Architecture of the stadium

People are often surprised to hear I’m a devoted football fan and Cardiff City supporter. Perhaps it doesn’t gel well with people’s perceptions of me (whatever those may be); however, I find football gives me an exciting break from daily concerns, and a chance to be part of the tribal culture inherent within us all. It’s a way to feel friendship with total strangers, an outlet for anger, joy and happiness, and an opportunity to mix with a wider cross-section of people than my limited horizons otherwise offer.

I also have a huge love for the stadiums and they remain one of the reasons I prefer to follow Cardiff at away games.

Stadium architecture has a clear effect on the physical presence of the club and atmosphere at games. The psychological effects on fans, referees and players are well-documented, but home advantage is also believed to give a genuine physical edge, hypothesised to be caused by testosterone increases in players. This effect is especially strong in defenders and goalkeepers, for whom the battle is particularly territorial.

Stadiums must also have logistics and facilities for up to 80,000 visitors (around the population of Shrewsbury), hundreds of police, stewards and officials, media and players. The range of requirements is pretty astonishing.

Clubs are known by the reputation of their grounds and the atmosphere they inspire. Some teams are known for poor support and quiet games (the “prawn sandwich“ brigade). Cardiff, on the other hand, have a reputation as a very intimidating club. There are many reasons for this: passionate fans, unfortunate hooliganism, and the constant battle to be noticed against Wales’ supposed national sport of rugby. However, the stadium plays a huge part too.

Ninian Park is a classic ‘old style’ stadium, well beyond its useful life yet still possessing the hallmarks of bygone eras: terracing, woeful facilities, and some intangible ‘character’. High among Cardiff fans’ many concerns for the future is the worry that atmosphere and indeed a piece of the club’s identity will be lost as we move into our new stadium (at top) in May.

On my travels with Cardiff I’ve been to some dismal grounds, and loved them all (a foggy January week night in Mansfield where you couldn’t even see the other end of the pitch comes to mind). Below, Watford’s stadium: ugly and an easy target for ridicule, but possessing far more character than many other grounds I’ve visited.

And then there’s always the rare occasion when your team performs and suddenly you find yourselves part of something huge:

This is my best shot from last year’s FA Cup Final, which Cardiff pretty much fluked our way into. Wembley is of course enormous, and again the atmosphere is shaped by the architecture. Expensive facilities and location make for expensive tickets. This (and the sponsorship derived from TV coverage) means money spare for banners, flags and other paraphenalia. Huge crowds make for huge expectations, high ceremony and lengthy big build-ups, but they also make co-ordinating singing impossible. Many Cardiff fans said they didn’t get the same sense of atmosphere as at a traditional away game, since the noisiest fans were spread across the ground rather than, as is common, concentrated in a group.

The nosebleed-inducing height also changes one’s experience of the match. From here you can see the sweep of the game, like a general, but not the blood and sweat of the touchline.

This post is clearly an excuse for me to indulge a slight stadium fetish; however, I do think they provide great examples for how our identities, attitudes and actions can be shaped by the built environment. A branding exercise writ large in brick, if you will.