Words: Sam Diss 
Images: Offside Sports Photography

I’m a West Ham fan. Our stadium is not good. Dunno if we’ve mentioned it.

Beautiful, but ugly. It’s rotten. Broken. It hosted the greatest British sporting event of the last fifty years, a grand and gleaming Olympic Games, a sixteen-day festival celebrating the heights of human endeavour, biological brilliance, and George Michael; an event the population thought would be a shitshow and turned into something to be genuinely proud of; and now it cannot handle a lower-mid-table Premier League game.

It gleams in the sunlight, this half-a-billion pound stadium. Driving past it through Bromley-by-Bow, it rises out of industrial East London—with its crumbling factories and neutered, manicured shopping centre—like the diamond of a big, fat engagement ring—but it’s a stadium full of holes, gaps, missing pieces, large canyons between prefab stands papered over, almost literally, with plastic claret sheets.

But the stadium’s problems are not just physical, structural things, they’re also psychological. It doesn’t feel like a football ground because it’s not one. But that makes you wonder: what makes a great stadium a great football stadium?

Grounds grow to match the identity of their team. Character is more important than capacity or a technologically advanced concourse. It can be an ineffable element, but you know it when you see it (or feel it): this sense of where you are, tied not only to geography but to a history.

“Liverpool are one of those clubs who have a really strong identity,” says Professor Murray Fraser of the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. “And when you go to Anfield, it very obviously is the ‘church’ of that community around it. I actually found it quite astonishing when I first went there and saw the houses around it. The people who live in that area see the stadium every day, get to look at Anfield every day as they move around town, and that builds a huge sense of identity.”

There are plenty of grounds that inspire a similar feeling of civic pride and awe. Sat bang in the middle of town, Burnley’s Turf Moor feels hard worn and hard-won, its dressing rooms spare and its away seats wooden, typical of a team that have dragged themselves up from the lower reaches of the league. Thirty miles south, Man United’s giant Old Trafford still feels like it’s part of the community, lined with red brick houses up Sir Matt Busby Way; a giant club typified both by its general bigness—never let it be said many United fans wouldn’t tell you they’re the world’s largest club within moments of meeting you—and its long-held reliance on local talent. There is Celtic Park’s studied continentalism and Ibrox’s almost parodic Britishness; Dortmund’s legendary Yellow Wall, stretching up into the sky and bearing down on opposing teams as they attack the goal, as much a part of the tactics as the remnants of Klopp’s old gegenpressing, and Boca’s La Bombonera, a D-shaped ground with a sweeping half-bowl and a single flat stand, the noise resounding from the curve and reverberating off the stand opposite, evoking a concert hall more than a ground, fitting for a team more known for its thrilling atmosphere than its football.

It can be very easy to write off new stadia as just a physical manifestation with what’s wrong with the game today, with every bell and every whistle an affront to the charm and reality of the game we love. But these grounds grow and mutate as the game does, changing with the larger culture and community of an area, although there does need to be something real for fans to hold on to. That through-line can be something as strong as a name or a badge or as fleeting as the food and drinks on tap. Watery lager, lukewarm pies, a Bovril for your dad. A great ground is a combination of so many elements, often as important as what happens on the pitch.

“When it comes to the design process,” says Christopher Lee of architecture firm Populous, “it is about understanding what the DNA of a club is, what their supporters are about, and what the nuances and traditions are, whether that's in east London or northern Mexico.”

As an architect, Lee has worked on Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (with Europe's first moving roof), and has been at the heart of Tottenham Hotspur’s as yet not-quite-named new ground.

“I think identity is really important and sometimes that can be lost,” says Lee, as we sit in an air-conditioned room in the firm’s low-key London office near Putney Bridge. “Which is why with the new Tottenham stadium, we’ve been looking at how you break it down: people will have come to the new ground who used to sit in the South Stand or the North Stand, with the constant, chanting games that went on between the two, and that’s led us to a little bit of an evolution from creating engineering-driven seating bowls to try and create more of a genuine identity.”

Building a great stadium is a two-way thing. It is a container for people—somewhere you can have nearly a 100,000 in one place—and it is the architecture of experience. Football has changed, and the way that fans experience it has changed, too.

“Until quite recently, in the seventies and eighties, there was basically no such thing as ‘stadium architecture’,” adds Lee. “It was an engineering pursuit, and it was seen as an engineering activity, and the builders were guys who tend to build bridges. It was a very pragmatic approach.”

Pragmatism no longer cuts it. Great stadiums, like all great architecture, have to resonate with its local community. Where the stadium literally sits in the city can make or break a ground: there is West Ham’s London Stadium, of course, situated oh-so-pragmatically in the middle of a park away from residents thanks to security measures put in place during the Olympics, and Juventus’ old Stadio delle Alpi, surely one of the worst stadiums a club of that size has ever had. Thanks to a never used athletics track, the ground’s terrible sightlines and a location way outside Turin surprisingly did not inspire fans, and they just straight up did not want to go. The most supported team in Italy’s 69,000 seater was regularly left with stands only a third full. In one Coppa Italia game against Sampdoria in 2001/02, only 237 supporters showed up.

