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Thursday, September 21, 2006
Updated: June 4, 4:03 PM ET
World Soccer Stadiums

By Steve Wilson
Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Grovelling caveat time: Selecting a top ten from the myriad stages for a global sport with over a century of rich history is a task as thankless as it is ultimately futile. A poll of 100 followers of the game would likely throw up 100 different responses and I apologize in advance if your own sacred ground is conspicuous by its absence.

To aid in the selection process I have limited one entry per country, but this is not without its own problems, leading as it did to the omission of such footballing Meccas as Old Trafford in Manchester, Bernabeu in Madrid, Stade Velodrome in Marseille, Westfalenstadion in Dortmund and Hampden in Glasgow... the list goes on and on.

Sheer architectural reverence was also eschewed in favor of factors such as history and atmosphere, but even still there is no room for Ibrox or Parkhead in Glasgow, though to include Rangers without Celtic or vice versa is a folly too fraught with danger anyway.

Space precluded naming every ground worthy of a visit but those that made the cut -- listed in no particular order -- I hope, are demonstrably worth their place, regardless of the merits of those not included.

ESTADIO AZTECA, MEXICO CITY, MEXICO
If size really does matter then Estadio Azteca sits atop any list of the world's football cathedrals. With a capacity of 126,000, the sheer scale of the place merits a visit. But the stadium's standing on the world stage is more than a mere function of statistics.

Azteca is the only ground in history to have played host to two World Cup finals. First in 1970, when Pele's Brazil dismantled Italy in a display of passing football unsurpassed since in the showpiece game; and then in 1986 when Maradona arguably outdid his only serious rival for the "greatest of all time" label by virtually winning the trophy for Argentina single-handedly.

Those two tournaments also threw up two of the most talked about games in history. The 1970 semifinal between Germany and Italy, which the Italians eventually won 4-3 after extra-time, is known -- especially in Italy, it should be said -- as the "game of the century", while Maradona's angel-and-devil performance against England in 1986, including a goal consistently heralded as the World Cup's best as well as the infamous "Hand of God" goal, revealed everything you needed to know about the Argentine legend.

In the towering environs of the Azteca you are not so much bathing in history as drowning in it.

Home to club sides America and Atlante, as well as the national team, a derby between the two or any matchup with visiting teams from Guadalajara guarantees atmosphere, if perhaps not a full house. For that, maybe wait for the next time the U.S. national team visits town; 110,000 were in attendance when Mexico held off its bitter continental rival 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier in March, 2005.

LA BOMBONERA (ESTADIO ALBERTO J. ARMANDO), BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
It was perhaps no coincidence that plans for a cemetery in the grounds of the home stadium of Boca Juniors were first unveiled when their most famous son, Diego Maradona, was flirting with the reaper. Thankfully, the greatest-ever practitioner of the game still walks among us, but the plans still went ahead. Visiting the cemetery -- a reaction to overwhelming numbers of fans' families requesting to spread ashes of loved ones on the famous turf -- gives you an idea of the fervor of Boca's fans and provides an unusual addition to the match-day experience.

Cradle to grave you are a Boca fan and La Bombonera -- the Chocolate Box -- is where you worship. First opened in 1940, and with a subsequently enhanced capacity of around 58,000, the stadium's official name comes from a former president who paid for the most recent improvements at the turn of the century.

The intimidating atmosphere, most in evidence when despised city rivals River Plate -- the upmarket sophisticates to Boca's earthy working-class heroes -- visit. Rivalling, some say surpassing, the enmity between Real and Barca, and Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, this is no place for the faint-hearted. Despite the token gentrification, the ground still has a ramshackle feel, with huge areas of terracing populated by banner-waving, die-hard supporters, where temperatures rise and blood boils at the slightest perceived injustice, of which there are many each match. Football red in tooth and claw.

ESTADIO CENTENARIO, MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY
For the football fan with any sense of history, a visit to Estadio Centenario in Montevideo is a must. Built to host the first-ever World Cup finals held in Uruguay in 1930, as well as to celebrate 100 years of Uruguayan independence -- hence the name -- Centenario stands as a monument to the brash ambitions of a sport that, since the stadium's creation, can legitimately claim to have conquered the world.

Around 100,000 people crammed into the classically uncomplicated concrete bowl, marked by a towering spire piercing the Montevideo skyline, to see the hosts come back from a goal behind to beat fierce rivals Argentina 4-2 in that inaugural final as Uruguay became the first-ever world champions. Already passionately followed in South America and Europe, the game has spread its influence in the intervening 75 years, undergoing many changes, but Centenario still stands, largely unaltered, save for a reduced capacity of just 76,000 now, as a tangible link between present and past.

