Spanish football sits at the top of the international and club game, but all is not well. The perilous financial state of La Liga’s top clubs has been well documented, and whilst Spain’s best continue to shine on the pitch, many of the structures that surround them are not fit for purpose. The modern facilities that have become a feature of so many northern European and Stateside arenas have passed the vast majority of Spanish football clubs by. In Spain’s top flight only Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu and Espanyol’s new stadium at Cornellà-El Prat can be classed as truly modern arenas. Other clubs such as Real Mallorca, Malaga & Granada have moved or rebuilt stadiums in the past decade, but are not happy with their lot and would like to move on.
|A diamond in the rough – Espanyol’s Estadi Cornellà-El Prat |
So why have so many Spanish stadiums slipped behind the times and what are the clubs looking to do about it? Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward, as many of Spain’s top club’s do not own their own stadium. Looking at this season’s Primera, ten clubs play in a stadium owned by the local municipality and with Spain’s national economy on a life-support machine, no local council in its right mind is going to splash the cash on a new football arena. That doesn’t explain a chronic lack of investment in infrastructure when Spain’s economy was booming. With parallels to Aesop’s fable, too many Spanish grasshoppers played football in the sun, whilst their more prudent neighbours invested money in their homes. Big money signings and high wages have powered Spain to the top of the club and international rankings, but with the club's coffers empty, debts high and the banks knocking at the door, there is little appetite for developing a stadium.
|Zaragoza’s La Romareda is typical of La Liga’s antiquated arenas |
And then there is the Television contract. Modern top flight football and its finances is driven by TV money, but whilst leagues such as the Bundesliga and the English Premier League distribute the earnings pretty evenly, Spain’s television deal smacks of a duopoly, depriving the smaller clubs of any hope of developing some financial muscle. Spain last experienced a boom in stadium development prior to the 1982 World Cup when the country’s foremost arenas underwent major refurbishment. Alarmingly, the stadiums used by Barcelona, Real Zaragoza, Celta Vigo, Atlético Madrid & Sevilla appear to be stuck in a time warp, unchanged since the tournament, but for the addition of a few more seats. Other teams such as Levante, Rayo Vallecano and Real Valladolid play in stadiums that are over 25 years old and have not altered since opening. Osasuna, Real Betis and Valencia have at least cobbled together some new structures, but none can be called cutting edge.
|Great from a distance, but many of Spain's stadia don't do close-ups|
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Many of Spain’s teams have formulated plans for new stadia, but for three clubs, these plans amount to something more than a pipe-dream. Step forward Athletic Club de Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and Valencia, who have all started work on their own modern arenas. Valencia’s development on the Avenida Cortes Valencianas is the most widely publicised and the structure that has advanced furthest. However, the club’s near financial meltdown has seen work halted on the site since the summer of 2009. In January 2012, the club came to an agreement with their bank to reduce the debt by a further €100m and then in June, agreed revised plans with the local city council for the development of the Mestalla site. Work is due to restart on the new stadium in September, but whether it will feature all the whistles and bells of the original plan is still open to debate. Even with a fair wind behind it, any move away from the historic Mestalla still appears to be a couple of years off.
|No money, big problems - Valencia’s half-built stadium|
Much to the anger of many of Atético Madrid’s supporters, their club has started work on converting the Estadio de la Comunidad or La Peineta to a 67,000 seat stadium. The move is not popular with Atléti’s fan base as its location is way across to the north east of Madrid, well away from their heartland. The 200 million euro construction will make use of the existing structure at the old athletics stadium, and will be paid for by the sale of the land on which the current Estadio Vicente Calderon stands. There are problems however. The size of Atléti's debt, currently estimated at upward of €500m makes any development of this nature seem foolhardy. The disgruntled fans have also successfully challenged the plans to develop the site of the Calderón, pointing out that any development in that part of Madrid cannot be over four stories in height. Therefore, one expects that the club's estimate of opening the stadium in 2015, to be well wide of the mark, particularly as little has happened since the over-hyped clearance of the site.
|Atlético Madrid’s proposed new build is due to open in 2015 |
Athletic Club de Bilbao is expected to move to its new stadium in the spring of 2014. Built on wasteland next to their existing home, the San Mamés Barria will be a 200 million euro, 54,000 seat stadium. Such is its close proximity, the final phase will not be completed until the old San Mamés has been demolished. This will result in Athletic initially playing in a horse-shoe shaped arena that has a capacity of 36,000. Once the iconic old stadium is finally levelled, the southern end of the new stadium will be enclosed. Regrettably, the new stadium will not incorporate that iconic symbol of the club, the San Mamés arch. Athletic did however place a piece of San Mamés' turf and a tile of the old facade in an urn to preserve memories and elements of La Catedral forever. A classy touch from a classy club.
|Athletic’s new & old will stand side by side for a few short months |
If all goes to plan, these arenas will be operational within the next few seasons, and whilst Spain would have lost three of its most recognisable stadiums, it would also have gained three world class facilities, and who knows, maybe this will trigger the start of a new era of stadium development?