Forgotten Arenas: What Happens To World Cup Stadiums When The Party Ends?

It’s easy to get embroiled in the spectacle and the emotion of the World Cup. But after the champions are crowned, the face paint smeared off and the flags furled up, what happens to the vast stadiums that played out their own chapters of football history?

The 2018 World Cup has got off to a dramatic start with many of the favourites to win already knocked out, including the mighty Spain, Argentina, Portugal, and world champions Germany, who, incredibly, finished bottom of their group.

Over half of all the 32 teams that travelled to Russia have already been sent packing, taking their many thousands of fans with them. Supporter numbers will dwindle further as the knockout stages progress, and will disappear completely in the days following the final.

But following the most expensive World Cup tournament ever, what will become of Russia’s ‘white elephants’ – their fleet of 35,000-seater minimum capacity stadiums – once the tournament draws to a close?

Render of a proposed housing project in Brazil, based on a photograph by Tomás Faquini

Brazil’s silent stadiums

Russia would do well to take lessons from recent World Cup history. While controversies surrounding this year’s tournament have largely centred around diplomatic issues, fears over hooliganism and allegations of corruption, the tournament hosted by Brazil in 2014 was subject to far broader socio-economic concerns.

In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, Brazil was widely reported to have a shortage of over five million homes. The Brazilian authorities sought to gentrify the city of Rio de Janeiro – the city in which Germany’s victorious final would eventually be played – to accommodate the swathes of travelling supporters.

Over 19,000 families, mostly inhabitants of the city’s sprawling favelas, were relocated to make way for new roads, stadium enhancements, an athlete’s village, and other infrastructural redevelopment projects aimed at improving the brand of the city and attracting foreign investment.

But where are those stadiums now?

Render of a proposed housing project in the National Stadium of Brazil, based on a photograph by Tomás Faquini

Brazil’s national stadium, the Maracanã, was opened in 1950 but was redeveloped for the 2014 World Cup at a cost of around £500m. The original two-tier bowl was demolished and replaced with a one-tier system around the entire ground.

Tragically, Brazil never actually played a game there during the 2014 tournament. They were humiliated by Germany in the semi-finals, losing 7-1. It did however, as a small consolation, play host to a Brazilian gold medal in the men’s football final (also against German opposition) in the Olympics two years later.

But once the world’s attention was pried away from Brazil after their two years in the spotlight, the stadium fell into disrepair. Mere months after the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games, in early 2017, photos emerged of a badly aged Maracanã, a damaged stadium with a field of dying, patchy grass at its centre. The stadium’s power was even cut off after approximately £700,000 worth of debt was left unpaid to a Rio energy company.

Managers had to call off daily tours following vandalism and looting and a series of violent robberies nearby. Although a legal battle between the Olympic committee and the stadium’s operators was at the heart of the Maracanã’s downfall, it was not an isolated case following Brazil’s time in the limelight.

Small apartments line the outside of the stadium, based on a photograph by Tomás Faquini

The Arena Amazonia in the rainforest city of Manaus was cited recently as a reason why England should not bid to host the 2030 World Cup. City leaders in the remote Manaus – miles from the more populated coastal regions of Brazil – forked out over £150m for its construction from scratch, in an area with no top-tier football team.

The grandiose 44,000-seater arena is situated at the heart of a rainforest half the size of Europe in a city where a quarter of the people are extremely poor, many of whom struggle to access running water. It was used only 11 times after the close of the World Cup in Brazil, as it struggled to attract events. The band Kiss even skipped the Amazonian city in their 40th anniversary world tour.

Construction costs of the Arena Amazonia siphoned off public money (the stadium’s upkeep is still the responsibility of its public ownership) and took up space that could’ve been used to build houses, schools, hospitals, or other public amenities.

Elsewhere in Brazil, the Estadio Nacional in the capital Brasilia, the most expensive stadium with a £420m price tag, is now a glorified bus depot.   

Photo by Abigail Keenan

A brighter future?

The issue of deserted stadia isn’t limited to the World Cup however. National excitement (or, more cynically, corporate opportunistic greed) of hosting any major international tournament can lead to over-optimism, a lack of direction, bad planning, and poor political decision making.

The Montreal Olympic stadium for example, opened for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, had to be used as a swine flu vaccination centre following the 2009 flu pandemic. And in London, The Olympic stadium went unused for extended periods of time, until West Ham Football Club fought off bids from Tottenham Hotspur to call the stadium their new home.

West Ham sacrificed over a century’s worth of history at their Upton Park home to move into a ground in the Olympic Stadium that their fans don’t even like, and which hasn’t as yet managed to facilitate their planned ascendancy to the lofty heights of European football. All the while, spending a £40m loan from Newham Council which the authorities now say is unlikely to ever be paid back.

The tendency to use public money to subsidise these stadiums is common. In the US, according to the Economist, between 2000 and 2014, 36 of the 45 major-league sports teams that had stadiums either constructed or renovated received some form of financial subsidy from the government, effectively dispelling the myth that these vast arenas benefit the local economy.

Photo via Unsplash

According to Roger Noll, an economist at Stanford University studying sports stadium subsidies, no football stadium has ever been constructed that has a positive impact on the local economy. Attempts are being made to address the impact stadiums have on local communities however.

In Brazil, ingenious French architects Axel de Stampa and Sylvain Macaux proposed the idea of slotting up to 350 affordable housing units, like colourful shipping containers stacked atop one another, into the outer stanchions of the Estadio Nacional in Brazil. Although widely seen as too outlandish to ever be genuinely considered, the proposals did raise the important question of how to utilise these purposeless venues and tackle the ongoing housing and poverty crisis.

We do not yet know of any inventive ways in which the Russian stadiums will be utilised in the months and years following the 2018 World Cup, although Russia already has a much more developed domestic footballing infrastructure than that of Brazil or South Africa (many of the stadiums are currently home to top-flight Russian sides). A unique approach to the stadiums’ afterlives could add another string to the bow of Vladimir Putin’s international PR campaign vying to show Russia in a more positive light.

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