Spain’s Forgotten Stadiums: From Alicante To Bilbao
Written by Sam Leveridge
In a time when football stadiums are left empty even as the action continues on the pitch, the absence of fans hurts. Watching on television, tuning in to see 22 players run around with no atmosphere, has become the norm.
We’ve said a temporary goodbye to the raucous noise of Spanish football grounds, from the chants of “Neville vete ya”, the furious rants to referees and the unmistakable sound of pipas hitting the ground. We are left looking back upon memories of better times. In some cases, those memories are cast further back than you may expect.
Spain is known for its world-class sporting arenas. A World Cup bid with Portugal for the 2030 tournament cannot come as a surprise for a country which boasts state-of-the-art stadiums like Camp Nou, the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano and San Mamés. But for the most authentic of football fans, real atmosphere dates back before the modern glamour of the latter two. It dates back to the rough and tumble of Spain’s forgotten stadiums.
A country littered with property investments and projects which never quite fulfilled their aims, abandoned stadiums and a raft of rapid investment in the early 2000s means that many clubs ditched their traditional homes. Spain’s economic growth of the time was fuelled by construction. “The entire economy was built on bricks and mortar,” politician Mónica Oltra told The Financial Times. Much of that was to do with sporting projects.
As money came in and new stadiums went up, others were left behind, discarded to the past. Today, there is not a single sign of the remnants of some of these stadiums. In other cases, huge investments were misplaced, building elite stadiums to play host to clubs who were far from elite, or in some cases for no club at all.
Here, we divide these forgotten sporting arenas into three different categories to look at just some of these examples. From the grounds of yesteryear which have been left behind for glistening new homes, to those teams who now flounder in Segunda División B with 30,000-seater arenas left more than half-empty every weekend, and finally the real disaster cases of stadiums without a purpose.
Grounds of yesteryear
No ground better typifies misplaced investment than the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. Espanyol were the residents, but their stay lasted just 12 years. Forced by debts to sell their home stadium in Sarrià, now a park within a residential area, they were forced to find a new home. The cheapest solution was an Olympic Stadium which had been built in 1927, but effectively ripped out and built from scratch for the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
8,500 million pesetas, roughly €51 million, were invested in the arena, building a sporting stadium ready to host the best athletes from across the globe. It was a tremendous hit in sporting terms, but also in social terms, revolutionising the city of Barcelona into the modern tourist hub we know it as today. But by the time Espanyol turned up in 1997 to play the first game of football in the stadium since 1949, it had been left somewhat downtrodden and, with an athletics track running around the pitch, far from ideal for footballing uses.
Even to this day, it is Spain’s fifth-biggest football stadium with a capacity of more than 60,000, but it’s fair to say that Espanyol fans never warmed to it. Not helped by the freezing cold winter breeze on Montjuïc. By the time Espanyol had recovered financially, driven by success on the field with two Copa del Rey titles, they were ready to have a new, purpose-built home in Cornellà-El Prat.
The same cannot be said for one of Spain’s most greatly-missed stadiums in Atlético Madrid’s Estadio Vicente Calderón. Adored by fans, even rivals, and home to the club for 51 years, it had become an iconic arena for football, in Madrid and beyond.
“The Sunday afternoon walk from Pirámides metro down along the parched Manzanares River, the Atlético fans packed outside bars with a cold Mahou cerveza in one hand and a jamón ibérico sandwich in the other” – the depiction of a matchday at the Calderón from Atleti season-ticket holder Brendy Boyle.
Situated on the banks of a river, Madrid’s major ringroad, the M30, famously ran beneath the stadium’s main stand. Its open ends on each side of the main stand meant that a biting cold swept through the stadium, but also that the atmosphere could be felt from afar. Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski once ranked the noise of fans at the Calderón among the top three in Europe.
Simply put, the Calderón was the church for the religion of Atlético Madrid. In a city where football rivalries come to define day-to-day life, family relationships, workplace friendships and more, nothing mattered to Atleti fans more than their place of worship.
But it went beyond simple atmosphere and stretched into the way that the Calderón formed part of the DNA of the club. Men like Diego Simeone would play and manage at the stadium, forming part of the club’s history. Brendy believes that this was what created such an intertwining of club and stadium, as he explains that “the intensity of the players was directly linked to surroundings, the waves of pressing being driven by those in the stand.”
Another such iconic stadium was the original San Mamés. To this day, it remains a unique model of stadium and one that is not replicated by many across the Iberian peninsula. Like much of Athletic Club’s way of working, there was little about it that was particularly Spanish.