Neither one thing nor quite the other, Stadio delle Alpi—demolished in 2008 just eighteen, unloved years after it opened—is a good example of the virtue of simplicity in design. Not just the simplicity of the actual aesthetics, but the purity of an idea. Estádio Municipal de Braga in northwestern Portugal is carved from granite in the face of Monte Castro, with two beautiful lateral stands, rock behind one goal looming like a kop and the city sprawl of Braga behind the other. Bari’s Stadio San Nicola is a stripped back tribute to the classic amphitheatre, according to Murray, even with its complex design. Considered something of a classic with its construction made of 26 concrete ‘petals’, the stadium is unlike many of the overbearing grounds in Serie A, the structure feels delicate and airy, with fans sat around its uppermost tiers, making the most of the sunshine on the coast of the Adriatic sea. Then there’s the Allianz in Munich. Designed by renowned Belgian firm Herzog & de Meuron, its central concept was clear—the idea of strength and robustness mixed with eye-catching flair is something which has defined the team over recent years, and the stadium is constructed of concrete and steel latticework, the entire building’s facade is wrapped in illuminated air cushions that change colour to reflect which two clubs are using the arena at that time.

“It’s a very simple idea that acts as an urban marker,” says Murray of Bayern’s stadium. “If Bari’s design was the amphitheatre and its simplicity, Bayern’s is the reimagining of the cathedral: the grand physical form as part of the city. I think the most successful stadiums are the ones that approach architectural forms with real clarity. You need to decide what kind of ground you want to create and then follow that.”

Herzog & de Meuron’s proposed design for Chelsea’s next stadium is another that takes a central theme and pursues it clearly. Surrounded by 264 sculptural brick pillars, it “will have a lightness of expression when viewed directly but also a solidity and textural materiality when seen obliquely," according to the firm. It is a design that takes a London material—brick—and treats it as a spectacle.

These stadiums of the near future won’t be to everyone’s liking, of course, and for every marvel at the contemporary sculptural form, there are fans who want a return to the good ol’ days, splintered arses and all.

“Nostalgia is currency in football,” says Owen Pritchard, former editor of design bible It’s Nice That. “The era of a meat pie and a cup of Bovril will be gone for good before too long. To a certain extent, so it should be. Football tickets are expensive. You'd be pissed off if you paid upwards of forty quid to sit behind a post in a creaky stadium. There's a romance about the days of yore in football but, quite frankly, people sometimes forget it was fucking dangerous.”

Nostalgia is warm and cosy, a blanket. It is the familiar, the perfect, and, more importantly, gone: we fuss and obsess over the past because it has ended, its story closed, and mythologise every part knowing that it can’t come back to bite us. Francesco Totti’s passing was always purple and beautiful and ingenious, and now it can’t really be proved—he’s not going to be announced as a shock signing for Stoke any time soon. Our nostalgia for stadia is often the same: the Boleyn Ground was perfect, old Wembley—the dog track with a football ground in the middle—was perfect. They say don’t meet your heroes. You can’t, anymore, because they’ve all been knocked down. It’s safer this way.

But having that through-line of nostalgia in new stadia is important: something that connects you to the past—warped and mythologised though that past may be—is paramount. When Arsenal proposed a move from Highbury to the Emirates, carrying that sense of tradition across proved a challenge for architects.

“Arsenal had been at Highbury since 1908,” says architect Christopher Lee, back at Populous. “It was a much-loved stadium, a beautiful stadium, designed by Archibald Leitch, and the East Stand was grade one-listed art deco. As a local resident, it was my local team, and it was an incredible building to try and deal with. And we spent a long time with the club trying to change and expand it until finally, and slightly sadly, realized that we would have to leave Highbury to design what is now the Emirates.

“One school of thought was ‘Okay, well we'll just replicate some art deco in the interior, and that will be the DNA carried over, a sort of pastiche version’. But really what we developed was the idea of trying to distil an air of permanence and longevity. It was all about creating with materials that would last as long as Highbury and get better over time. We invested a lot of time and a lot of money in creating a building which was going to be there for the next hundred years. Fans really latched onto the idea: it wasn't going to be this thin building metal that would age and look crap in twenty years. It will just look better. When you go there now, and you see the wear and hand marks in materials like the brass in some of the Club levels and the director's boxes, you get that idea of permanence and longevity coming through. That's what the club wanted, that was at their roots.”

While the Emirates stadium may have faced some criticism—I once heard someone call it a stadium for people who go to the London Coffee Festival—that could likely be down to the fans not really enjoying what’s happening on the pitch very much. At least it’s a bespoke football stadium that is, ostensibly, just for them. National stadiums can be difficult. In England, especially, where there is little sense of national identity, and where national team games are seen as just fodder for day-trippers. The mythologising around this new Wembley has often felt artificial, with lots of marketing spiel, but very little tradition to experience. The weight of history should be evident even as its glass and steel glints in your eye, promising you the future… And, not for nothing, for one of the most famous stadiums in the whole world, visiting Wembley has always felt like a real chore.

“The Millennium Stadium—or whatever it is called right now—absolutely nailed both. It's smack bang in the middle of Cardiff, opposite the train station and on match day the whole city is bouncing. The roads are shut, and everything is geared towards the game, you just can't miss it, it owns the city. And once inside, the tight site means that the seating is steep and the fans are right on top of the action. There's not a bad seat in the house. But compare that to Wembley. It's a pain in the arse to get to and once there, the atmosphere is paper thin. The bowl is too shallow; the whole thing is too slick.”

Maybe, in that same way the cliché about instinctive wingers going to pot when they have time to think, the new Wembley had just too much space to play with. Too many ideas stuffed into one building. The purity of the vision lost.

“Wembley Stadium is a business park,” says Professor Murray. “It operates on a kind of model—the density of rooms in the ground, the facilities and conference room, et cetera—to ensure that this stadium makes money. But when you look at it, it just swaddles, all these extra elements, and makes it feel really puffy and neutralised. The experience of going to the stadium has been lost.”

“The FA calls it ‘the Home of Football’, but it's not,” adds Pritchard. “It looks like a shopping basket, and it's in Brent.”

This originally appeared in Issue 14, which is sold out. For more great football writing about stuff you actually care about, you can buy our magazine or subscribe for a year here.