Stadi Nel Cielo: The Italian Stadia You’ll Never Visit

In gaining the right to host the 1990 World Cup, Italy unwittingly became victim of the fabled “winner’s curse”. Ahead of the tournament, the country invested heavily to bring their stadiums up to the global standard, only for the frontier to swiftly advance in the years that followed. As the game of football moved upmarket and commercialisation took hold, the focus of stadium design increasingly shifted towards spectator comfort, sight lines and corporate amenities. The legacy of the Italia ‘90 tournament was a raft of deeply characterful, but ultimately outdated stadia.

Since then, efforts to make up ground with the rest of the world have frequently come to nothing. For every gleaming Juventus Stadium there has been a host of unfulfilled designs which made it no further than the drawing board. Many of these designs had their fate sealed by glacial planning processes and myopic municipal authorities seeking to protect their own interests. Unlike the UK, the majority of stadia in Italy are in public ownership and have consequently suffered from chronic under-investment. Some clubs have strived to free themselves from the tyranny of this regime, where the incentives for the municipality to approve planning applications which would render their own assets obsolete are complicated, to say the least. All too frequently, stadium plans have fizzled out at the end of an entrenched legal battle.

More recently pragmatism has kicked in, with a growing trend of incremental improvement; Atalanta have purchased their stadium and are developing it in instalments, similarly, Udinese have redeveloped three sides of their Stadio Friuli. In Parma, Napoli and Bologna, stop-gap measures have seen the stadia benefit from more cosmetic facelifts.  Only time will tell as to whether the current raft of more radical stadium development proposals in Milan, Rome, Florence, Verona and Bologna will ever come to fruition.

In this article, we take a look back at some of the mythical beasts of Italian stadium design from recent decades…

Stadio Palermo (2007) – 35,000, €75-300 million

This was the vision of former Palermo president and entrepreneur Maurizio Zamparini; it was to be built on the site of the velodrome in the Zen area of the city. The plan was to catapult Palermo into the 21st Century with an out of town location (conveniently adjacent to a shopping centre also owned by Zamparini), with the possibility of generating revenue 7 days per week through an adjoining sports centre, bars, restaurants and a gym. The design was heralded for its eco credentials and benefitted from input from the architects who worked on the Juventus Stadium.

It took several years for the design to receive planning consent, but it didn’t come soon enough. In December 2018, Zamparini sold up at Palermo, with the club slipping into bankruptcy shortly afterwards. With the rosanero starting again in Serie D, the new owners have set their sights on a prospective revamp of their existing Stadio Renzo Barbera home.

AC Milan (2015) – 48,000, €300-320 million

Few projects have the potential to generate heated debate in the same was as a mooted departure from the iconic San Siro. This concept was designed to be sympathetic to its urban environment in the Portello area of the city, located adjacent to Casa Milan and a stone’s throw from Arena Civica. It doesn’t particularly resemble a stadium from the outside, enveloped as it is in sound-proofed apartments, offices and shops. The playing surface and lower tier are located below ground level, meaning that the stadium, complete with retractable roof, would only have extended 30 metres above ground.

Shortly after the plan was launched, president Silvio Berlusconi cast doubt on the stadium’s prospects, citing problems encountered with the municipality. This was certainly one of the more ephemeral episodes of stadium-gazing. Within twelve months the plans were dead, with Berlusconi switching his attention back to the possibility of redeveloping the San Siro.

Stadio delle Aquile, Lazio (2004) – 55,000

Whilst it is Roma who currently appear to be making strongest progress on the stadium front in the Eternal City, just over a decade ago it was Lazio who were advancing plans to leave the Stadio Olimpico and set up home in the northern Prima Porta area. The designs included the (now familiar) proposition of multi-use amenities to enable year-round revenue generation. The unique aspect of Lazio’s plans was the “sports citadel”, intended to house the various chapters of Lazio’s sporting society; from rugby to softball, and swimming to parachuting.

