A slight obsession with visiting foreign football stadia

Wherever I seem to travel to, I always look to see if the place has a football stadium.

Growing up, I’ve always been really into sport, though I don’t really play much. The last time I dedicated any serious time to playing was for my local American football team back in 2013. But getting an offer to go to university, and actually making the move there brought that to a premature end.

I love the history of sport. I actually take enjoyment in looking at the past performances of teams, the honours they’ve won, the notable events they’ve been a part of and the quirky facts that arise every so often.

Like did you know, for example, that non-league side Nelson FC, from Nelson near Burnley, were the first English team to beat Real Madrid on home turf? Well, now you do. In fact the then-Football League Division Two side beat the Spaniards 4-2 on a 1923 pre-season trip to Spain, with ex-Manchester City and Halifax Town player Dick Crawford scoring a brace.

I started my travel hobby back in January, when I had the chance to visit not one, but two grounds in the same city. Fortunately, the home stadiums of KS Cracovia and Wisla Krakow are only separated by an area of grass called Błonia Park, in a similar fashion to how Stanley Park divides Everton and Liverpool.

Outside KS Cracovia's ground, Józef Piłsudski Stadium. Cracovia have won the Polish championship five times, and are the oldest football team in Poland still in existence.

Outside KS Cracovia's ground, Józef Piłsudski Stadium. Cracovia have won the Polish championship five times, and are the oldest football team in Poland still in existence.

Their proximity to one another meant that I could visit both without angering my girlfriend. I wasn’t so lucky upon our recent visit to Tallinn, where I used part of our last full day to see Kadriorg Stadium – home of Levadia Tallinn. Part football stadium, part athletics complex – it was some way outside the city centre and that didn’t go down well with all parties involved. She had a longer face than a horse. It was more comparable to a limousine, or maybe an airport runway. But it was totally worth it.

Much like on the same holiday, it was worth visiting Skonto Stadium in Riga, named after its tenants. The 9,500 capacity building, also home to the Latvian national team, only had three stands. One appeared to be missing in what I suspect is a demolition and rebuild job, and it allowed us access to the stadium at our own leisure. Though that wasn’t how we got inside. In fact when I was looking for the club shop, it was my girlfriend who suggested we try and enter via one of the stands. It was easier done than said.

Clearly visible is the absence of one of Skonto Stadium's stands. Between me and the grass in thin netting, which could easily be walked around or crawled under. The training facility can be seen in the top left of the stadium.

Clearly visible is the absence of one of Skonto Stadium's stands. Between me and the grass in thin netting, which could easily be walked around or crawled under. The training facility can be seen in the top left of the stadium.

Yes, you read that correctly. That’s because the home of Skonto football was completely unlocked, and completely at our disposal. Resembling a post-apocalyptic scene, the only place we didn’t have access to, ironically, was the locked club shop. I was, however, able to poke my head into the chairman’s office and look at the pennants that adorned the wall behind his desk. I was able to take an uninterrupted look at the trophy cabinet. And I also had full access to the stands, pitch and club training facility.

The only person we saw knocking around was the groundskeeper – and he looked as though he wouldn’t have even been fazed by Godzilla. It was a surreal experience.

All alone in Skonto's training dome.

All alone in Skonto's training dome.

Perhaps the least developed ground I’ve been to this year though is Ayia Napa FC’s Municipal Stadium. Looking down at the resort itself it was locked up – but its short walls made entry more than possible. It also came complete with a motor vehicle graveyard on one side of it, and what looked like the worst set of training pitches you’re likely to see across the road. If a Cypriot First Division team’s stadium is like that, you can’t help but wonder what the homes of those in the lower reaches are like.

Short walls, but no footballs: The wonderful home of Ayia Napa FC.

Short walls, but no footballs: The wonderful home of Ayia Napa FC.

But the best experience I’ve had at a football stadium whilst going away, so far, was definitely the evening spent at Budapest’s Groupama Arena, where Hungary’s most successful team, Ferencvaros, play. We were on hand to watch them lose 1-0 at home to Bosnia’s FK Zeljeznicar Sarajevo in a Europa League qualifying game.

The venue was just a little over a year old, and to get in we had to apply to get membership cards which, in turn, allowed us to purchase tickets. Presumably a way of cracking down on hooliganism, I had to give over information ranging from my name and address, to my phone number and Mother’s maiden name, then have my fingerprints and headshot taken. It was a strange process to have to go through, but if it keeps their stadium safe then surely it’s well worth it.

But what set it apart is that not only did we get to see their arena, take photos and buy merchandise from the club shop. But we were able to get a true feel for the match day experience itself, and it was great to be part of a foreign crowd, yet feel so at home watching the beautiful game.

A summer's evening in Budapest watching football with the lads. Not a bad way to live.

A summer's evening in Budapest watching football with the lads. Not a bad way to live.

To remember every stadium I’ve been to since Krakow, I purchase a scarf of the club that plays there. There is one exception, Ayia Napa FC, because they had no club shop, nor were there any suppliers of any branded products of the team in any of the resort’s shops. But the scarves I do have are currently pinned to the wall of my bedroom at university.

My current scarf collection.

My current scarf collection.

I hope to add to my collection next year, as I go to Oslo, Belfast, Brussels and Bucharest. And there’s also Milan, where I’ll be going to watch Inter play in person.

But in the meantime, I’ll have to do my research, see which teams are close to those cities and enjoy reading up on some more sporting history.