Make no mistake about it, soccer is the world’s most popular sport, with 265 million active players and an estimated 3.5 billion fans. While interest in the U.S. is surging in the global sport with recent events like Copa America, UEFA Euro 2016 and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, many say the most passionate and fiercely loyal fans can be found elsewhere, such as in South America and Europe. In fact, in Europe alone there are nearly 300 major soccer stadiums, with several hosting some of world’s richest and most famous teams and with the world’s best players. While tickets are sometimes difficult to acquire to see some of the world’s elite teams and players, attending a live soccer game in Europe is truly an extraordinary experience. Here are just five of the finest stadiums to watch soccer in Europe.
One of the world’s most dazzling soccer stadiums, Allianz Arena is home to both of Munich’s professional soccer teams, FC Bayern Munich and TSV 1860, as well as the home field for the storied German national team. A stunning achievement of contemporary architectural design, the stadium has such a unique look it can be compared to anything from a spaceship and a Wi-Fi hub to a bicycle tire and what fans describe as “Schlauchboot,” or an inflatable boat. But what really separates this amazing venue from any other is its ability to change the color of its exterior through the use of 2,760 diamond-shaped cushions that can be illuminated in red, white or blue. The first of its kind in the world, Allianz Arena offers an excellent view of the pitch and consistently reaches its capacity when the home rivals are on the field or for league in the Bundesliga or international competition. While both home teams are widely known, FC Bayern Munich with current stars like Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller is the most successful soccer team ever in Germany and has amassed a slew of prominent championships, including 27 national titles and 18 national cups. Among the premier soccer events held at Allianz Arena were the semi-finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup and the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final.
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It’s not the largest soccer stadium in England and it’s not widely known by from non-soccer fans. But Old Trafford is the largest club stadium in the UK and home to its most famous soccer team, Manchester United and easily one of the best stadiums to watch a soccer match, especially when sitting side by side with its thunderously loyal and passionate fans. Known as the “Theatre of Dreams,” the 75,635-seat Old Trafford first opened in 1910 and has a rich history of hosting a multitude of significant soccer matches and events, including matches for 1966 World Cup and 2012 Summer Olympics, semi-final matches for the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League Final in 2003. As one of the richest professional sports teams in the world, Manchester United has won a record 20 Premier League titles, 12 FA Cups and several other major championships. Perhaps the best way to fully experience the soccer stadium and its celebrated team and its star players like Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata is when one of its major rivals from the Premiere League come to compete, such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and cross-town rival Manchester City.
Santiago Benabéu Stadium
As the home stadium to Real Madrid, the world’s richest sports team, Santiago Benabéu Stadium is truly a must-see for soccer fans. First opened shortly after the end of World War II, the 81,044-seat stadium has hosted four European Cup, the 1982 FIF World Cup and a host of other major international soccer tournaments. Valued in the excess of $3.6 billion, Real Madrid is one of the world’s most famous soccer teams and many of the game’s elite players can count themselves as former or current players, including David Beckham, Ronaldo, Di Stéfano, Zamora and Cristiano Ronaldo, currently the highest paid athlete in soccer. The best possible soccer matchup to see at Santiago Benabéu Stadium is when Real Madrid competes against FC Barcelona, led by Lionel Messi, widely considered soccer’s best player and arguably the greatest ever to play the game. FC Barcelona plays it home games at the equally acclaimed Camp Nou, with a seating capacity of over 93,000 is the largest soccer stadium in Europe and second largest in the world.
Stade de France
As the home venue for both the national soccer and rugby teams of France, Stade de France is by far the largest stadium in the country and fifth largest in Europe. Located in the Saint-Denis section of Paris, the national stadium was originally built for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, which coincidentally the host team led by iconic star Zinedine Zidane, won against the defending champion Brazil. As the host of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the enormous 81,338-seat stadium became the only stadium in the world to host both a Football World Cup final and a Rugby World Cup final. Stade de France has also hosted the UEFA Champion League finals in 2000 and 2006 and just recently hosted the championship match of UEFA Euro 2016. While no major soccer tournaments are currently on the stadium schedule this year, an English Tour Pass is available all year a major international athletic event (Paris Meeting) in August and a few notable rugby matches in November are slated — France vs. Australia and France vs. New Zealand.
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
Better known as San Siro, Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza is the largest soccer stadium in Italy with a seating capacity of 80,018. But what really makes this historic venue first opened in 1926 so special is its two acclaimed home teams, Inter Milan and A.C. Milan, and its legendary stars like Mario Balotelli, javier Zanetti, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. Clearly one of the most exciting soccer venues in Europe, San Siro has hosted several prominent international matches, including six games of the 1990 FIFA World Cup, three European Cup finals and more recently, the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final, one of the most prestigious soccer tournaments in the world. Easily recognized for its 11 cylindrical towers and red girders that jut out from the roof, San Siro may be best enjoyed when the two home teams are pitted against one another in the venue’s signature event known as Derby della Madonnina or when other Italian League or international teams come to compete.
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Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com