Nov 11, 2009

Ranking the world's soccer meccas: No. 6 Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

For ranking methodology and other information about the series, see the original post. To read the about the No. 7-rated stadium, the Camp Nou in Barcelona, click here. To see all "soccer mecca" entries click here.

No. 6 Estadio Bernabeu, Madrid
Open since: 1947
Capacity: 80,000
Tenant(s): Real Madrid
World Cup hosts: 1982

We have now had two stadiums in Argentina (Bombonera at No. 9, Monumental at 8), followed by two in Spain (Camp Nou was 7). Is this pattern going to continue? No chance. In fact, I promise the top five will be in countries that have not yet been visited in this series.

We're probably going to have to deal with this eventually so let's get it right out of the way: Why is the Bernabeu ahead of Camp Nou? Two reasons:
1. It's 10 years older and therefore has 10 years' worth of additional history;
2. It hosted a World Cup final, a Euro final (in 1964, before it was known as such) and three European Cups (forerunner to the Champions League) while Barcelona hosted just one Champions League final and semifinals in the other two events.

What this all boils down to is that the Bernabeu has hosted more high profile matches than Camp Nou. From what I can tell Camp Nou appears to have the edge in the "cachet" department but that's a subjective area (not to mention a sensitive one when it comes to Real Madrid and Barcelona. Then again, what isn't?)

What isn't debatable is that Real Madrid has had more success on the pitch than its Catalan rival. Make that more success than just about any club in any nation in any sport: Nine European champions' trophies (including three in the Champions League era), two UEFA and Cup Winners' cups, 31 domestic league titles (even the New York Yankees "only" have 27), 14 Copa del Rey (domestic cup) trophies, eight Spanish Supercopas and three intercontinental cups.

Much of that originates with the stadium's namesake, Santiago Bernabéu Yeste. Himself a former player and manager with the club, Bernabeu became Real Madrid president in 1943--a position he would hold 35 years until his death. It was under his tutelage that Real became what many consider the first "modern" multinational squad, including one that effectively dominated the sport from 1953 to 1960.

It bears mentioning that Bernabeu was an avowed fascist who fought in the Spanish civil war (for Franco, natch). Upon his arrival at Real in 1943 "the club was forever after associated with Franco, with conservative politics and with the Spanish Castilian center in opposition to the pull of the regions, Catalunya (and arch-enemy FC Barcelona) in particular," writes Albion Road in its history of the club.

As distasteful as this is (particularly to somebody in the U.S., the country that invented freedom and democracy) Bernabeu deserves credit for building Real from complete scratch after the civil war. At that point the club had been left for dead by the Spanish government, which gave financial support to Atletico Madrid, and by the Madrid establishment, which also cast its lot with the rojiblancos, according to

Building the stadium that would eventually bear his name was a central part of Bernabeu's plan. At the time its size was seen as absurdly ambitious--only slightly less absurd than the concept of a dedicated training ground across the street, another idea developed by Bernabeu. How he got (what I'm assuming were) private sector sources to finance these operations at that time and place remains another question entirely. But given this backdrop it is perhaps no coincidence that the stadium stands right next to the heart of Madrid's central business district.

The postwar history of both Real Madrid and the Spanish national team was largely written at the Bernabeu. The 1964 European Nations' Cup (as the Euro was then known) was a coming out party of sorts, with Spain playing--and winning--its semifinal and final matches at the Bernabeu. Both games were highly dramatic: The semifinal against Hungary went to extra time (links to match report) and the final against the Soviet Union, attended by Franco himself, was decided late in the second half. Other than a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium and a fourth place finish at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, this was until 2008 Spain's crowning (and only) achievement in world soccer.

Seven years prior to the European championships, Real Madrid defeated Fiorentina in the second-ever European Cup final before 120,000 on their home grounds, a game that was eclipsed by its semifinal victory over Matt Busby's Manchester United (playing in their first European cup).

The following season Real were pushed to the limit by their crosstown rivals in the tournament's semifinals. Had the games been played under today's rules, Atletico would have advanced after losing the first leg at Bernabeu 2-1 and winning at home 1-0. But in those days a third match was required, which Real won 2-1 in Zaragoza.

Real won the first five European cups but their run ended in 1960. Up until that point no team had so much as managed a draw at Bernabeu--a 15-game winning streak where they amassed a goal difference of 66-8, according to That ended on Nov. 9, 1960 (the same day John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States) in a 2-2 draw with old rivals Barcelona. Their first home defeat came two years later when Juventus Turin won the return leg of the semifinals by 1-0, matching Real's margin of victory from the first leg and forcing a third game (in Paris, which Real won. They would lose the final to Benfica Lisbon).

That fall, one of the biggest upsets in European football to that point took place at Bernabeu, when Belgian side Anderlecht managed a 3-3 draw in the first leg of their first round match up. The Belgians won the return leg 1-0 and Real was out.

In the first round of the 1967 tournament, Real defeated Ajax Amsterdam (with Johan Cruyff) in a memorable return leg by 2-1 in extra time on a goal from Jose Luis Veloso. Later that season Manchester United won a stirring semifinal on a goal by Munich survivor Bill Foulkes (assist to George Best) to advance to its first European cup final.

The final was held at Bernabeu again in 1969 but AC Milan won an anticlimactic match 4-1 over Ajax Amsterdam.

The 70s were a pretty bad decade for Real but the Bernabeu did see some impressive comebacks from their heroes. In '75 the Madrilenos bounced back from a 4-1 loss to Derby County to win 5-1 and advance and in '80 they returned a 2-0 loss at Celtic into a 3-0 victory at home to reach the semis. They would lose to defending champions Hamburg SV. The German side(with Kevin Keegan) lost a memorable final at the Bernabeu to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest largely thanks to the heroics of Peter Shilton, according to this match report. That may have been the second-most famous match ever held at the Bernabeu.

The most famous was of course the 1982 World Cup final, though it was a bit of a letdown after the semifinal epic in Seville three nights earlier. Italy defeated Germany 3-1 with all goals scored in the second half. For some reason the Bernabeu only hosted four games that tournament: three in the second group stage and the final. Bobby Robson's England side in fact played its second group stage matches here, but both were forgettable 0-0 draws to West Germany and the hosts Spain, respectively. West Germany won the group with a 2-1 victory over Spain.

Photo taken without permission from

Please share any memories or tidbits, including information on epic matches I may have omitted!

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