Euro 2008 is only a few weeks away and, following on from the “startling” success of the piece on here about the kits that teams will be wearing next summer (I use both the words “startling” and “success” as relative concepts), there will be something going up on here about this summer’s festivities in Austria an Switzerland. UEFA’s motto for Euro 2008 appears to be, “for God’s sake, don’t let there be empty seats on display”. I’m unsure whether this is a lasting lesson learnt from Euro 96 (where some pitiful crowds saw group matches played out in cavernous arenas), but the principal aim of the stadia being used for this tournament seems to be to keep them small and, presumably, full. Only two of the eight stadia to be used have so much as a capacity of 40,000 (compared with five of the eight used in England twelve years ago), and the majority would look small if used in the Premier League.
In some ways, this is surprising – Austria and Switzerland are, if nothing else, very central, and one might have expected there to be high interest in tickets from all corners of Europe. Evidently, though, UEFA do not consider this to be a major problem, so the stadia used for Euro 2008 will be small but perfectly formed. Well, small, anyway. As per the tradition for co-hosted international tournaments, the split is equal, with four of the chosen locations being in Switzerland, and four in Austria, with the opening match being hosted in Switzerland and the final being in Austria. The restrictions on large stadia, however, mean that only two venues will be used from the quarter-finals on. This is, security-wise, a relatively high risk strategy for the organisers to have adopted, meaning that the supporters of eight countries will descend on just two cities, with four of them staying for the semi-finals and two for the finals. However, England’s absence probably reduces the likelihood of any significant trouble about ten-fold (although they wouldn’t have known this when the selections were made), so they might just about get away with it. We shall have to wait and see how chaotic this decision proves to be. Anyway, let’s have a look at what they have got to offer.
St Jakob-Park, Basel: The biggest stadium in Switzerland was built in 1998, replacing the St Jakob Stadium, which hosted the 1954 World Cup Final between West Germany and Hungary. It is, of course, the home of occasional European Cup interlopers FC Basel, so will be fairly familiar to those of us that watch the likes of Manchester United pummel the living daylights of very average European sides in the middle of October every year. The capacity of the stadium has been increased from 38,500 to 42,500 for these finals, and it will host a total of six matches (including the opening match of the competition between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, two quarter-finals and one semi-final). Whether any city could cope with such a schedule is open to question, but Basel has a population of 730,000, so it is probably bigger than most people think.
Stade De Suisse, Wankdorf: Now, stop laughing. The stadium itself may well have a funny sounding name, and, yes, it actually is the home of Young Boys Bern (you can see the club’s initials spelt out on the seating in the photo, if you squint), but it is a big issue to be playing matches here. Bern is, after the, the capital of Switzerland, in name if nothing else. It’s another relatively new stadium, having been built in 2004 and opened in January 2005 with a friendly between Young Boys and Olympique Marseille, and has a capacity of 32,000. One minor notable feature is a single, red seat inside the stadium, for which tickets cannot be purchased. The seat will usually be reserved for a dignitary or special guest.
Stade De Geneve, Geneva: As the home of FIFA, it is unsurprising that the Stade De Geneve was selected as one of the host stadia. With a capacity of just 30,084 seats, it will be the smallest stadium used at the finals this summer although, as you can see from the picture linked above, it does entertain some pretty spectacular views. It is the home of the fallen giants of Swiss football, Servette, who were declared bankrupt in 2005 and have only just been promoted back to the Swiss equivalent of the Championship. If it looks familiar to English supporters, it might just be because the Stade De Geneve was used to host the friendly match between England and Argentina in December 2005 (which might just have been the last decent ninety minutes of football that England played).
Letzigrund, Zurich: Euro 2008 found football in Zurich in a state of flux. Letzigrund has been the some of FC Zurich since 1925, but it is also the current home of the more famous Grasshoppers, who are using the venue while they have a new stadium built. It also doubles as Switzerland’s premier athletics stadium, hosting the annual Weltklasse Zurich athletics meeting, which is part of the International Amateur Athletics Federation’s annual roster of events. It has a capacity of 30,000, though how many paying customers will have a good view of the pitch is open to question, due to the vast distance between some of the seats and the pitch. All of the stadia above, by the way (apart from St Jakob-Park, of course), will be hosting three group matches only.
Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna: The biggest stadium being used in Euro 2008 (with 53,000 seats available), and the venue for the final of this summer’s tournament, the Ernst Happel is the national stadium of Austria. It isn’t the regular home of any Austrian clubs, though it does regularly host bigger home matches for Rapid Vienna and Austria Vienna, whose own grounds are somewhat more modest in their dimensions. It also acts as the home of the Austrian national team, and has hosted four European Cup finals as well as Manchester City’s sole European success – their 2-1 win against Gornik Zabrze in the 1970 European Cup Winners Cup final was played here. The stadium will host all three of Austria’s group matches, two quarter-finals, one semi-final and the final.
Hypo Group Arena, Klagenfurt: Klagenfurt am Worthersee is, arguably, the strangest choice as a venue for Euro 2008. A town with a population of just 90,000 people, questions have been raised over whether it has the infrastructure to cope with hosting two matches featuring Germany, as well as the match between Poland and Croatia, which could be classed as the potential flashpoint for crowd trouble at the championships. The town is better known in sporting circles as being the home of EC KAC, the 28 times winners of the national ice hockey championships, than for its football. The town’s football club, SK Austria Kärnten, was founded in 2007 after taking over the franchise of ASKÖ Pasching, who had been one of the less distinguished members of the Austrian Bundesliga. Hypo-Arena has a current capacity of 32,000, though this is to be reduced to 12,500 after the tournament has finished.
Stadion Wals-Siezenheim, Salzburg: Salzburg is, of course, the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for much of “The Sound Of Music” (let’s get these cliches out the way early), but has been best known in recent times for the controversial take-over of its town’s football club in 2005 by the soft drinks giants, Red Bull. Red Bull purchased Casino Salzburg, changing the club’s name and landing itself in hot water for trying to claim that “this is a new club with no history”. The old Casino club had won three Austrian Bundesligas and contested the 1994 UEFA Cup final, before losing to Internazionale. The Stadion Wals-Siezenheim has been expanded from 18,000 seats to 31,000 for the finals, but the more controversial aspect of it is that it has a plastic pitch, it will be the first time that a pitch with an artificial surface has been used for a finals match in a tournament of this stature. They’ll be hosting all three of Greece’s group matches.
Tivoli Neu, Innsbruck: It is a symbol of the economic crisis that has overshadowed Austrian football over the last ten years or so that Tivoli Neu is the home of yet another new club, founded after the bankruptcy of one of Austrian football’s better known names. When FC Tirol Innsbruck collapsed amid a flurry of bouncing cheques in 2002, FC Wacker Innsbruck were formed. They took just two years to reach the Austrian Bundesliga, where they remain today as a mid-table club. Tivoli Neu, as the name suggests, replaced the original Tivoli in 2000. The original was demolished four years later. It holds 30,000 people, and will host three group matches – Spain vs Russia and Sweden, and Russia vs Sweden.