Europe is home to some of the most famous world football stadiums and teams. A mix of modern and newly built stadia, and historic grounds which have evolved over the years. Football stadiums are now designed to meet the needs of a diverse crowd, with safe standing areas just as important to clubs as the concourse and facilities. For fans and the teams themselves, the atmosphere is the most important factor, to help performances and generally show support.
Impressive atmospheres don’t necessarily require huge capacities, having groups of dedicated fans together in the same area is what’s key, however the biggest stadiums can create something special, which is why they’re so revered. Likewise, many new stadia struggle to replicate the grounds that that’ve replaced as history adds much prestige. I’ve been lucky to visit many of the biggest football stadiums in Europe, though there’s a few that still remain on my list.
Here I take a look at some of the facts and stats about the biggest stadiums by capacity, recounting which of the list I’ve managed to visit with United over the years.
1. Camp Nou – Barcelona, Spain
Iconic for it’s Més que un club motto emblazed on the seating of the stadium’s largest tier, the Camp Nou is arguably Europe’s most recognisable stadium – at least the interior. Home of FC Barcelona since 1957, the near 100,000 capacity places it at the top of the list in Europe. It’s a three-tiered bowl, though you’d be excused for thinking it’s even steeper when sat in the heights of the away end (pictured).
As well as hosting games at the 1982 World Cup, where the capacity hit a 121,401 high (prior to safe standing rules introduced in the 90s), it’s featured a couple of European Cup finals too. Despite the capacity being the highest in Europe, the last final to feature there was United’s finest hour – the 1999 win over Bayern Munich.
United have played there 5 times in the European Cup/Champions League, most recently in 2019, a 3-0 quarter final defeat which ended our challenge and effectively our 2018/19 season.
2. Wembley Stadium – London, England
Opened: 1923 (rebuilt 2007)
England’s national stadium needs no introduction. Wembley stadium is the country’s biggest with a capacity of 90,000, supported by the landmark arch which can be seen across London. The new stadium has stood since 2007 on the site of the original ground – built in 1923 and famous for it’s twin towers, before being demolished in 2003.
As well as hosting England international fixtures, the stadium is home to all of the domestic finals, from the FA Cup to the Non-League promotion final. It’s also hosted the Champions League final on two occasions; United’s 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in 2011 and then just two years later for an all German affair. A savvy decision from UEFA who realised how lucrative the large, modern ground (with a whole tier of corporate hospitality) could be for them.
I’ve been lucky enough to see United play at Wembley dozens of times, in the Community Shield, FA Cup (semis & finals), League Cup, Champions League and as a temporary home for Tottenham when their new ground was being built. Of course, the old Wembley also features memorably in United’s history, hosting the famous European Cup victory over Benfica in 1968.
3. Signal Iduna Park – Dortmund, Germany
Capacity: 81,365 (with safe standing), 65,829 (all seater)
Germany’s largest stadium is Borussia Dortmund‘s Signal Iduna Park (or Westfalenstadion), which opened in 1974. It hosted matches in that summer’s World Cup in West Germany, as well as when the tournament returned in 2006. The stadium is well known for “the yellow wall” officially the Südtribüne (South Bank); a 24,454 capacity standing terrace, the biggest in Europe.
The rules for stadiums in European and International competitions mean that safe standing areas have to be have seating locked in position, which reduce the capacity of the Westfalenstadion to just under 66,000, but it doesn’t stop the colour and sound of the Südtribüne. United have only faced Dortmund a handful of times over the years and just once at their current ground, back in 1997. It’s high up my list of stadiums I’d love to visit.
4. Santiago Bernabéu Stadium – Madrid, Spain
The second largest stadium in Spain is in the capital, and home to Real Madrid. The Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is one of the oldest too, opening more than 70 years ago in 1947, and named after their former player, manager and president. As well as hosting all of the major European and International matches, it made history in 2018 by hosting the second leg of the Copa Libertadores Final – the first time the South American match had been played in Europe.
United first played at the Bernabéu Stadium in 1957, in the early years of the European Cup. We’ve been back 4 times since, most recently in 2013 which was my first visit to the ground. It’s an impressive stadium with three tiers all round, even if the away end is once again hidden away right at the top of the ground and unlike the Camp Nou it’s covered with a roof.
5. Luzhniki Stadium – Moscow, Russia
Opened: 1956 (rebuilt 2017)
One that will live long in the memory of United fans, the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow was the scene of our third European Cup win. A rainy night in Russia’s capital bore witness to a decisive penalty shoot out against Chelsea in 2008. Home of the Russian national team, the 81,000 capacity stadium was originally built in 1956, with numerous renovations over the years. The stadium United played in for the Champions League final, with a running track around the pitch, was completely rebuilt for the 2018 World Cup, for which the Luzhniki hosted the final between Croatia and France.
