The White Elephants of Italia ’90

For three glorious weeks in the summer of 1990, Italy was resplendent under the gaze of the watching world. The 1990 FIFA World Cup was a spectacle that perfectly encompassed the timeless beauty of a country and the boundless passion of its people. Those magical nights gave birth to a lifetime of memories. 

In throwing the party of the summer, the organising committee had blown the budget several times over. The bill ran to over 7000 billion Lire (around €4 billion) by the time the invoices came in. For that price, the nation could reasonably have expected a legacy that extended beyond memories alone. 

There’s no doubt an enchanting summer of football masked what had been a turbulent and, at times, calamitous planning process. No sooner had the tournament been awarded than projects began to slip behind schedule. What ensued was a burgeoning catalogue of dubious decisions, accusations of corruption, accidents and incompetence. 

They did get some things spectacularly right. For a brief moment, the investment had placed Italy at the vanguard of stadium design. However, this cruelly coincided with the beginning of football’s unstoppable march to modernise. Venues that had seemed futuristic in 1990, appeared badly dated by the end of the decade as football went upmarket. 

After the circus had left town, Italy was left with a legacy of outdated and under-used infrastructure and a financial hangover that lasted a quarter of a century. In this article, we recall the most infamous cases… 

Roman Stations 

The Olimpico-Farnesina rail stop was supposed to be the departure point for fans travelling from central Rome to the Stadio Olimpico. However, the 15 billion Lire project was characterised by a fatal miscalculation which meant the station could only accommodate a single line, instead of the planned two. Upon completion, it also became clear that the station’s location – a 1km walk from the stadium along a busy highway – was less than ideal. It saw service for just six matches before being closed down for good. 

Further along the same line in the north of the city, the Vigna Clara station was constructed at a cost of 80 billion lire. That suffered the same fate, closing straight after the end of the tournament. An investigation into irregularities in the construction of the two stations commenced but failed to result in prosecutions. In the case of Vigna Clara, there was to be a happy ending; in June 2022 the station was finally reopened, despite a prolonged legal campaign by residents concerned about the impact of vibrations on their homes. 

A new rail terminal was built at Rome’s busy Ostiense station to provide a direct link from the city centre to Fiumicino airport. The imposing architectural vision came with a 350 billion lire price tag. However, the forecast demand for the terminal failed to materialise and it gradually became redundant. For a short period, the building served as a homeless shelter before it was transformed into a flagship store for the upmarket gastronomy chain, Eataly. 

Napoli Light Rail System 

The plentiful budgets of the Italia ‘90 organising committee seemed like a gift from on high to the impoverished municipality of Naples. Their plans to create a light metro service across the city had been halted in the 1980s when the coffers ran dry. The arrival of football’s most prestigious tournament allowed the project to be revived, in part, with an underground section of the track to be completed between Piedigrotta and Viale Augusta in the west of the city. 

However, just a few months before the World Cup was due to start, the project encountered geological issues that hadn’t shown up on the surveys. In a remarkable move, they chose to cut the line short and build a new, temporary station a few hundred metres from its planned termination point. They got as far as testing the route in May 1990, but the line never fulfilled its destiny of transporting supporters to Stadio San Paolo. The temporary station, resembling a deep well with a precarious iron staircase, never received its safety certificate, causing the line to lay dormant until it was incorporated into what is now Metro Line 6 in the mid-2000s. 

Cathedrals In The Desert 

Many billions of lire were ploughed into revamping existing Italian stadia, several of which had been used the last time Italy hosted the World Cup in 1934. However, the cities of Turin and Bari were selected for cutting-edge new constructions. You’ll have to form your own opinion as to whether FIAT’s position as an official Italia ‘90 supplier or Antonio Matarrese’s dual role as president of Bari and the Italian Football Federation had any bearing on these decisions. 

The priors looked good for Bari. Renowned Genovese architect Renzo Piano, who had received plaudits for his work on Paris’ Pompidou Centre and would later be responsible for London’s Shard, was commissioned. For 153 billion lire he created a florally-inspired masterpiece, consisting of 26 elevated ‘petals’. But after hosting five World Cup matches and the 1991 European Cup Final it rapidly descended into disrepair. The problems were numerous; its unappealing out-of-town location, the inclusion of an athletics track (a condition of attracting funding from the Olympic Authorities) and the fragile roof structure were chief among them. Now playing host to Serie B football, it remains Italy’s third-largest stadium. 

In the north of the country, Stadio delle Alpi was delivered for an even greater price tag (226 billion lire) but failed for many of the same reasons. The public never warmed to a cavernous 69,000 capacity venue that was excessively large, even for a city that hosted the European champions in the mid-1990s. After years of disagreement between the tenant clubs and the municipality, both Torino and Juventus relocated to the refurbished Stadio Olimpico in 2006. Meanwhile, Juventus acquired the leasehold for Stadio delle Alpi, which enabled them to advance their plans to demolish and rebuild what is now the Allianz Arena. 

Napoli’s Top Tier

One of the stadiums receiving a makeover for the tournament was the 1950’s-era San Paolo in Naples. The Neapolitan project focused on the construction of an iron framework, built around the outside of the stadium to support a new roof structure and the installation of an additional tier of seats. 

The 16 million lire project was initially a success, but problems emerged some years later. It was found that raucous Napoli fans located in the top tier transmitted through the metalwork seismic waves that were dangerous to the integrity of the stadium and surrounding buildings. In 2005-06, the top tier was decommissioned and lain dormant ever since. 

Milan’s Hotel Mundial 

The south-eastern suburb of Ponte Lambro was chosen as the location for Milan’s flagship hotel owing to its leafy location and motorway access. It was to be a luxurious seven-floor construction, boasting 300 rooms for visiting supporters and dignitaries, coming in at a cost of 10 billion lire. But someone took their eye off the GANTT chart. 

The project wasn’t finished in time for the World Cup and there was little interest in completing the project once the tournament had ended. As the years passed, the concrete skeleton became a haven for vandals and it came to be regarded as the defining symbol of waste associated with the World Cup. Various alternative uses were explored over the years – a prison, university halls, another hotel – but none materialised and the structure was razed by the authorities in 2012. 

Thanks for reading – if you enjoyed this article, why not check out our off-the-wall tribute to the goal nets of Italia ’90!

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