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90 years of the Stadio San Siro, a legacy of football and architecture

Rarely, in recent years, I've experienced as many emotions while visiting a football ground as those times I went to the Stadio San Siro. Everyone has his favorite stadiums, places we dream to go to or grounds where we had "the time of our life". It's the power of football and the Meazza means exactly that to me. It's still the first name that springs to my mind when thinking of a football ground. I'm attached with it in some way. It's an icon.

This year the Stadio San Siro celebrates its 90th birthday and what better than writing about it, in a fitting tribute to its history and architectural legacy.

chiesa san siro oggi
The apse of the San Siro's church with the villa today leaning against it
Last construction phase of the first San Siro, 1925-1926

A BRITISH GROUND - The arena was opened on 19 September 1926 with a Milan v Inter friendly, won by the neroazzurri 6-3 and was built on the former land of Trenno, a town included in Milan just two years before. It was not only a football ground but also a convenient building in support of the near racecourse. There was a strict relationship between the two stadia, with the football's arena hosting stables and forage storehouses, highlighting the sporting purpose of the whole area.

The new stadium - as well as the borough - adopted its name from the Church of San Siro alla Vepra (see pic above - it was built before 1000 A.D. and its apse still exists today, leaned against a villa in via Masaccio), it could host 35-40,000 people and was erected in only 13 months.

Designed by engineer Alberto Cugini, it was in a classic "british" style with four independent stands - of different heights - and only the main stand equipped with a cast iron cover (it's the so called "Tribuna Rossa" today). A few late neoclassical elements decorated the external façade, especially the gables above main entrances and a relief framework at the base (see both pics above and below).

san siro storia 90 anni
San Siro, 1926 postcard

The building did cost around 5 millions of Lire and became the home ground of AC Milan - while Inter kept on playing their games at the Arena Civica, eventually doing so until the end of the II World War. The great prospectives of the game of football weren't much clear at the time, in Italy, and the San Siro reflected so with a simple and essential design. Things started to change around the end of the '30s: the City of Milan obtained the ownership of the ground, the two local teams were successful and the municipality suddenly eyed up the building, including it in their future plannings.

Everything led to an expansion plan, assigned to engineer Bertera and architect Perlasca, for the same amount of money spent in 1925 to erect the stadium. The already existing stands were linked together by newly built corner sections and work resulted in the first version of the bowl shape we know so well today (see pic below).

Capacity was increased to 60-65,000 (although stadium owners officially declared 150.000!) and - in a time of standing fans and soft controls at turnstiles - the Stadio San Siro was among the largest stadiums in the world, almost until 1950.

AFTER THE II WORLD WAR - When the war was over football became the big thing in Italy, while AC Milan went to win the league in 1951 after a forty-years drought, and the San Siro simply needed room for more fans.

It could seem a bit similar to today's talk but still, it was already happening more than half a century ago. The question was whether to expand San Siro, building a new ground (with an eye on bidding to host the Olympic Games) or even moving to the Arena Civica. Surprisingly, Milan and Inter were in favour of the latter option, being sure of drawing more fans and having better facilities.

In the end, though, conservation prevailed: engineer Calzolari and architect Ronca came up with a design that preserved the structure of the original bowl which also had to bear the new second tier. This was highlighted by helical ramps wrapping up the structure already in place. A great idea on paper and a great effort on site, with only 500 days of work and no need to move scheduled matches away during that time.

After this the ground will see the greatest players of their era, from Rivera to Mazzola, from Boninsegna to Mark Hateley. And, most of all, it created a special "concept" of Milan in the collective consciousness, with hundreds of cars parked outside the ground, rows of tramways approaching the stadium and that sense of things so typical of this town.

ph archivio Corriere

ITALIA '90 AND MORE - The Stadio San Siro won't change its look for the next forty years, almost until the 1990 World Cup. Just renamed Stadio Giuseppe Meazza - honoring the best local footballer ever - will be expanded for a third time in its history, dramatically changing its look forever (see pic below).

The project signed by architects Ragazzi and Hoffer followed in the footsteps of conservation, just like in 1956. The existing structure was embraced by 11 cilindric towers, with helical ramps, leaned against the external façades and working as the only support to the new third tier, built on the three sides of the ground. A roof was added too, resting on the four angular towers and marked by big red beams on top - that will eventually become the new symbol of the stadium.

Inaugural ceremony, 1990 World Cup
That was the moment when the epic was finally sealed. A few other european stadiums could match the steepness of San Siro's third tier and the ground instantly became "the Scala of football" (borrowing the name from the Milan's historic theatre La Scala). Sometimes the impact on players could be such heavy that the sentence "There are players that can't bear this stadium" quickly turned into a scary warning.

There are a lot of contradictions still, within its elements, its efficiency and functionality. San Siro is always under scrutiny and debates on its future come up from time to time.

But it's still a football stadium like no others and definitely one of the greatest examples of italian modern architecture. This year it's the 90th birthday of this ground and it deserves a fitting thought from every football fan.

* the original version of this article was published on, here

Inter-Juventus, 18 September 2016, ph Inter FC

A personal detail: the ticket from my very first time in the San Siro

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