Ultimately, the plans were extinguished when the municipality objected to the construction of a stadium on the floodplain of the Tiber. It was land that was, incidentally, owned by the family of then-president Claudio Lotito. At the time, the president resisted pressure from supporters and authorities to consider a redevelopment of the iconic Stadio Flaminio as an alternative.

Karalis Arena, Cagliari (2011) – 23,000, €45 million

Cagliari have long been plotting their move away from the decaying Stadio Sant’Elia. This proposed new stadium formed part of Italy’s failed bid to host Euro 2016. It was the proposed location, close to Elmas airport in the north of the city, proved to be a stumbling block as the civil aviation authorities objected vigorously to its construction.

The club persevered with legal wrangles until 2014, when they definitively dropped the plans in favour of some modifications to the Sant’Elia. It’s fair to say that Cagliari’s plans have been somewhat fluid since then; they initially moved to Stadio Is Arenas for a single season (2012/13) before returning to a modified Sant’Elia. Since then, of course, Cagliari have moved over the road into a new, temporary home at the Sardegna Arena, while still harbouring aspirations to move to a more permanent successor soon.

Stadio Carlo Castellani, Empoli (2015) – 17,500, €11 million

Back in 2015, Empoli sought to go down the route of bringing their stadium into private ownership and redeveloping it. It was a modest project by the standards of others and involved retaining and improving both stands along the sides of the pitch. The athletics track was to be removed, and new curva constructed at either end to bring fans closer to the pitch. Three of the four corners were to be filled and a modern glass and steel wrap added to the venue.

The project was to be self-financed, funded in part by future revenues from new corporate and commercial facilities. However, the project proved not to be viable and, in 2017, the club hatched a new plan based on the incremental redevelopment of three sides of the stadium. Empoli’s new plans do not have quite the same architectural merit, but having cut their cloth accordingly, they stand a much better chance of being realised.

Stadio Filadelfia, Torino (1998) – 35,000 capacity, L40 billion

Torino played the final match at their iconic Filadelfia home in 1963. In the years that followed, the venue gradually slipped into a deeper state of disrepair as it was used by the club as a training ground. It was widely regarded as a tragedy that the spiritual home of the all-conquering Grande Torino team of the 1940s had been allowed to fade in this way. Happily, after decades of false starts, “Il Fila” was finally redeveloped into a modern training complex in 2015.

One of the (many) earlier visions for the site had been for the construction new 35,000 stadium. It was to be built in an English style with two high-capacity stands along the long sides of the pitch. One part of the existing site would have been turned over to a development of offices and retail, that was mildly reminiscent of Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. However, even with that enabling development, the project eventually proved too expensive to be viable.

Stadio Castello, Fiorentina (2008) – 40-50,000 capacity

In 2008, the Della Valle family presented ambitious plans for a new stadium complex in Florence. It not only incorporated the cliched retail space and restaurants, but went several steps further to include a museum of modern art and a football theme park dubbed the ‘EuroDisney of football’.

The project was to be located in the Castello district of the city, and was intended to propel Fiorentina onto the top table of European football. However, a corruption scandal (arguably another staple of Italian stadium development) ultimately scuppered the plans. Fiorentina have been trying ever since to cut turf on a new stadium, but as yet, without success.

Stadio Casoria, Napoli (1984) – 150,000, L10 billion

Back in 1984, President Ferlaino was hatching grand plans for Napoli. Having secured the services of Diego Maradona, he then set his sights on constructing a venue worthy of the world’s greatest player. He was certainly dreaming big and his ultimate ambition was to bring the World Cup Final to the people of Naples.

The new stadium to be based in the Casoria area of the city, would have hosted an incredible 150,000 spectators, with an acoustic design to amplify the voices of the curva. The vision was ahead of its time too, in so far as the plans for 400 executive suites, that would have been sold on long-term leases to well-heeled Napolitani. Sadly, we haven’t been able to track down any drawings of the stadium, but do get in touch if you can help!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, take a look at my calcio travel articles here.

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