6. Stade de France – Paris, France
Paris’ national stadium, the Stade de France, is another ground that hosts very little club football. Home to both the French football and rugby union teams, the stadium was only built 20 years ago, opening in January 1998 ahead of that year’s World Cup finals. As well as hosting the European Championships final in 2016, it’s featured the Champions League finals in 2000 and 2006 (Arsenal’s defeat to Barcelona). United have rarely played here given it’s national status, however a 2005 Champions League game against Lille was moved to Stade de France due to the home team’s limited capacity.
7. San Siro (Giuseppe Meazza Stadium) – Milan, Italy
One of the oldest, but most iconic, stadiums in Europe is undoubtedly the San Siro, or Giuseppe Meazza Stadium. Standing for over 90 years in Milan, and home to the city’s two main teams; Inter and AC. It’s been host to games at all of the top European & International competitions, including the 1934 World Cup. There are very few ground shares at the top level, but the Milan teams have both made the San Siro their own, with each teams ultras occupying opposite ends; AC Milan the Curva Sud, and Inter the Curva Nord.
The stadium is easily recognisable for it’s bold exterior; spiralling towers on all side to access the top tiers, and the huge maroon beams which support the roof protruding on each corner. The football world reacted with shock when it was announced in June 2019 that the clubs are looking to knock the iconic San Siro down in order to build a new, smaller capacity stadium in the same space. Given the age of the stadium, a new modernised ground may lead to improved revenue streams for both clubs, but at the cost of losing a real spiritual home. United have been lucky to visit the ground on many occasions, our last trip being in 2010.
8. Atatürk Olympic Stadium – Istanbul, Turkey
One of the newer, biggest grounds in Europe is Turkey’s national stadium, the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, in Istanbul. Host of the Champions League Final between AC Milan and Liverpool in 2005, as well as the 2020 final, it was originally built for the 2008 Olympics, before Istanbul lost out to Beijing (though it remained it’s name). The stadium has been home to a number of the city’s domestic teams for short periods, with United playing Bursapor here in a 2010 Champions League group game.
9. Athens Olympic Stadium – Athens, Greece
Opened: 1982 (renovated 2004)
An Olympic stadium which actually did the business is next on the list, with Athens‘ ground, originally built in 1982 but renovated to host the 2004 Summer Olympics. Home to AEK Athens, Panathinaikos, the Greek National team and briefly Olympiacos the stadium has also hosted 3 Champions League finals and the 1987 Cup Winners Cup. It’s named after Greek marathon winner Spyros Louis and is recognisable for it’s double arched roof, part of the 2004 renovations
10. Allianz Arena – Munich, Germany
Capacity: 75,000 (with safe standing), 70,000 (all seater)
One of the more modern stadium on the list, Bayern Munich‘s Allianz Arena opened in 2005 and features a colour changing, panelled exterior. Bayern had previously played at the Munich Olympic stadium, and they shared the new ground with 1860 Munich until 2017. Alongside some of Germany’s other biggest stadiums, the Allianz hosts the German national team on rotation, given there’s no national stadium. It hosted games at the 2006 World Cup in Germany as well as the 2012 Champions League Final, which Bayern lost (on their home ground!) to Chelsea. United have played here a number of times, with the 2013 quarter final memorable for Patrice Evra’s thunderbolt, albeit in a 3-1 defeat.
11. Old Trafford – Manchester, England
The unbiased, greatest stadium on the list is Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. A stadium I’ve visited countless times over 20+ years of watching United. There is so much history for a ground which has stood for over 100 years, and has survived being bombed (twice!) during the second World War. There are a number of statues of former greats around the stadium, including the watchful gaze of Sir Matt Busby and holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton, whilst two of the stands bear the names of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton.
It’s a stadium which has seen so much and holds so many memories to supporters, which is why visiting Old Trafford is top of the list for so many football fans when travelling to Manchester. Further expansion has been discussed on a few occasions, with plans to expand the South Stand to create a two-tiered bowl and come close to Wembley’s 90,000 capacity. It’s hosted so many big games, for United as well as during the 1966 World Cup, Euro 96, 2012 Summer Olympics and the 2003 Champions League Final.
12. Olympiastadion – Berlin, Germany
The final stadium of this list is the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Built for the 1936 Summer Olympics and home to Hertha BSC, the stadium has lived through some key periods of Germany and Berlin’s history, included WW2. The damaged ‘Olympic Bell’ from the destroyed bell tower still sits on display outside the stadium. The Olympiastadion has been host to games at the 1974 & 2006 World Cup, include the final of the latter, as well as the 2015 Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona.
With a mix of modern and famous grounds, the biggest football stadiums in Europe share so much history, with World Cups, Olympic games and so many European finals hosted at each. Hosting those big events is prestigious but also highly profitable for clubs and national associations, which is why some look to replace dated, yet historic, grounds with modernised facilities that can maximise revenue. New grounds also make room for advancements in the terraces, with safe standing areas built into the likes of the Spurs new stadiums.
It’s sad to see any famous stadiums go, with the San Siro likely to be the next on this list to be demolished. Thankfully the likes of Old Trafford, whilst in desperate need of some renovation, continue to provide awe to thousands, with it’s stature and history engrained in the memories fans that fill the stands each week.