The 2000 UEFA European Football Championship was jointly hosted by Belgium and The Netherlands. As one might expect, they contributed an equal number of venues – four apiece – with the final itself being played in The Netherlands: in Rotterdam’s De Kuip, rather than Amsterdam’s larger, more modern stadium. Only the Amsterdam Arena, opened in 1996, and Arnhem’s GelreDome, opened in 1998, could be described as new builds, although the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels had been completely remodelled as recently as 1995, on the site of the old Heysel Stadium. Compare the situation to that at the 2004 UEFA European Championship, where not only did Portugal opt to use ten stadiums for the same number of matches, but of those ten only two were extant prior to tournament being awarded.
I have previously noted that by the time the new Wembley Stadium was completed in 2007 it was already aesthetically passé. On the other hand, maybe English football fans should be grateful they didn’t end up with something as vulgar as the Estádio José Alvalade, or as bonkers as the Estádio Municipal de Aveiro. Rather, England has a national stadium that is marginally more interesting than the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon – i.e. not very. And yet for Euro 2004, Portugal also built grounds as visually arresting as the Estádio do Dragão and Estádio do Bessa XXI in Porto, and the Estádio Municipal de Braga in Braga. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Braga.
Boavista Futebol Clube was founded in 1903 by a couple of English expats, which is why ‘Futebol Clube’ follows the name of the borough it represents instead of preceding it, as is the case with ‘Futebol Clube do Porto’. Boavista moved to the Campo do Bessa in 1910, although it didn’t really take any meaningful shape until 1967, whereupon the club set about turning their campo into an estadio. By 1972, actual turf had been laid and two stands had been constructed, one of which was undercover and equipped with rudimentary floodlights hanging from the roof’s edge. Specific information is scarce, but by 1982 the ground had roofs on three sides, an open terrace was built upon the fourth sometime after that, and by 1991 the southern terrace had been demolished and a covered, double-tiered structure assembled in its place.
Boavista are nowhere near as accomplished as city rivals Porto, but around the time that Portugal hosted the European Championship they’d met with a level of success, winning the Taça de Portugal in 1992 and 1997, and securing their first ever Primeira Liga in 2000/01, becoming only the second team outside of Portugal’s ‘Big Three’ to do so (the other being Clube de Futebol Os Belenenses in as far back as 1946). In the midst of all this – from 1998 through to 2003 – Estádio do Bessa was reconfigured where it stood, one stand at a time, allowing Boavista to continue playing there for the duration.
A similar method was employed when the Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris was redeveloped for the 1990 World Cup, a ground the Estádio do Bessa fairly resembles, likewise enveloped by residential buildings. Actually, the Luigi Ferraris is exposed on one side – the edge that abuts the Piazzale Atleti Azzurri d'Italia, which is basically a carpark spanning the Bisagno River – affording a perpendicular view of stadium’s western approach. Conversely, one cannot stand back and take in the Estádio do Bessa from any angle.
Would you even want to? Only the West Stand, which houses the club’s offices, is anything much to look at. As opposed to the sand-coloured stone that clads the rest of the ground, the rear wall of the West Stand has been masked, from top but not quite to bottom, in a cambered, horizontally-ribbed metal façade. At ground level we have beige brickwork, a café, various entry points guarded by grey metal doors, and a modest entrance hall framed by an oxidised, rectilinear open-porch adorned with two club crests, resplendent in silver, hung to either side of the entrance, and the club’s name writ large just above, also in silver. In front, occupying a triangular slither of land squeezed between the stand and the main road, there’s a large statue of a panther (the club’s nickname is As Panteras) and a curious rectangular arch, its thicker stanchion chequered in black and white to represent the club’s colours, with another panther climbing up the side. It makes for a pleasing introduction to any stadium, albeit a slightly odd one.
On seconds thoughts, the other three stands aren’t so bad. There’s obviously been an attempt to blend in the structure with its surroundings, to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Turning right off of Avenida da Boavista and up Rua de O Primeiro de Janeiro, the rear wall of Estádio do Bessa’s southern stand barely registers. If it weren’t for the two large blocks of flats in the way, one might pause to look more closely at the rear of the East Stand, whose vomitories have been left on display to reveal the underside of the upper tier. It’s the same from the northern perimeter, which overlooks a training facility that may or may not be affiliated. Rectangular concrete boxes protrude from the external walls of the northern and southern stands providing access to the upper levels, but they give no clearer indication as to what the building is about.