The game to see, if you can get a ticket, is the classico of Penerol against Nacional. Both clubs, claiming to be the oldest officially recorded in South America, call the place home. And if that powder-keg match fails to ignite the senses, a position in the Amsterdam stand allows a reasonable view into two nearby smaller stadiums, Central Espanyol and Miramar Misiones, where games take place at the same time.

ALLIANZ ARENA, MUNICH, GERMANY
Where the Centenario is draped in history, the Allianz Arena is undeniably looking to the future. Giving the impression of a cylindrical inflatable space ship having landed in Bavaria, the near-70,000 capacity stadium has been dubbed the Schlauchboot, or "inflatable boat", by locals who emphatically endorsed the project in a referendum before the go-ahead was given for construction.

Its otherworldly appearance is born of a façade built of 2,874 ethylene tetrafloroethylene (EFTE) foil panels that can, at the flick of a switch, glow red, blue or white, depending on whether it is German champions Bayern Munich, second division TSV 1860 Munich -- the two sides who play their home games here -- or the national team who are playing. The panels, which give the venue its distinctive look, are self-cleaning and heat- and cold-resistive; all a far cry from the concrete and steel of its peers of the previous century.

Constructed in under three years at a cost of 340 million Euros (approximately $430 million U.S.), the stadium -- which usurped the historic Olympic Stadium as the city's home of football -- was inaugurated in 2005 and used for the opening game of the 2006 World Cup as well as other matchups, including a semifinal.

Originally equally owned by the two club sides, financial hardship led to TSV selling its share to Bayern to avoid liquidation, though they have the right to repurchase before 2010.

A three-tier structure containing a standing area that can be seated for European matches (the German FA allows for safe standing during league games, demonstrating a keen understanding of tradition even as they embrace the future), reducing the capacity to 66,000, a sculptured park linking transport hubs to the stadium and the chance to watch the most successful team in the country's history (and TSV) should have the football tourist salivating at the prospect of a visit.

LOBANOVSKY DYNAMO STADION, KIEV, UKRAINE
The home of Dynamo Kiev may appear something of an unassuming curiosity amid a list of soccer monoliths and, to a point, it is. The ground itself, named after the legendary Dynamo coach Valeri Lobanovsky, has a capacity under 20,000 and many of Dynamo's Champions League encounters are even switched away from the ground, situated in a picturesque park down by the Dnipro river bank, to the far-bigger national stadium. The reason for a visit here goes beyond bricks and mortar.

In the summer of 1942 when the city was under Nazi occupation a group of players from the Dynamo team, together with members of the Lokomotiv side, formed a team called Start FC. Their occupiers suggested a match against an army side which Start, starving and downtrodden though they were, easily won. Embarrassed, the Germans hastily arranged further matches against better army teams that Start continued to win, all too briefly raising the spirits of Ukrainians in the bleakest of times.

Eventually the Nazis arranged two matches against their finest, Flakelf, made up of members of the Luftwaffe. Aware of the consequences of winning the second, what has become known as the "death match", Start again won, just as they had the first, and were promptly taken to brutal works camps from which many did not return.

This noble act of defiance in the face of the most terrible circumstances is commemorated by a statue outside the stadium, and for this alone it is worth a visit. Football is not, as someone once said, more important than life or death, but on occasion it transcends mere sport.

Touching the statue is also said to bring good fortune to newlyweds if you fancy convincing your significant other to make Ukraine your honeymoon destination of choice.

CAMP NOU, BARCELONA, SPAIN
FC Barcelona boldly claim to be "more than a club" and the Camp Nou can likewise be characterized as more than a stadium. First opened in 1957, the idea to construct what is still the biggest football stadium in Europe was first voiced seven years earlier, when it became clear that the club, an emotive symbol for Catalan identity, had outgrown its former home of Les Corts, a 60,000 sellout every week.

Initially able to house around 90,000 passionate fans, subsequent renovation -- most notably when the capacity was raised to 115,000 for the 1982 World Cup finals -- have turned an already impressive venue into a must-see stadium for all football fans. Even if there is no game on, the excellent museum charts the history of one of the greatest and most storied club sides on the planet.

Approaching the stadium from the surrounding streets, the true majesty of the arena is not easily appreciated, thanks to the pitch being sunk below ground-level to accommodate more seating than the 45-meter-high exterior walls would suggest possible. But once inside, a combination of the building's grandeur and near-rabid support from the club's fans make for a potent mix.

A venue for numerous European and domestic finals over the years, the late Pope John Paul II conducted a mass at the ground in 1982 -- another full house for that one -- as he became number 108,000 of the club's expansive membership.

When hated rivals Real Madrid are in town the place reverberates with the best (and some might argue worst) of European football fan culture. The tickets are like gold dust but if you manage to scalp one, don't forget to pack a pig's head or two to blend in as one of the locals.

