James Kelly looks at the disaster of Euro 2004, where Portugal’s failure to create sustainable stadiums has led to financial ruin for many clubs and local governments.
Last summer as Portugal victoriously held aloft their long awaited first international trophy, there were many who I’m sure cast their minds back twelve years to 4th July 2004. That night at the Estadio da Luz the hosts fell victim to Angelos Charisteas’ winner, as Greece pulled off one of international football’s greatest shocks. What I’m fairly sure wouldn’t have crossed people’s minds were the nine other stadiums used to host matches in that tournament. Thanks to poor planning they have left a sour legacy, with many clubs suffering under the severe financial burden.
This was the first Euros to feature ten venues (only eight are required by UEFA), with France last year the only other to use ten venues. For a 16-team tournament to be held over three weeks in a relatively small country this was extravagant to the extreme. The combined cost of the ten stadiums exceeded €600 million, with a vast amount of this coming from public bodies and municipal councils. Obviously both the organisers and government were keen to portray a vision of a modern Portugal, but for the poorest country in western Europe these plans were simply unsustainable.
One example is the stadium in Aveiro, which cost €66 million to build and holds 30,498. Despite this high cost, and indeed size, with this now the fifth largest ground in Portugal, it was only used for two group matches. Following the tournament the main local side SC Beira-Mar moved in, along with their average attendance of 6300, enough to fill just 30% of the stadium. They were simply unfit to use such a large ground, leaving in 2015 prior to being thrown out of the second division due to debts accrued from using it. They now play in the fourth division and have gone back to their old Estadio Mário Duarte, something far more manageable. Meanwhile the now empty Estádio Municipal de Aveiro is still estimated to cost each of the city’s 80,000 residents €32 per year to maintain, with demolition being seriously considered.
This is a story replicated across the country. The Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa in Leiria cost €95 million, twice more than originally estimated, and again was only used for two group matches. In 2011/12 tenants UD Leiria left, as they were unwilling to pay the €18,000 per match rent for the measly attendances of around 3000 per match. The club which launched Jose Mourinho’s career in management have been left in financial crisis, with most of the squad going several months without wages in 2012, prior to rescinding their contracts with the team already relegated. This meant that for a game with Feirense they only had 8 players on the pitch, and the two remaining matches with Benfica and Nacional were played with only 3 substitutes. Leiria have since moved back to the stadium, although are now in the third division, currently competing in the relegation section of regional group E.
Obviously such an ambitious plan was key in the successful bid, beating off competition from Spain and Austria/Hungary, although the financing was shrouded amid allegations of corruption. Further cause of problems is the fact Portugal’s domestic competition is dominated by the big three of Benfica, Porto and Sporting. Between them they have won the league in 80 of the 82 seasons, and this year occupy the top three places. Such is their success, their popularity throughout the country is massive, with over half the population supporting Benfica. Unless teams are playing against these three clubs they struggle to get more than a few thousand fans in to watch matches. The lowest Primeira attendance this season was just 740 to watch Arouca in a mid-table clash with Chaves. Surely the organisers must have known about this chronic lack of support for smaller teams and realised building shiny new arenas wouldn’t cause the fanbase to magically increase. Other than the obvious idea of only using eight stadiums, a joint bid with Spain could have been pushed, alongside more usage of temporary stands.
One example of where this would have been beneficial is the Estádio Algarve. A region more famous for tourism more than football, the main team from this area of Farense weren’t even in the top division when the stadium opened. Last in the Primeira in 2002, they were to groundshare the Estadio Algarve with lower league Louletano, a team who have only played 4 seasons in the second division and never played Primeira football. For teams as underwhelming as this, a 30,000 capacity stadium costing €36 million is completely illogical. Both teams now play in the third division, vacating the stadium after only filling 5% of capacity on matchdays. Yet again there are calls to knock it down, with it costing €3 million a year for the local governments of Faro and Loulé despite having no tenants. As Augusto Mateus, a former Portuguese economy minister put it in 2010, “it’s very complicated to deal with something that does not create wealth nor represent any public good”.
In order to avoid what would be the ultimate embarrassment for the Portuguese FA, you get the impression they are simply inventing things in the hope of prolonging demolitions. In 2007 they introduced the Taça de Liga (league cup) and a look at final venues doesn’t make it hard to see why. Of the ten editions four, including the semis and final this year, have been held in Faro, along with one in Leiria. The same thing has happened with the Super Cup, which until 2000 was a two-legged affair held at the two competing team’s grounds. After the Euros though every edition has been held at a stadium used in 2004 tournament, with seven of the last eight played in Aveiro.
Another opportunity for use has been international matches. The Estádio Algarve is currently used for international matches by Gibraltar until their Europa Point Stadium is completed. Meanwhile Portugal games are shifted around, with two games at the back end of last year, against Andorra and Latvia, held in Aveiro and Faro/Loulé respectively. Even these though struggled to fill the stadiums, with only 20,000 watching the Latvia match. Concerts act as the best temporary earner for the municipalities, whilst the Estádio Algarve was also used as a special stage for the 2007 Rally de Portugal.
With the exception of the big three, only three of the remaining 15 teams in the Primeira play in arenas also used for the Euros. Ultimately they have only benefitted the big three, who’ve seen attendances skyrocket. They all averaged under 30,000 in the several years prior to the finals, whereas this season Benfica have averaged 55,000, Sporting 43,000 and Porto 37,000. Not even these stadiums have been without financial complications though, but as the league table shows this has had little impact on their success. Whereas they were supposed to herald a new era for Portuguese football, the new stadiums have only served to reinforce the ways of old.
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