Inside it’s a very different story, and where the comparison with the Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris really shows. The touchlines are overlooked by three tiers, the goal-lines just two. The upper tiers of all four stands rise steeply to maximise the available space. The concrete sidewalls converge at right angles, enclosing the stadium completely. As at the Luigi Ferraris, square apertures have been cut into the vertical concrete, allowing any spectator climbing the internal stairwells to keep abreast of the action. Unlike at the Luigi Ferraris, the resulting apexes do not rise upwards to form towers; the stadium is not so big that the roof requires this extra support. Finally, whereas the walls of the Luigi Ferraris are painted a terracotta red, the reinforced concrete here has been left untreated. Essentially, Estádio do Bessa XXI is a smaller, simpler version of its Genovese cousin.
Up until 2004 Porto played their football at the Estádio das Antas, and did so for 52 years. Prior to this their home was the Campo da Constituição, and had been since 1912. Before that Porto played at the Campo da Rainha, until the local council kicked them out because somebody wanted to build a factory there. The Campo da Constituição is now the site of the club’s training ground and retains portions of the old stadium in homage, whereas the Estádio das Antas has been completely demolished.
The Antas was an impressive structure, but you can understand why the club was keen to move on. Although large enough, it afforded very little protection, save for a striking cantilevered roof arching over the west side of the ground – Porto might not be particularly cold but it can be wet. In 1976 a large, open tier – an arquibancada – was erected above the eastern edge of the stadium. Then, in 1986, the athletics track was dug up and the terraces extended downwards, making room for another 20,000 seats, rendering the single, slender roof woefully inadequate. The Estádio das Antas had outgrown itself.
The 2004 UEFA European Championship afforded Porto the opportunity to build a brand new Category 4 stadium adjacent to their existing one. I do not know if this was by design or whether land nearby was fortuitously available, but it must have made the move that little bit easier for any fan who’d grown too attached to the Antas. And might the similarly circular footprint of the Estádio do Dragão have been another sop contrived to appease potential detractors? Or that both grounds were built on a gradient, their white-walled perimeters becoming deeper, seemingly taller, as one circumnavigated them. There is a subterranean look about both interiors, but whereas the Antas’s pitch really was below street level (after it had been lowered by six metres to provide extra capacity) at the Dragão the effect is illusory: a concourse surrounds the ground with access for vehicles below, and on the northern periphery the Alameda das Antas bypasses underneath.
There are also some significant disparities. For one, the lower tier of the Estádio do Dragão is rectangular and, in complete contrast to the circular segments that bordered the old pitch, almost contiguous with the field of play. Then there are the two identical upper tiers facing each other, rising in a curve towards their middle, like the cross section of an elliptical cylinder that’s been split down the middle. Finally the roof, which covers the entire ground. Shaped like a hyperbolic paraboloid, it appear to rest neatly atop the two upper tiers but is in fact supported by four concrete monoliths, two at each end, perpendicular to the goal-lines, almost level with the corner flags. In between, empty space. It is this space, with the surrounding concourse running behind, that opens the stadium up and lets it breath – literally, for it aerates the turf.
Estádio das Antas in the foreground, anddo Dragão beyond.
In a country where people don’t religiously attend live football matches and are often quite content to watch games on the telly, it could be said that Portugal had no business bidding for the 2004 UEFA European Championship, let alone electing to build so many new stadiums. Too many teams have been burdened with grounds they can never fill, despite their relatively modest capacities, and are expected to pay exorbitant rates to play in them. Take Boavista, who have recently averaged an attendance of just over 6,000 in a stadium that can hold 28,263. Even champions Porto have only occupied about 80% of their capacity, although that’s up from the ~60% they were bringing in two seasons ago.
It could be worse. The Estádio do Bessa XXI and the Estádio do Dragão could be dreadfully lacking in atmosphere, as I expect the Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa is when União de Leiria host other teams in the Campeonato de Portugal (the Portuguese league’s third division). Instead, these grounds have been designed, maybe not deliberately, to accommodate lower turnouts. By building steeply and fencing itself in, the Estádio do Bessa generates intimacy by keeping the crowd, however spartan, as close together as possible and providing them with a shared perspective.
Those gaps either end of the Estádio do Dragão do likewise, creating a depth of field that focuses the eye on the stadium’s lower level, where the bulk of the capacity is catered for. Moreover, because the upper tiers taper away towards the corners, their actual size is diminished. The manner in which the roof swoops downward over either end augments this impression.
Concourse running around Estadio do Dragão. Note 'monolith' to the left.
Built into the side of a steep hill, the Estádio Municipal de Braga dispenses entirely with terracing behind either goalmouth. Nonetheless, the two large double-decker stands that there are can accommodate over 30,000 supporters between them. Sporting Clube de Braga averaged a respectable 12,629 spectators over the course of 2017/18, and with a football ground as beautiful as theirs, who cares if it’s only half full.
[This article also features in The Football Pink.]