8th November, 2022
World Cup Cities
by Robin McKelvie
Football may have come home in 1966, but the World Cup has always been an inspirational, extravagant fiesta of sport that swirls through cities all over the globe: a truly international, multicultural phenomenon. Everywhere the World Cup goes it leaves a deep imprint on each of the host cities. Visit them and the lingering football culture weaves an extra dimension into your trip. And in other cities that are about to host this unique sporting cavalcade in the future you get to taste the excitement building as you sneak in before the sporting crowds.
To set the match day scene for those who may not know they love football yet, the World Cup is quite simply the greatest single sports team tournament on the planet; easily in football the biggest and inarguably the best. It is a tournament that creates glorious heroes and monstrous villains in equal measure, with one kick of the ball often the fine line between becoming either. Far after the tournaments are over the memories remain in football folklore and fans make pilgrimages to the stadia. If you’re in a city, visiting a stadium adds a whole different layer to your time there.
Kicking off in Europe we start with Berlin, which is unique as it has hosted the World Cup as part of two countries: West Germany in 1974 and then again in 2006 as a celebration as part of a united Germany. The venue in both was the deeply historic Olympiastadion. Fittingly for the 1974 tournament one group featured both West and East Germany, though contrary to what many people presume this was played in Hamburg. And Berlin suffered the ignominy of the final being played in the south in Munich. Berlin only got to host a trio of group stage games, though one saw the hosts squeeze out Chile 1-0.
Berlin went on to enjoy its moment in the spotlight during the 2006 tournament, when one of the most dramatic finals of them all brought the Olympiastadion alive and rocketed it into World Cup legend. Italy took on France in what was Zinedine Zidane’s – their star player - last ever match for France. The stage was set for him leaving a hero but he ended up being sent off. The game dragged on into extra time, with the 10 men of France managing to keep the score at 1-1. Italy were not to be denied, though, and won the trophy on penalties.
There are superb tours of the Olympiastadion. Of the range of options the Premium Tour is the pick. This two hour extravaganza sweeps you through the German sports and architectural history of the former Reichssportfeld as you gain behind the scenes access to areas of the Olympiastadion people don’t normally see. If you’re lucky and there is no training on you can peek inside the dome hall.
The area around the Oympiastadion is alive with a sprawl of sporting facilities that you can amble past while you’re here. The Grunewald Forest is a great green lung here too if you want a break from sporting culture. Back in the world of football check out the Brandenburg Gate. Worth visiting, of course, for its role in German and global history, it is also the site of massive open air crowds when every World Cup and European Championship is held, with several hundred thousand fans attending the Fan Mile, working together to create a truly unique atmosphere.
We grab our kit and head south now into Iberia to Barcelona. Spain hosted the World Cup memorably back in 1982. Over 100,000 fans descended on Barcelona's Camp Nou for the opening ceremony, though the actual final was held across in great footballing rival Madrid. The opening match saw a certain new Barcelona player strut his stuff for Argentina against Belgium - Diego Armando Maradona, who England fans need no introduction to, of course.
The less said about the performances of Spain in the 1982 tournament the better. Camp Nou hosted group matches with Poland and the USSR, as well as Belgium and Argentina, then went on to star in a semi-final when a double from the tournament’s top scorer, the incomparable Paolo Rossi, helped Italy defeat Poland 2-0. Taking a tour of the iconic stadium where Barcelona play today is an essential Barcelona experience.
The highlight of their guided options is the Players Experience Tour. You get VIP access to many private areas, including the changing room of today’s famous players. You get down to the pitch too and into the press box. As a souvenir you also receive professional photos of your tour. If you’re in town when a game is on an even more thrilling experience awaits. Given its massive size – it can accommodate 100,000 fans – you can often snare a ticket. The well-stocked shop is essential too for souvenirs from perhaps the most famous football club in the world.
Camp Nou is not far from Montjuïc. This hill sports a cable car, funicular and various fortresses. And a splash of sporting culture. The Olympic Stadium was built in 1929, though the anti-fascist games planned here for 1936 were never held, ironically due to the Spanish Civil War which fascist forces triumphed in. Football club Espanyol played here until 2008 and further sports traces survive with the old Montjuïc circuit Formula One race track. Montjuïc also hosted several 1992 Summer Olympics facilities, with the star the Olympic Stadium, the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys - it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies. Look out for the ‘Olympic Ring’ venues dotted around the hillside.
We sail across the Atlantic now for one of the most famous hosts of all time - Buenos Aires in Argentina. The 1978 Argentina tournament was set against a febrile political atmosphere and the tensions spilled on to the pitch. The city sports two stadiums from its hosting of the tournament. The Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti is a stadium with many names – it’s also known as Estadio Mâs Monumental. Then you’ll hear it called the River Plate Stadium, Monumental de Núñez, or simply El Monumental. It’s a whopper that has held over 100,000 fans and is the home of legendary local team River Plate.
