy but the undulating and beset city of Genoa, they’d have probably knocked it down and replaced it with something on the edge of town. In the event, the Luigi Ferraris was knocked down but then rebuilt where it had formerly stood, and because there was nowhere else for Genoa and Sampdoria to play in the interim, it was literally done one half at a time. At no point did it not exist, but by the time it was finished the ground was completely transformed.
But why was Luigi Ferraris rebuilt at all? It was already large enough to host international football (just) and granted no less protection from the elements than the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence or Stadio Renato Dall'Ara in Bologna. Did its piecemeal design finally catch up with it? Was the stadium just a little too ‘English’ for its own good? Whatever the reasons, the FIGC got their money’s worth. The architect Vittorio Gregotti was given the job of sorting it out and went about imposing his trademark rectangular prisms (see the Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca) upon the limited space available.
If the Giuseppe Meazza reflects a moderately Brutalist, post-war impression of modernism, then the Luigi Ferraris is pure pre-war Bauhaus functionalism; where Giuseppe Meazza embraces curves and oblique lines, Luigi Ferraris is bound by right angles. The structure appears as rectangles as the sum of squares, and the motif is repeated throughout: four square gaps in the external wall behind each goal-end terrace; six protruding square-shaped stairwells above the stadium’s main entrance; large square apertures in the sidewalls revealing ramped walkways behind; fifteen smaller quadratic openings in the walls diagonally opposite; rectilinear lines etched into the concrete itself. Holding this diffuse geometry together are four rectangular towers, which support the roof by way of white steel trusses and allow the building to prevail upon the skyline. The roofs themselves are formed of an indistinguishable metal framework but are countersunk and not visible from street level.
Unlike the Giuseppe Meazza, which depends on distance to be appreciated, this assemblage of terracotta red boxes would look adrift upon the wastelands of San Siro. In amongst the compact, quadrate edifices of Marassi, the order of the Luigi Ferraris makes perfect sense. It can be viewed in sections; it is to be viewed in sections. It is not the sum of its parts but a collection of perpendicular vignettes comprised of linear planes. Under the same conditions, the Giuseppe Meazza would have an intimidating effect and might itself be confused with something like a multi-storey car park.
Over recent years, AC Milan and Inter have entertained the possibility of abandoning their home in favour of a brand new build, more than likely on the periphery of a motorway somewhere. The fashion for constructing stadia in the most insalubrious of surroundings aside, the problem with the Giuseppe Meazza is that it’s too big. Over the course 2016-17, Internazionale and AC Milan averaged an attendance of 46,620 and 40,294 respectively (although when they played each other approximately 78,000 fans turned up). There’s also the sense of neglect. I had the privilege of beholding this sporting icon in 1993, and it was in good shape. I have no idea what sort of condition it’s currently in. Regardless, the intimation that the building could have run its course is an alarming one. Not for a moment would anybody entertain tearing down the Duomo di Milano, no matter what its condition, so why is the thinking different here?
The same goes for the Luigi Ferraris. Genoa’s terrain limits either club’s options, but I’ve read of plans to install strange viewing galleries upon the roofs, amounting to what would be an act of architectural vandalism. Such schemes are indicative of a trend that regards modern architecture as something ephemeral, to be disposed of in accordance with the vagaries of fashion. Everybody wants to build a ‘Veltins-Arena’ all of a sudden, despite the fact that the Veltins-Arena could be easily mistaken for an electrical wholesalers’ superstore on an industrial estate. Armando Ronca and Vittorio Gregotti’s efforts deserve more.
[This article has also featured in The Gentleman Ultra.]