AZADI STADIUM, TEHRAN, IRAN
Tehran may not be high on many people's lists of must-visit destinations at the moment, and for good reason. Yet, should the opportunity arise, a trip to watch the national team play an important match at the Azadi Stadium would enrich your experience of what fandom means more than you might imagine.

Despite the volatile history of the Middle Eastern state, soccer has remained an integral part of the culture. Iranians are as wildly passionate, frenzied fans as you can find anywhere in the world. You may have heard different recently, but attendance remains the preserve of men; though that doesn't stop some intrepid female fans from disguising themselves to gain entry.

Though a simple bowl concrete structure, the stadium is a breathtaking site. Situated west of the capital, an lavishly arcing, slightly raised outer shell appears to give way as sweeping stands sink down to pitch side, as if the ground collapsed during building.

With an official capacity of 100,000, on the big occasions the crowd swells well beyond that. The design of the stadium amplifies the noise across the pitch, and the energy and volubility of the masses creates an atmosphere for which the word "intimidating" is wholly inadequate. One for the adrenaline junkies only.

ESTADIO DO MARACANA, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
A monument to football befitting the country's undeniable place at the summit of the game. It was at the Maracana that Pele made his debut in the famous green-and-yellow shirt of Brazil; it was here where, on November 19, 1969, the same player scored his 1000th professional goal (a penalty converted for Santos against Vasco de Gama) that prompted a mass pitch invasion of wild celebration; and it was here where over 200,000 Brazilians were silenced by what became known as the Maracanazo (aka, the Maracana Blow), one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.

The stadium was built to be the biggest and grandest in the world in time for Brazil hosting the 1950 World Cup finals. An official capacity of 180,000 was belied by the reported 220,000 present to see the "final" -- actually the decisive game in a league format -- between the hosts and Uruguay; the biggest-ever attendance for a football match.

With Brazil needing only a draw, when they went 1-0 up the party started, but two late goals by Uruguay stunned the majority of the crowd.

After several face lifts and renovations, today's Maracana boasts a more modest 100,000 capacity, but the galaxy of stars that have graced the pitch in the intervening years ensure the reverence for the arena is undiminished.

Home to three club sides -- Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminese -- as well as cup and national team matches, it is the "Fla-Flu" classico that, above all others, whets the appetite, and is rightly regarded as one of the biggest and brashest fixtures on the South American sporting calendar.

WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON, ENGLAND
Probably best leave 'til last a visit to football's spiritual home. The "old" Wembley - described by Pele as "the church of football" - was torn down back in 2001 but, five years later, with costs spiralling towards the £800 million mark (approximately $1.5 billion U.S.), the date when a game might next actually be held there is still anyone's guess.

Nonetheless, there is every reason to believe that, once it is finally finished, the "new" Wembley will have been worth the wait.

Despite its memories and heritage, the previous incarnation had been sick for some time. Poor sight lines, inadequate facilities and difficult transport links regularly soured the visiting experience. With a raft of new stadiums popping up all around the world, Wembley had nothing but past glories to keep her going. But what glories they were.

Home to the final of the oldest cup competition in the world, the FA Cup; host for England's sole World Cup triumph; witness to George Best dancing round the Benfica defence to put Manchester United on its way to their its European Cup victory in 1968; and then Barcelona's first European Cup triumph 23 years later; Germany coming to the home of football and taking the European Championship trophy home in 1996 -- the list goes on.

But progress cannot be stopped and when the venue opens its doors to football again, a phoenix rising over twice as high out of the ashes as that which stood before, the country is promised a national stadium to be proud of. For now we'll have to take their word for it.

SAN SIRO (GIUSEPPE MEAZZA STADIUM), MILAN, ITALY
Perhaps the construction company behind Wembley could learn something from the 120 builders who took just 13 months to construct the San Siro in Milan. As with much of Italian football in its early years, the place originally had an English feel when opened in 1926, with a traditional square box ground unrecognisable from the soaring structure that stands today.

Five subsequent phases of development have brought the capacity up to 85,700 and created the distinctive steep sides and criss-cross shadows that stalk across the pitch during a late Italian afternoon. The most significant change was engendered by Italy's hosting of the World Cup in 1990 -- they had previously held the 1934 vintage where San Siro was also used -- which led to a third tier being added and the now-familiar 11 separate towers that support its bloated height.

As is common in Italy, both the city's teams call the place home and an Inter-Milan derby, of which more than 250 have been played out in the stadium, captures the imagination, though when Juventus visit (you'll have to wait until next season, at least, for that to happen, of course) passions run almost as high.

Whether they are winning World Cups or embroiling themselves in match-fixing scandals, life is never dull in the world of calcio and so no pilgrimage to the various homes of football would be complete without stopping off in this part of Southern Europe.