Exposed to the elements, Milan has two decaying marvels of incomparable artistic merit in semi-constant need of refurbishment. One is the most studied work of art ever produced, a triumph in perspective that has been in constant evolution since work first began on the wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie more than 500 years ago. The other is a football stadium.
Did we just compare the San Siro to Leonardo da Vinci’s high watermark The Last Supper? Yes. If you’ve been there, you’ll understand.
Location Milan, Italy
Tenants AC Milan, Internazionale
Record attendance 83,381
There’s a reason this is Italy’s most loved stadium, home to AC Milan and Internazionale. Set in the city’s leafy San Siro neighbourhood where two-storey houses outnumber the high-rise flats elsewhere, it feels at once a relic and supremely modern.
Leaving the Metro at Lotto station, the walk through the backstreets and residential piazzas is an enlivening experience, passing the Rossoneri and Nerazzurri graffiti daubed Da Vinci-style on any open brickwork.
Onwards and upwards
The stadium itself has been restored and renovated as many times as The Last Supper, too. First conceived in 1925 by Milan president Piero Pirelli, the San Siro was originally intended as an extension of the adjacent Hippodrome horseracing bowl. Built to house 35,000 fans, it didn’t take long for the newbie to dwarf its more traditional neighbour, a ground that now sits in weeded semi-retirement below the striking concrete mass to its side.
Pirelli wanted his club’s stadium to mirror Genoa’s Luigi Ferraris, one of the few Italian stadia in the 1920s without an athletics track, as the sole preserve of football. In each corner, four bleachers provided both the ballast and the central design that would later become the San Siro’s trademark.
#FFT100STADIUMS Find out where the Luigi Ferraris sits in our list
Supported by public funds, it opened within a year, the inauguration being the Derby della Madonnina in which city rivals – Inter then played across town at the historic Arena Civica – beat hosts 6-3 on September 19, 1926.
After buying the stadium in 1935 – connecting the four stands into one smooth 55,000-capacity curve around the four towers – the San Siro has remained in public hands and since 1947/48 has had both Milan teams as tenants.
Partly inspired by the nascent European Cup, further additions came in 1955, more than doubling the stadium’s size and adding helical ramps to reach the upper tiers.
For the following decade, the Milanese clubs dominated both domestically (winning six scudetti between them) and latterly in Europe. For three years, Old Big Ears didn’t leave the San Siro – Milan were Italy’s first European champions in 1963, while Inter won successive crowns in 1964 and 1965, that latter year becoming the second team to lift the trophy at their home stadium as Helenio Herrera’s defensive catenaccio system ruled the continent.
Yet it’s in the modern era that the stadium – officially renamed Stadio Giuseppe Meazza after the two-time World Cup winner who played for both Rossoneri and Nerazzurri – has truly established itself a world great. Italia 90 proved the inspiration.
In truth, the stadium needed the overhaul and what it got was a $60m refit that created an iconic new look based around 11 concrete towers. Think of the San Siro and you immediately think of the four towers, one in each corner of the stadium, rising up from pitchside to the roof like a Modernist Battersea Power Station.
They aren’t just for show. The four corner towers support the visually powerful red grid roof that sheltered each side of the ground for the first time – an important addition to this frequently rainy part of northern Italy.
Watch the grainy footage of that 1965 European Cup Final between and Inter and Benfica and the first thing you’ll notice is a sodden pitch and torrential rain throughout. When Jair scores the game’s only goal after 43 minutes – his shot squirming under Costa Pereira – the umbrellas in the crowd go wild in celebration, the gathered water shimmering under floodlights.
The other towers also allowed an extra tier on three sides, as the stadium became all-seater in preparation for the World Cup without significantly affecting the capacity. Anyone who has been to the San Siro will know that the rows in that upper section rise with scary rapidity. By law, British stands’ gradients can’t exceed 17.5%. The San Siro’s approaches 30%.
The renovations were worth it, providing a fitting setting for Paolo Maldini, a Kaka in his Ballon d’Or-winning prime, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (for both sides) and Jose Mourinho’s 2010 Inter treble winners to delight just as much as doomed pop royalty One Direction did in 2014.
It has its critics. Not everyone likes the brutal aesthetic of a machine for accommodating spectators. The pitch has long been a problem, as has selling enough tickets to create an atmosphere for the lesser fixtures. Both clubs have recently considered leaving for pastures new, perhaps smaller but privately owned and therefore more lucrative.
But the San Siro remains on most people’s shortlist of must-visit venues, and unlike many of its Italia 90 counterparts it’s far from crumbling into insignificance: it will host this season’s Champions League final. That neither Milan club qualified for Europe’s elite competition is a sad indictment of their fall from grace.
Yet it’s Italia 90, the tournament that has so shaped the San Siro’s design, that resonates most and offers its enduring legacy. Two games in particular stand out.
Firstly, West Germany’s 2-1 last-16 victory against Holland. While no stadium is likely to provide a view good enough to study the exact contents of footballing phlegm, Frank Rijkaard’s projectile aimed at Rudi Voller’s magnificent mullet has gone down as one of the World Cup’s most infamous moments.
Spitting aside, the San Siro has long been a happy hunting ground for the Germans. They played every game of Italia 90 there until the semi-finals, while Bayern Munich won the 2001 Champions League Final at the ground on penalties (obviously) against Valencia.
Of greater footballing importance, however, was Italia 90’s opening game – Cameroon’s stunning 1-0 defeat of defending champions Argentina. Led by an irrepressible Diego Maradona – fresh from single-handedly guiding unfancied Napoli to successive Serie A titles – the South Americans were overwhelming favourites against the 500/1 tournament outsiders whose keeper Joseph-Antoine Bell had been dropped five hours before kick-off because of a row over bonuses.
So late in the day did Thomas N’Kono’s accession to the team arrive, his wife missed the game because she was too busy shopping. Yet the back-up’s display – both that day and throughout the tournament – was so good it convinced a 12-year-old midfielder in Tuscany he’d much rather be a goalkeeper.
That youngster’s name? Gianluigi Buffon. That’s some legacy for the San Siro to have.
#FFT100STADIUMS The 100 Best Stadiums in the World: list and features here
#FFT100Stadiums: The list
#FFT100Stadiums: The features
• How we chose the list
• A brief history of football grounds, by Simon Inglis
• The greatest stadiums that never were
• Who the hell is Santiago Bernabeu? Named stadiums explained
• QUIZ How many of our 100 have you visited?
• Archibald Leitch: the man who invented the football stadium
• The world's biggest stadiums
• QUIZ Higher or lower? Take our stadium capacity quiz
• How to build a football stadium, by those who did
• The 11 weirdest stadium names
• In memoriam: Britain's great lost grounds
• QUIZ Name that stadium
• Coming soon: The new stadiums being built and planned
• The most beautiful grounds in the world
• GALLERY 9 of the best from the '90s
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