The London Olympic Stadium – a bloated, over-budget stadium for our glorious capital city. With the debate still raging, Leyton Orient’s chairman and pub-game promoter, Barry Hearn, has been soap-boxing on the airwaves – giving his views on how a move to the ground for West Ham United will kill his club and informing anyone that will listen that the stadium is “not fit for football”.
The belief that the ground is not fit for football stems from the usual complaints over stadia built with athletics in mind. Think Juventus and Bayern Munich, to name two – those pesky running tracks and the gentle slope of the seating.
Manchester City overcame these problems with the restructuring of the commonwealth games stadium before they moved in – but that was a much smaller affair. The Commonwealth Games is the Anglo-Italian cup to the Olympics’ Champions League.
Some years back I travelled to Barcelona for a few days with my Dad – it was “the wrong weekend” and Barca were away from home. After the obligatory tour around Camp Nou – we stood in awe at the number and variety of trophies in the cabinet, who knew there were so many hockey tournaments Barcelona had won? – we decided to head across town to see if we could score tickets for the Espanyol v Las Palmas match.
Not exactly a fixture to set pulses racing, but a foreign match experience in any event. It was held at Espanyol’s then home – the Olympic stadium at Montjuic, the beautiful, but very impractical legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games.
The trail had to be one of the most surreal, but pleasant journeys to a football stadium. Unfortunately the cable-car crossing was closed at the time, which really would have elevated the transport to new heights, so to speak. Instead, it was the metro, followed by a funicular (cutting out a few kms criss-crossing the hillside) which left you with a very pleasant stroll through tree-lined avenues. Eventually, the spectacular sight of the Olympic torch towered into view. As someone used to the packed tram from Manchester City Centre and a walk past the Lou Macari chippy and terraced houses on Warwick Road, it was a very exotic experience.
Espanyol had left the comfy but atmospheric surroundings of their la Sarria ground in the late 1990’s. The local government had pressured the club for some time, desperately wanting a permanent use for their very own white elephant stadium. Mounting debts left the club with little choice but to sell to developers and lodge at Montjuic.
Once outside the Stadium, we relaxed in a shady park (and that isn’t shady like edgy, like Stanley Park, but leafy) and pondered how to secure a ticket over a cool cerveza. We needn’t have worried – the match was far from a sell out and the oldest ticket tout in town had spotted us a mile off and made his way over towards his prey.
I knew enough Castilian Spanish to partake in a conversation with said gent, who eagerly took our cash, flashed 3 season ticket cards at us, beamed a toothless smile, and escorted us through the ticket barriers – once safely through the two checks, he waved an arm in a cursory gesture to the swathe of light blue seats that backed on to us (I think, to indicate we could sit where we wanted) and walked off, straight out through the barriers – presumably to go and spend his newly earned money at the local bar!
Montjuic was huge. Truly huge. There was no gasp as you walked up the steps to see the lush carpet of green spreading out below. No thrill as the crowd at the opposite side of the ground flashed in to view. Just an absolutely huge bowl of a ground, with an enormous orange running track circling a faded green patch of grass some distance away.
Two gigantic banners, emblazoned with the club crest, covered each end behind the goals – the places where the ultras would usually whip up the fervour inside the ground – seemingly because those seats would actually be furthest from the pitch and no-one in their right mind would want to sit there. It also served to “herd” the spectators together along the sides of the ground, rather than have small pockets of fans here or there. The capacity without the banners would have been around thirty thousand – too large for Espanyol to fill.
Without any sort of roof, other than on the main stand, probably just enough to cover the two or three rows of club directors and VIP’s, the sun beat down relentlessly.
We were lucky in a couple of ways – the game was an enjoyable 3-2 win for the home team, and, despite the very, very shallow incline of the seats, the crowd was so sparse that we had no-one in front of us for 10 rows or so. Why did we not move further forward, you ask? Well, the shallow incline and the and running track, combined with the obligatory perimeter advertising boards conspired together so that should the winger be sprinting along the touchline, we had no view of the ball whatsoever – and could certainly not judge whether a tackle was well-timed or not!
A quick beer at half-time (word of warning: “sin alcohol” is not point-of-sale advertising of the evils of beer by the catholic church, like on cigarettes by the government, but “without alcohol”) and not a pie in sight – nice bag of sunflower seeds, anyone? The damn things littered the stadium by the end of the match!
The Espanyol fans didn’t want to reside at Montjuic in the first place, and finally got their way after twelve years on top of the hill, moving again, much further from their traditional heartland, to the working-class suburb of Cornella-El Prat.
The new stadium opened in 2009 and is an outstanding FOOTBALL venue, a modern masterpiece which should be the envy of many. The supporters are right next to the pitch and the focus is all on the green carpet in front of them. Aping the much-loved and missed Sarria stadium in which they used to reside, with very modern twists.
Many clubs have found that moving home across town needn’t be the displacement of their soul that purists may think. Franchising and moving wholesale out of the town or city they traditionally represent (a la MK Dons) is abhorrent even to the non-purists. But, with careful planning, fan bases can be renewed and reinvigorated within the local community – much like Espanyol, who are attempting to forge new relationships in their new surroundings – no easy task when a footballing goliath shares your city.
But the clubs must be thoughtful in their application of these plans. Larger clubs muscling their way in to other’s backyards can never be a good thing either. There are many sensitive choices to make.
Whilst an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, those few years back in Montjuic, the whole thing was a little soulless. It was serene and pleasant – much like the journey to the ground – probably, in fact, much like an athletics experience, rather than a footballing one.
As Barry Hearn would attest: The 1992 Olympic Stadium was not fit for football.
By Stuart Howard-Cofield
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona