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10 Fascinating grounds

Friday 9th February 2018

I’ve always been fascinated by stadiums. Not just the ones that house teams I love. I’ve taken in batting practice at Yankee Stadium, seen the post-Pele Cosmos at the Meadowlands (still boasting Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Vladislav Bogicevic), and watched Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler, and Lanny MacDonald slog through another lost NHL season from the nosebleeds at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Yet, even before I thought to seek out venues, it seemed I would stumble across a welcoming park in the oddest places.

When I left New York for Florida, low on cash, high on dreams, I had to take the Greyhound. It paused just after sunrise in Richmond, Virginia. The local minor league stadium, The Diamond, was right across the street. With an hour before the bus pulled out, I vaulted a low fence and sat in the bleachers, eating a MacDonald’s breakfast, watching the sprinklers water the field. Life couldn’t have been better, even without a game.

When I began crewing on yachts I found myself in Merida, Mexico, throwing back Negra Modelos while el Leones de Yucatan played nine at the Kukulcan Alamo.

A stop in the Azores during an Atlantic crossing left time for lunch in the stands belonging to Angustia AC, at the foot of a volcano wrapped in mist. The club was not on the island at the time. Hiking up the lava creek that spills out on the beach next to the stadium with a curious dog for company turned out to be an acceptable alternative.

Those happy accidents have led me to envy the groundhopper. On the one hand, it’s special to love a club. If you’re lucky, you see yours play live week in, week out, or even just once in your lifetime. But having other experiences with which to compare… the tribalist misses out on those.

So, leaving off Old Trafford, because United is my club, here are ten grounds I’d put on my groundhopping bucket list:

Stade des Martyrs -- Kinshasa, Congo DR

With no offense to the fine people of the former Zambia, this isn’t a choice made out of appreciation for architecture or AS Vita, the home side. The stadium is a round, yawning concrete monolith with artificial grass. Ugh.

As with several choices on this list, it’s the name that really intrigues. I understand the honour attached to self-sacrifice. At the same time, it seems to be courting disaster to name your sporting home after people hopelessly on the losing side.

Somehow, the Black Dolphins have mostly avoided bad luck. They've won 13 Linafoot league titles, 9 Congo Cups, and an African Cup of Champions Clubs, all since 1970. Not a bad haul.

Candlestick Park -- San Francisco, California

Speaking of martyrs, this is the ground I will never get to see. It was demolished in 2015.

Candlestick was the erstwhile home of the San Francisco Giants (baseball) and 49ers (NFL). Sitting right on the bay, it was famous for swirling winds and the occasional thick fog. It was a hardly a colourful place. Rather, it was dingy, damp, and gray. Any candles lit would quickly be snuffed out. But you were almost always guaranteed to see something unusual. Home run balls hitting a wall of wind, then falling harmlessly in the grass in right field. Soft fly balls carrying out of the park in left. In the same game.

The Giants now play at AT&T Park, which is also on the bay. It’s still on the chilly side, but more vibrant. It would be a delight to join the regatta in McCovey Cove, on the other side of the right field wall, waiting in our kayaks, dinghies, and million-dollar yachts to fish home run balls from the drink.

Vicarage Road -- Watford, UK

It’s the name again, although Watford showed the Premier League something by dismissing Chelsea 4-1 on Monday evening.

There are (or were) any number of English grounds named for avenues presumably, but not always, just outside the stadium. Portman, Elland, and Carrow Roads. White Hart and Brammall Lanes. Leicester City used to play at Filbert Street, the nutters.

For me, though, the image of a love-struck couple going down the Vicarage Road to get hitched, only to encounter a football match, tickles my fancy. The groom would probably be fine. The bride would be fuming. Maybe the Vicar could put his whistle aside at halftime to perform the nuptials?

Anfield -- Liverpool, UK

This one is going to upset some people I know. To whom I say, eff off.

For a sport dubbed the beautiful game, there is far too much hate being thrown about. Read the appalling online commentary that emerges when Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, or Antonio Conte hit a rough patch. Who would ever want to be Arsene Wenger? I’m not going to repeat the unbridled racism I saw tweeted at Tiemoue Bakayoko after the Watford match. Get out of your club? News flash, bub. Unless you are the one doing the collecting, rather than the paying, you've completely misunderstood what 'your club' means. Even then keep that crap between you and Tony Henry.

The only time I will ever root for Liverpool to win is when it’s in United’s interest. That said, there is no reason not to offer the respect deserved. The two clubs aren’t all that different when you apply the objective side of the brain. Each has overcome a great tragedy. They've won all those titles. Had the most brilliant managers. Sir Matt Busby was a decent Liverpool player before he was a legendary United gaffer. A debt of thanks is owed there. There are even a handful of players who have pulled on both shades of red.

Derbies should be like a sibling rivalry. You always want to outdo your brother or sister, be the better, stand out. But, like it or not, you are also defined by one another.

The grounds are different, though. Anfield is smaller, more intimate. It’s a shame the surrounding neighbourhood has been pushed back. Character lost.

And the Kop. Again with the names. Ernest Edwards was the sports editor for the Post/Echo back in the day. He dedicated the stand after a steep hill that was prized in the Boer War. Even a United fan has to appreciate. That. is. Tradition.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to walk through the wrought iron entrance. To enter the home of the Enemy. Lord of the Rings fans will tell you Mordor had a Black Gate as well. The Morannon. Even Frodo and Sam hadn’t the courage to go that way. Could I do it? To see the next Dimitar Berbatov crumble Barad-dûr with a bicycle kick? All day long.

Ibrox -- Glasgow, Scotland

The Old Firm is yet another steeped rivalry. Celtic fans may be upset I’ve chosen a side, but Rangers call to me. Born in New York, raised in Canada, cultured in hockey, the Rangers of both New York and Kitchener always teased at my loyalty to the Leafs. Circumstance, not choice, has since led me to see more games in the Madison Square Garden than the Maple Leafs’ version.

Mostly though, it’s intense curiosity to see a stadium known as the badger’s den. That is how Ibrox translates from both Gaelic and Auld Aenglisc. Added bonus. After having seen the legendary ground, I would have the opportunity to come back to the US, tell someone in a pub that I’ve been to the Badger’s Den, then wait for them to ask how I liked Wisconsin.

Estadio Monumental -- Buenos Aires, Argentina

While we’re crossing enemy lines, let’s journey from the UK to Argentina. There are two great stadiums to visit in Buenos Aires. The first is monumental. Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti is the full name. It is a monument on more than one level.

Home to River Plate, the storied ground has witnessed 36 Argentine title campaigns and 16 of the international variety. Not surprisingly, the club’s name is derived from the distinctly British and American shortcoming of not paying complete attention to the locals when abroad. River Plate is the angilicised translation of Rio Plata. It was pasted on shipping crates where the club’s founder first encountered dock workers having a lunchtime kickabout.

Silver river is the correct translation, Argentines not being particularly famous for exported dinnerware. However, someone on the far side of the Atlantic, probably a Scouser on the Liverpool docks, gave up halfway through, and there you have it. History.

La Bombonera -- Buenos Aires

You want names? This has to be the all-time greatest for a stadium. Shaped like the chocolate box to which Bombonera translates, the ground is three traditional stands surrounding a vertical one. Talk about your kop.

In terms of silverware, it isn’t quite monumental. Boca Juniors is the Liverpool to River Plate’s Man United. La Mitad Mas Uno have won 32 league titles, six Copa Libertadores, two Copa Sudamericas, four Recopa Sudamericas, and three Intercontinental Cups. La Azul y Oro don't quite match the Rojiblancos for titles but they give their rivals all they can handle when it comes to crowd support. You want intense? The fencing surrounding the Bombonera pitch, which only serves as additional seating, gives every contest the feel of a no-holds-barred steel cage match.

Some great names have passed through La Bombonera. Juan Roman Riquelme. Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Walter Samuel. Carlos Tevez. A short fireplug of a player who called himself Diego Maradona. He wasn't bad. The player who best understood the essence of la Bombonera, though, was Martin Palermo. For ten years, the striker had to live with the shame of missing three penalties in one Copa America match for Argentina. Then, in 2009, he made people forget. In a home match against Velez Sarsfield, the visitors' keeper came out to clear a dangerous ball. He kicked it directly to Palermo, who bombed in a header from 40 metres. Instant legend.

In addition to the history attached to club and ground, Boca Junior also reminds me of my sister. She was the younger and had a bit of a mouth, if we're being honest. If you’re around when she reads this, you’ll see what I mean.

The Gabba -- Brisbane, Australia

Listing this one next isn’t piling on, Lisa, I swear. Australia just seemed a good place to go while you cool off. The Gabba is the more common name for the Brisbane Cricket Ground. It comes from the stadium’s location in the Woolloongabba suburb, where it’s home to the Brisbane Heat cricket side and Aussie Rules football club, Brisbane Lions. Appropriately enough, it's situated on Vulture Street. If you decide to come all this way, 42,000 people can watch you pick my bones.

The Bird’s Nest -- Beijing, China

Beijing isn’t as far away as Oz, but it’s trickier to get a visa. I might be safer there.

The Bird’s Nest is the newest stadium in the list. Opened in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics, it hasn’t had time to build a strong tradition.

Other than pre-season friendlies featuring UEFA clubs, the Nest now mostly hosts concerts. Chinese Super League side Beijing Sinobo Guoan was supposed to move in after the Olympics. The club changed its mind, claiming it would be “embarrassing” to use the 80.000 seater for matches that only attracted 10,000 fans. Instead, the Imperial Guards now play at the 66,000-capacity Workers Stadium. Apparently, embarrassment comes in different shades.

The Bird’s Nest was also intended as a Wembley-esque home for Team Dragon. Yet, the national side rarely uses it. Their famous March, 2017 win over South Korea came in the He Long Sports Centre in Changsha, Hunan.

It’s a shame for the stadium to go to waste. The design is sublime. The pitch inside is still painted with white lines at right angles but the twiggy nest motif on the exterior emulates the free-flowing nature of the best football. And the name. Team Dragon manager Marcelo Lippi is essentially nurturing a group of hatchlings who are still learning to fly in top-level international football.

The 1.4 billion strong nation is being touted for the 2030 World Cup. The CSL is developing homegrown talent. All that is lacking is a focal point for Chinese football. The Bird’s Nest is ideal.

Gospin Dolac -- Imotski, Croatia

The last place on the list takes us from a technical marvel no one visits to a natural one few can. The Gospin Dolac is a 4,000 seat venue in Croatia, home to NK Imotski in the country’s third tier. In 2007, the club ran afoul FIFA, Croatian Football, and national laws regarding its sponsor’s logo. The kit sold extremely well but closely resembled the symbol for the region’s Nazi-supported WWII regime.

While the team may not be spectacular, and the bigoted element in its support rather ugly, the stadium itself is beautiful. Carved into a natural valley and surrounded by rocky cliffs, the view is breathtaking even when the football is not.

In Wales, Newport County fans famously built scaffolding outside Rodney Parade to watch Michael Flynn’s Exiles fight to a one-goal draw against Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. Groundhoppers who travel to Dalmatia for an Imotski match would be better advised to purchase a ticket unless they are experienced rock climbers. Falling down the table, even as rapidly as Huddersfield, is far less catastrophic than trying to sneak into the Gospin Dolac.

[ps. I love my sister]

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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