“It was one of the more ‘British’ stadiums in Spain, with its architecture, fans close to the players and it created a very special atmosphere and a difficult ground for rivals to go to,” La Liga Lowdown’s Bilbao correspondent, Beñat Gutiérrez, told us. A club founded by Brits, in one of Spain’s dampest and coldest areas, playing in a stadium akin to its cousins across the sea. It meant for a different view on football, and a different arena for visiting rivals.
It acted as England’s home from home in the 1982 World Cup and was Athletic’s home for over 100 years between 1913 and 2013. Steeped in history, Athletic fans took the church metaphor one stop further. In fact, San Mamés was literally known as La Catedral. The city did not have its own cathedral until 1949, and so locals named the stadium their place of worship.
To this day, part of the original San Mamés can be seen at Athletic Club. The bridge structure which supported the original roof was kept even through extensive reformation works ahead of the World Cup in Spain, becoming a symbolic decorative feature of Athletic’s home. When the decision was taken that the club must move on to a new stadium to move with the times, careful planning was put into how to do it the right way.
Beñat explains how the club and city planners worked carefully, saying, “the building of the new stadium meant taking a step ahead not just for Athletic, but for the city of Bilbao. The new San Mamés is such a good stadium that with time it convinced even the most opposed fans of the change. Fans keep going to the same bars and their routine hasn’t changed, ‘Pozas’ [street] is still the epicentre of the atmosphere pre-game and post-match.”
Works on the new stadium took place on virtually the same site, with one stand unable to be built until the old stadium had been closed and knocked down. That stand was the one with the historic bridge. And the club refused to get rid of it, taking it to their training ground in Lezama where it sits atop a stand where the reserve and women’s team play.
Another example is the Estadio Carlos Tartiere. Replaced by the originally-named Nuevo Estadio Carlos Tartiere in 2000, it had been the home of Real Oviedo for 68 years. A historic arena, many modern fans never had the chance to visit, having been drawn in by the club’s call for shareholders from across the globe years after the stadium move threatened their finances. But it was more than just finances that Real Oviedo fans were concerned about.
“The old Tartiere was closer to the city centre, surrounded by plenty of bars and pubs, which created a really good atmosphere. It was small, with soul, something you miss in new stadiums,” Real Oviedo fan David Carbayón, a friend of @OviedistaNW, told us.
But as traditional a ground as it may sound, it played host to some superstars. Alongside its role in the 1982 World Cup, where it joins the two aforementioned grounds in a list of four stadiums no longer in use, alongside Espanyol’s Sarrià Stadium, it hosted the likes of Michael Jackson in music concerts.
Stadiums consigned to the past aren’t the only kinds of stadiums which have been forgotten. Others are the fruit of mislaid investments, putting money into huge stadiums in areas without a team of the stature to maintain them.
There’s no better example than in Alicante, where the Estadio José Rico Pérez has room for 29,500 fans and has hosted various Spain international fixtures, including visits from Scotland and England in 2012 and 2015 respectively. But the stadium has been left to fall apart, with the last major investment having come for the 1982 World Cup, only eight years after its opening.
“The last time works were done on the stadium was in 2010 after promotion to Primera División. It needs a freshen up, for sure,” Dani Rodríguez, a journalist for Radio Alicante, tells us.
But it’s more than just on the outside that the José Rico Pérez has sufferedw. Hércules’ brief stint in Primera División in 2010 was shortlived, and with it attendances have fallen off. Battling against relegation from Segunda B for much of 2019/20, Dani reveals how “in the last few years the average attendance has been 7,000. When the team needs it, you notice the Hércules fans, but it’s true that at times you hear the sunflower seeds more than the applause or chants.”
The next-biggest stadium in the division is less than half of the capacity of the Alicante-based stadium. That poses a challenge to Hércules, who struggle to maintain such a huge stadium with its associated costs while battling with teams like Gerard Piqué’s FC Andorra, whose home, the Camp de Fútbol de Prada de Moles, has a capacity of just 500 in the same division.
It’s not all bad though, as Dani remains optimistic. “The pitch is marvellous, it’s like a rug, the company who takes care of it is Royal Verd, the same people who take care of the pitch at the Camp Nou,” again reflecting the investment that is put in to one of Spain’s most remarkable, but perhaps least known, stadiums of its size.
Unbelievably, it is only the third-largest stadium in the third tier of Spanish football. At a capacity of 31,179, Estadio Nueva Condomina was the biggest stadium in Segunda B until Deportivo La Coruña’s relegation in 2020. Home to Real Murcia, works began in 1993 with an eventual cost of €200 million before it was completed and ready to open in 2006. It seemed perfectly timed as the team won promotion to Primera in the first campaign at the new stadium, but it wouldn’t last, as the financial impact of the project hit and within four years of opening, Real Murcia had dropped to Segunda B.
