Whether you call it football, fútbol or soccer, ‘The Beautiful Game” inspires fevered passion from fans and players alike. And while it has yet to capture the undivided attention of spectators in North America (too much rivalry from other sports), professional soccer is undeniably the planet’s most beloved athletic competition.
Soccer devotees express their admiration and frustration for the teams they cherish, or revile, inside the modern “cathedrals” of our time, also known as stadiums. Here’s a glimpse at some — although not all — of the world’s most iconic and fascinating stadiums, where people come to worship the game of football.
Santiago Bernabéu, Spain
Santiago Bernabéu, in the Spanish capital of Madrid, is where arguably the world’s most famous fútbol team, Real Madrid, plays.
Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona is renowned, as well, but Santiago Bernabéu’s pitch is where Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (arguably the world’s most famous player) kicks the ball around on home turf.
The stadium itself, which seats just over 81,000 souls, has hosted a European Cup final, a 1982 FIFA World Cup final and, of course, millions of adoring fans over the decades.
Wembley Stadium, England
And here you thought London’s Wembley Stadium was just for big rock concerts.
Instantly recognizable due to the massive arch (436 feet high) bowed over the arena, this venue, which hosted the 1948 Olympic Games, is perhaps best known in the soccer world as the spot where England’s national team won the World Cup for the first (and only) time in 1966.
The English still talk about that glorious match to this day, ever hopeful for another shot at the title.
Estadio Azteca, Mexico
The gargantuan Estadio Azteca — also known as “El Coloso de Santa Úrsula” (the Colossus of Saint Úrsula) — was built atop an ancient lava flow from the Xitle extinguished volcano in the suburbs of Mexico City in 1966.
The stadium is noted for hosting not one, but two, World Cup finals (1970 and 1986). But perhaps more significantly, this arena witnessed the high drama of the “Game of the Century” during the 1970 World Cup semifinal, when Italy beat West Germany (4–3), with five overall goals netted in extra time.
FNB Stadium, South Africa
In Johannesburg, near Soweto township, you’ll come across the stunning FNB (First National Bank) Stadium. This gorgeous building, refurbished for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, has the distinction of being the first African venue to ever host a World Cup final (Spain vs. the Netherlands).
The stadium, also known as “The Calabash,” stands out thanks to its redesigned facade, which resembles an ornate calabash (a gourd for cooking and carrying water) sitting atop a fire pit.
Also of note, this is the location where Nelson Mandela, after serving 27 years in prison, made his first big speech to the nation shortly after his release.
Allianz Arena, Germany
Munich’s impressive Allianz Arena, where numerous 2006 World Cup games were played, dazzles football aficionados with its blazing, multihued exterior lights.
Home to the formidable FC Bayern Munich, the arena’s inflatable facade is the biggest membrane shell on the planet. The external shell can refashion its colors to represent the two teams playing on any given night and also draw upon a palette of 16 million different shades (thanks to more than 300,000 LED lights) to generate massive, complex lighting displays to celebrate all kinds of special events and holidays.
Maracanã Stadium, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Estadio do Maracanã presented the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games, as well as numerous soccer matches battled out during two World Cups (1950 and 2014).
If you know anything about Brazilian culture, you know soccer is like a religion, with Brazil’s national team winning the World Cup a mind-boggling five times. In recent years, the arena — where football legend Pele scored his 1,000th professional goal (Santos vs. Vasco da Gama) in 1969 — has had its share of trouble, falling into a state of disrepair, but hopefully conditions will improve and the stadium can regain some of the glory it once enjoyed.
Azadi Stadium, Iran
While Europe is home to a significant number of the world’s most iconic soccer stadiums, like Portugal’s Estadio da Luz and Italy’s Giuseppe Meazza, this is a shout out to another part of the planet, with Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
With its space-age looking design (it kind of resembles a flying saucer that’s just landed), Iran’s flagship football arena numbers among one the largest (by capacity) on earth, able to accommodate just over 95,000 people. Home to the Esteghlal and Persepolis football clubs, and Iran’s national team, Azadi Stadium was designed to amplify noise, which means the ruckus fans stir up can often overwhelm first-time visitors — or the opposing team.