In the 1978 tournament, El Monumental had the honour of staging nine games, including the deeply dramatic final between Argentina and the Netherlands, which the hosts ran out 3-1 winners of after extra time. It also was the venue for Argentina beating Hungary 2-1 and then France by the same score earlier in the tournament, as well as Argentina’s 1-0 reverse to Italy, which they managed to overcome with other results.
Take a tour of El Monumental to really get under the skin of Argentina’s largest stadium. The museum is fascinating and you also have the chance to emerge from the tunnel on to the pitch. There is even a cinema experience at a stadium tour that really goes for it and is one of the city’s top attractions. You’ll learn a lot about River Plate, as well as the World Cup in a museum that is essential for sports fans, or anyone looking to learn more about what makes this great city tick.
Even many football fans have not heard of the José Amalfitani Stadium, home to club side Vélez Sarsfield. Indeed it is more renowned amongst rugby fans as the Argentinian national rugby team (Los Pumas) play their matches here. It was massively refurbished for the 1978 tournament and held a trio of matches featuring Austria, Spain and Sweden. If there is a game on when you’re in town head along as you’ll be experiencing a stadium few sports fans know much about, a stadium that unusually still has standing as well as seating.
Heading in to North America we’re in the land now of future World Cups. Surprised that 2026 will have matches in the USA? You shouldn’t be as the 1994 tournament was held in the country and indeed the San Francisco area hosted games then too. Stanford Stadium was the local venue in 1994, just outside San Francisco with some impressive performances, including Brazil beating Russia 2-0 and Cameroon 3-0. It also staged a round of 16 match where the US – who had excelled expectations - came up against the favourites Brazil. Sadly the tight game saw the US bow out to Brazil, gaining much credit as they narrowly lost 1-0. A deeply dramatic quarter final followed that saw Romania beat Sweden on penalties after a classic match finished 2-2.
The tournament in 2026 will see games played in the San Francisco Bay Area, which was more recently pressed into service as a site for Covid-19 vaccinations. This ultra-modern stadium has been the home of American Football side the San Francisco 49ers since 2014, so you can head along and savour a match years before the real action begins. The stadium cost over a billion dollars to build and has a footprint that stretches over 1.85 million square feet, seating 75,000 in some comfort with plush suites available. They even have their own dedicated stadium App.
Levi Stadium is a seriously green one too and it’s not just all the usual tweaks like solar panels and sustainable materials. Its roof has 6,500 square feet given over to a rooftop farm, an idea that came from team CEO Jed York and his wife, Danielle York, a former science teacher. Now they grow various vegetables, herbs and flowers here – in a neat touch they are served in some of the dishes you can try in the stadium. If you’re in town before 2026 catch an American Football game or a concert – rock acts such as the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones have performed at the stadium. Super Bowl 50 was staged here on February 7, 2016, too. There are stadium tours and you can check out the 49ers Museum; even an art gallery dedicated to the team.
Football and Canada are not exactly two things that you would automatically put together, but the biggest football show on earth is coming to Canada in 2026 when the World Cup rolls into the Canadian western seaboard city of Vancouver in British Columba. The venue will be BC Place, a multi-purpose stadium. It currently plays a number of roles as home to BC Lions of the Canadian Football League (CFL), the annual Canada Sevens (part of the World Rugby Sevens Series), and – with the football connection - Vancouver Whitecaps, a well-known Major League Soccer (MLS) team.
BC Place is a stadium with a serious pedigree that stretches back to 1983, when it was built as part of the drive towards Expo 1986, the World's Fair. Fittingly, the first game played here on June 20, 1983, was a ‘soccer’ match between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders as part of the North American Soccer League (NASL), which attracted over 60,000 fans.
BC Place has always been something of a pioneer and a world-beater; a multi award-winner too. It originally had an air-supported roof, the world’s largest, but after a weather-related failure this was upgraded for the 2010 Winter Olympics to a cable-supported retractable roof that peels back to reveal 7,500 square metres of sky. It served as the chief venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2010 Paralympics, the 2012 Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and then games in the 2015 Women's tournament. Today it still sports the largest cable supported retractable roof in the world.
When you’re in Vancouver catch a game or an event – British musician Ed Sheeran recently played here - to steal a march on the 2026, when a series of matches will be held. You can enjoy a sneak preview of their “Northern Lights Display”, their 36-foot façade that is lit up by thousands of energy-efficient LED lights that together combine to conjure up animations that create a real show. Or join one of the BC Tours, which open up both this unique stadium and the BC Sports Hall of Fame. Highlights include access to the media lounge, the locker rooms and getting right down on to the field of play years before the illustrious footballers make this same journey.
The World Cup is truly one of a kind. And one of the joys of it is the legacy it leaves behind in the host cities. So if you feel like you missed the action in Buenos Aires in 1978 or Berlin in 1974 don’t despair as you can visit the stadia where the great matches were held. Tours open up many of these sporting arenas, some have myriad attractions around them and all are utterly compelling. As are the venues in Canada and the USA lining up to be written into World Cup legend in 2026.
For Saga, experience is everything – and Wembley ‘66 was one of the greatest. That’s why we’re celebrating amazing life stories shaped by that game. Find out more here.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.
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