When Simon Inglis penned The Football Grounds of Europe, Croatia was still part of Yugoslavia. As such, the former Socialist Republic constitutes the book’s final chapter, and Inglis elects to use Split’s Stadion Poljud as a sort of lament for football stadia as they once were: utilitarian, in service to the local community. He paints the Poljud as an example of modernity, alludes to its costly upkeep, an atmosphere-inhibiting running track, as well as nostalgia for Hajduk Split’s former home, a ground the locals referred to affectionately as Plinada (Gasworks). I take his point, but there were/are probably more pertinent examples with which to labour it – just none to be found in countries beginning with the letter Y.
Stadion Poljud was conceived of with the 1979 Mediterranean Games specifically in mind, and I suppose this might be more indicative of the theme that Inglis was warming to. As with Munich’s Olympiastadion, Seville’s Estadio La Cartuja or London’s London Stadium, Stadion Poljud caters for athletics first and football second. In modern parlance, one might say such grounds offer integrated solutions designed to maximise functionality. In any case, the implication is that the football supporters who inherit them are merely incidental. Or worse, that sentimentality plays no part in sport, when in fact without it sport is nothing.
Whilst I’d go along with all of this, I’m not so sure it applies to Stadion Poljud. It may have once, but not now, and not even in 1990 when Inglis’ hallowed tome was originally published. For starters, with a capacity of just under 35,000, Poljud isn’t that big. Moreover, the sight-lines are good and the running track doesn’t seem particularly intrusive. It’s the done thing these days to bemoan the presence of running tracks, yet nobody minded the old Wembley, with its greyhound/speedway circuit and ridiculously shallow rake. Nor will you often hear anybody berating the atmosphere at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico or Belgrade’s Stadion Rajko Mitić. Might the problem be, then, not so much the athletics’ facilities themselves but the sort of structures built to accommodate them?
The elliptical nature of a running track precludes the incorporation of rectilinear terraces and advances the case for constructing something seamless. The architect may endeavour to disturb the monotony – for example, the breaks in the two upper tiers at Turin’s ill-fated Stadio delle Alpi, or the single gap present in Berlin’s Olympiastadion – but these are mere gestures that do nothing to detract from the uniformity of the thing. They remain, in essence, rotationally symmetrical forms. Stadion Poljud, on the other hand, exhibits a very obvious reflective symmetry (plenty of stadiums do: Porto’s Estádio do Dragão; the Olympic Stadium of Athens, Marseille’s monstrous Stade Vélodrome). This has the effect of dividing it into four distinct sections – or rather two pairs – generating a more open sense of space.
Actually, the Poljud is very much a unified structure. Circular from without, elliptical from within, the stadium’s form is that of an undulating concrete bowel, its outside edge rising gently on both sides culminating in two indistinguishable grandstands. These stands, which contribute the bulk of the ground’s capacity, are covered with crescent-shaped roofs arcing upward on a gracile latticework of steel. They are impressive feats of engineering, even if the translucent Lexan panelling – a polycarbonate developed specifically with the US space programme in mind – that forms the actual canopy has become drably discoloured over time.
The shallower areas behind each goal have been left exposed, offering views towards the Dinaric Alps to the north and the Marjan Peninsula to the south (or a large block of apartments, depending on one’s position). The northern sector provided for standing room only up until the late 1990s, and it is where Hajduk Split’s hardcore supporters – Torcida Split – like to vociferously congregate. At the opposing end an electronic scoreboard, various utilities, and what could reasonably be described as landscape gardening.
And what of the Poljud’s exterior, its setting, its milieu? To maintain a relatively low profile, the lower half of the ground – including its offices, gyms and ancillary facilities – is subterranean. Despite this, the stadium’s exposed, parabolic concrete shell is an imposing sight when approached head on. The building’s periphery has been sculpted to create a sort of verdant concourse, as well as access via a series of tunnels. To its left, docks, harbours, jetties, and the Gulf of Kaštela beyond. South-west, the aforementioned Marjan peninsula, peaking at 178 metres and strewn with Mediterranean pines. To the north, the twin peaks of Kozjak and Mosor, with Klis Castle, and the pass it was built to protect, in between. Split’s old town centre is about 15 minutes’ walk away in a south-easterly direction. All in all, it is a very attractive setting.
Whether the Stadion Poljud enhances its environment or brings it down might depend on how the individual feels about raw, reinforced concrete and Lexan panelling. The stadium does look tired in places, yet it is well maintained generally, and the amenities are good. But in terms of atmosphere I get the sense that the place isn’t short on it, especially at night, when the whole thing glows and the full weight of Hajduk’s support is thrown behind its football team.