It was never meant to be this way. “The stadium was built to hold important games,” explains Real Murcia fan, Javier Riquelme of @fanrealmurcia. And the ambitions were set high. Opened with a friendly between Spain and Argentina, the organisation behind the project insisted that they wanted to become a five-star UEFA-qualified stadium which would have allowed them to hold major continental finals and tournaments.
Like Hércules, filling in the stands has been a challenge. Despite being included in Spain’s World Cup bid proposals for 2018 and 2022, and regularly visited by the national team, it is rarely sold out, drawing only 6,000 fans to a local derby with UCAM Murcia last season.
“The atmosphere is incredible, Real Murcia fans are some of the most loyal in Spain and they never let the team down. Even against weak rivals, the stadium supports them,” Javier insists, but filling the stands is a continually difficult task for the club.
What were they thinking?
With this wave of investment into new constructions and projects, two of Spain’s biggest cities felt that they couldn’t be left out. Seville has long been a passionate footballing city, already blessed with the Estadio Benito Villamarín and the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, but for some it wasn’t enough.
Few examples of mislaid investment in this era are more appropriate than the Estadio de la Cartuja. “Forgotten?!” I hear you say, “But it’s going to host the next four Copa del Rey finals?!” Sure. But this is a stadium which last hosted a football match in 2012.
Built with the promise of a key role in the Olympic Games, which eventually went to Athens, when it was completed, it made Seville the second European city to have three stadiums with a capacity of more than 40,000, as Colin Millar details in his book, The Frying Pan of Spain. There were initially proposals for the city’s two teams, Sevilla and Real Betis, to share the ground, but they never got off the ground. And that left a stadium with no purpose. For locals, it’s not a surprise.
“When I visited, I genuinely wasn’t sure it was the stadium until I got close. It’s an ugly building in a bad location,” La Liga Lowdown’s Alan Feehely told us from Seville. “The stadium and the area itself are seen as a white elephant, it’s seen as a badly-planned and short-sighted project,” adds La Liga Lowdown’s Seville correspondent Gregor Chappelle in our podcast special on the stadium.
With an athletics track around the pitch, its footballing peak came with the 2003 UEFA Cup final between Porto and Celtic, but has since gone on to host Davis Cup finals and athletics World Championships, with the latest major sporting event seeing Rafa Nadal take centre stage as Spain beat Argentina to win the Davis Cup in 2011. Not long after, it was left to ruin.
In December 2018, local authorities forced the closure of one stand for any purpose due to collapsed walls in the support structure. Further works have now been required to return it to a usable condition for football to return after the RFEF’s unexpected agreement to play Copa del Rey finals at La Cartuja.
But, in comparison to some projects, the Estadio de la Cartuja can be considered a wild success. As has regularly become the case, when chaos and travesty reigns, Valencia are here to top whatever any other side can achieve. At last, we welcome the Nou Mestalla to the discussion.
With a clear purpose and a team ready to play in it, you could be mistaken for thinking that it would be a relatively straightforward process compared to La Cartuja. Instead, Nou Mestalla has ended up playing a major part of the economic crisis facing the club in recent years, without a ball ever being kicked there. La Liga Lowdown’s Paco Polit explains that “Nou Mestalla has seen construction paralysed since February 2009, it’s ended up being one of the economic banes of the club for the last 10 years.”
Left as an empty shell just a 10-minute drive from Valencia’s current ground, it was seen as the next step for Valencia, much like the San Mamés would prove to be for Athletic Club, but things fell apart. When the club was sold due to debts, Peter Lim buying the outfit, one of the conditions of the deal was that works on the stadium would resume. That was in 2014, and six years later, we’re still waiting.
“Fans have spent years demanding that Lim fulfills his promise and given that he hasn’t, they’ve asked politicians and institutions to pressure Lim through laws,” Paco explains. “Meriton Holdings and its president, Anil Murthy, spokespeople for Lim in the city, have asked for more time, but they haven’t offered dates, a project or any clear intentions to restart the works.”
A solution looks distant, to say the least, in the case of Spain’s most forgotten stadium of all. So forgotten, in fact, that Valencia never even got round to putting any seats in place 13 years after building work began.
From some of Spain’s most historic grounds, with over 100 years of history, to arenas which have been discarded by negligent owners, there can be no denying the variety of stadia on offer in Spanish football. As the final touches of demolition works to the Estadio Vicente Calderón are completed, with the M30 now running straight through the pitch just as Simeone once did as a box-to-box midfielder, there’s never been a better time to recall the golden memories of the past.
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