Simon Smith looks at West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium, and asks whether it will prove a watershed moment in English football…
Everyone seems to have something to say about West Ham’s acquisition of the Olympic Stadium as their ground, and not a lot of it positive. The huge flaws in the plan, ranging from the enormous amount of work needed before the new ground is fit for purpose to the difficulty the club is likely to have in filling the seats, are still not quite daunting enough to have convinced Karen Brady and co that it isn’t a brilliant idea and for that I think West Ham deserve a little credit for their ambition. What’s really interesting about the move is that it bucks the English trend a little for stadia ownership. West Ham own the much loved Boleyn Ground, and here they are moving to a lease bought from the government.
In Italy, this is probably a move that would be met with disbelief. Serie A is a league full of large but unsuitable grounds not purpose built that teams want rid of. Juventus’ move out of the Stadio delle Alpi, built to 69 000 capacity for Italia 1990, to the much smaller Juventus Stadium in 2011 was a landmark moment for Italian Football. Having shared the old ground, and then the Stadio Olympico during its demolition, with local rivals Torino, Juventus became the only top flight club to own their own ground. This has been lauded as a model for other clubs, a big step in the right direction for Italian football. The parallels with West Ham’s move, effectively in the opposite, are startling.
The East London club has averaged a little under 35,000 attendance this season, with the official capacity only a little higher. Nonetheless questions remain about whether they will be able to expand that higher to fill the significantly bigger new stadium. Juventus on the other hand have significantly reduced their capacity to 41,000 in the ground switch, but in light of similar attendances at the larger delle Alpi have managed to give the same number of supporters a much better match experience. The closeness to the pitch makes a mockery of teams who have to make do with a running track and the atmosphere on matchday is excellent as a result, something Arsenal should really have taken into account when building the Emirates.
The bottom line is that the Juventus Stadium has been built for the fans, and not for revenue per se. The ground is state of the art and a million miles away from the crumbling, much neglected Upton Park but the style of both is strikingly similar: small, tight, in the heart of the community, atmospheric, square. And the similarities between the multi-purpose Olympic Stadium and Stadio delle Alpi should be apparent (as are the even more obvious parallels between the Olympic Stadium and Stadio Olympico).
Ownership of the ground is seldom seen as important in English football, with ownership of the club as a whole considered the bigger issue, but in Italy there would be alarm bells over the abandonment of an owned ground for a lease regardless of the amount of work needed for it. Cagliari have had another season of woes resulting from non-ownership of a ground: years of frustration at local authorities refusal to renovate the decrepit communally owned Stadio Sant’Elia resulted in the construction of a temporary stadium effectively made out of scaffolding, the Is Arenas. However safety concerns have resulted in a cap on attendance at 5,000 and, on several occasions, closed door matches with the fans listening to radios outside and cheering support. As a result some “home games” have been played 400 miles away in Parma in a bid to allow the fans to see the team, even if they need to traverse the entire country to do so.
OK it’s a little excessive to claim this will be the fate of West Ham. Oh the fools! Leaving their owned but run down ground for one they do not own outright, what will be their fate?In reality it’s more a question of ideal. Ownership is something Italian clubs want to do for the sake of doing it – a matter of pride – rather than a means to the end of security. It has become a part of Italian football culture in a way it hasn’t in England, where the increasingly consumerist Premier League has turned the once loved grounds into commodities we pay to visit. Yes the SkySportsLeague TM is an easy target, but the difference in fan outlook is striking: Juventus celebrated their new ground with an unbeaten season and then continued the unbeaten home run into the current season, while Arsenal have yet to complete the “Arsenalizaiton” of the Emirates. That’s a term the club has genuinely used on it’s website, and the process has involved building a shop, museum, clock and commemorative paving. It has not involved an improvement in atmosphere.
Are Gooners proud of the Emirates? I’m not so sure, perhaps a little but in a begrudging way and in far from the manner in which they loved Highbury. If they had no ground and then had a brand new second-largest-in-the-league stadium, it would be seen as the best thing the club had achieved in the last decade; but given that they have moved in a grass-is-greener type way from a historic ground they owned (and turned into flats) it doesn’t have that feeling. It has pride, but not the same Italian pride. The current Major of Udine was elected on the back of a campaign in which he made clear his intention to help Udinese to secure ownership of their own ground. In Udine the improvements on the stadium are a matter of pride for the fans even amid a decline in the team’s fortunes this season.
Meanwhile in the Premier League the vast majority of the teams own their own ground already and take it for granted, so it has no meaning or significance. Perhaps the biggest tell of this complacency is in the biggest English Clubs: Manchester City is the only Champions League qualifier since the competition’s creation not to own their own ground, with the possible exception of Leeds resulting from the ambiguity surrounding the Teak Trading Corporation owning Elland Road. Meanwhile both Milanese clubs are desperate to have a stadium of their own, even if it means leaving the historic San Siro, with Internazionale in ongoing talks with multiple Chinese Engineering firms over the possibility of constructing a new stadium. Whether it will happen remains to be seen, but to even think of leaving the San Siro surely points to the importance given to ground ownership.
As West Ham secure their long term future in the Olympic Stadium, Cagliari’s future looks uncertain and unlikely to be swiftly resolved. With ground soon to be broken in Udine, actually the day after the final home game, it will be interesting to see not only if any other Italian clubs can realize the dream of ground ownership in the coming years, but also if the trend is further reversed in the Premier League. With large clubs Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea all looking at ways to increase capacity, will we see a top six in the next few years full of new built Emirates Stadiums or council owned Etihads? Only one thing is certain: I can’t take the idea of more Middle Eastern airline names venues. Daallo Ailines Arena anyone?