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From Dortmund to Glasgow, when the Westfalenstadion shaped Ibrox renovation

Westfalenstadion, 1974

Writing about Dortmund's Westfalenstadion (or Signal Iduna Park, if you prefer) is easy. Most of european football fans are well aware of the great atmosphere of this ground, with its colossal grandstands and the layout of the all-standing Sudtribune.

Recently, though, this stadium has been on the frontline of the ongoing talk about introducing safe standing sections in England. It's a towering example of "things working very well" but what's interesting is to understand why it is what it is.

The story begins 40 years ago, when the newly built german ground instantly becomes a role-model for Ibrox renovation, first, and for the 90s football ground new guidelines, then.

Fans leaving after the 0-1 goal
We must start from the first week of 1971, when George Harrison's "My sweet Lord" was on top of the Billboard weekly chart. On Saturday 2 January the Old Firm was on schedule, with almost 75,000 fans packed in the stands of Ibrox.

A goal from Celtic's Jimmy Johnstone in the dying minutes was giving the Hoops an unexpected lead, while many fans were already on their way out of the ground. Other people decided to leave too after that goal but, in the very last second of the game, Colin Stein scored the equaliser and Ibrox erupted.

A lot of people instantly found themselves in a nowhere land, near the exit stairways, stuck between those leaving and those rushing back into the ground. On the Stairway 13, in particular, someone fell over and a knock-on effect dragged other fans down on the stairs. It was a fatal ending: 66 people dead, 14 children, and almost 145 injured.

A following inquiry established that everyone was going in the same direction at the moment of the disaster, walking down the Stairway 13. Space inadequacy in relation to the number of fans was to blame. Structure and functionality of the old british grounds were under scrutiny.

The state of the stairway after the disaster

It was an event that changed history. An official inquest about stadiums around Britain was commanded, resulting in the Guide to Safety at Sports Ground (also known as "Green Guide"), published in 1973 and becoming law two years after, as a crucial part of the "Safety of Sports Ground Act".

While in Scotland (and in England) a debate was firing up, in Dortmund, Germany, they were about to build the new home of Borussia. One of the main towns of the Ruhr area had just been shortlisted as one of the 1974 World Cup host cities, in place of Cologne, and was ready to take advantage of funds for infrastructures and a new stadium.

It was a massive chance for the german Club to say farewell to their old Stadion Rote Erde, an oval ground built in 1920 but too small at this point, with its 26,000 capacity.

The idea for the new ground was to have something specifically planned for football, with room for 54,000 fans and a simple and handy design (see pic aside): four reinforced concrete stands, with the two tiers resting on two different and independent layouts of pillars and columns.

Corner sections will make their debut in 2000 only, with renovation works in preparation of 2006 World Cup, but the new ground already had a roof covering around 80% of the stands. This was another high level feature for the time.

That's where the Westfalenstadion set the standard for the rest of Europe.

Around the continent, by then, football grounds were "those already there". Not many new stadia were coming up in the middle of 70s and Great Britain was just theorising a change, with the "Green Guide". In Dortmund, instead, they were doing something and with a strong checklist in mind: the same points William Waddell[1] will be inspired by to plan the renovation of Ibrox between 1978 and 1981:
  • to privilege the best sightlines possible, with covered stands;
  • shortest pitch-stands distance possible;
  • to limit the number of roof pillars obstructing fans' view;
  • to increase the number of gates, stairs and passageways, to ensure an easy and flowing move of the fans exiting the ground (this, though, would be completely considered after Heysel and Hillsborough disasters only).

Building the Westfalenstadion
New Ibrox plan compared to the old shape of the ground

The memorable oval shape of Ibrox was about to make space for three new stands, two-tiered and fully covered. The new structures were specifically designed in order to improve fans' safety and every detail was taken in account (see for example the 8 minutes evacuation time in case of emergency).

It was a massive turning point for british football, at the time, and despite further upgrades during the 90s, the Rangers stadium that we all know today is still the building designed after Westfalenstadion's example. This is an amazing thing considering all the circumstances.

After the Ibrox case this will remain the fundamental concept behind british and european stadia renovation. The evolution of the first classic english design, brought to a highest level because of needs (Glasgow) and wisdom (Dortmund). And certainly there's a strong reason if we still consider these two grounds among the best planned and most comfortable in Europe.

for more details:
  • the inaugural match at the Westfalenstadion, 2 April 1974, youtube, link
  • Stairway 13 - a documentary, link
  • P. Collier, "Stairway 13: the 1971 Ibrox disaster", The Bluecoat Press, Liverpool, 2007.
  • A. Cunazza, "Lo stadio di calcio nel Novecento: architettura e forma", Tesi di laurea, Facoltà di Architettura, relatore: Annalisa Dameri, co-relatore: Maurizio Lucat, Torino, 2013.
[1] William Waddell (7 Mar 1921 – 14 Oct 1992), scottish footballer, he played for Rangers from 1939 to 1955. After a coaching experience at Kilmarnock he became Rangers manager and, after 1972, a member of the board and vice-president.

Westfalenstadion, 1974 (the old Stadion Rote Erde is visible to the left)
Ibrox, East and West Stand plans (left) and the North Stand building phase (right)

Ibrox, before and after the renovation
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