Signposting any stadium visit before or after dark, floodlights are the first thing you see when you turn that final corner towards the field of dreams. As familiar as the Eiffel Tower, with the drawing power of Notre-Dame, these essential accoutrements elevate any evening kick-off from dull to dramatic. Here, cheating a little to include recently demolished examples from the former Eastern bloc – any excuse to showcase Soviet-era Dinamo Minsk, really – we pick our ten favourites.
After Irish writer Brian Kennedy drove nearly 3,000 miles across his native land to visit the 47 clubs to have graced the League of Ireland, the travel book he subsequently published carried a simple title and an illuminating piece of advice: Just Follow the Floodlights!
While we only include one example from the Irish canon, it’s so charmingly old-school you half-expect a pair of friendly giants to scoop up the pylons after everyone’s gone home and install them on each corner of their Subbuteo pitch.
Illuminated football was introduced in the late 1870s, with mixed results. The Nottingham derby of 1889 was played with paraffin lamps along the touchline, their strength estimated to have been that of 4,000 candles. How that calculation was made remains a mystery, but the local evening paper was there to peer through the gloom, and record that gusts of wind had caused areas of the pitch to flicker in and out of obscurity.
Innovative pre-war Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, had floodlights installed at Highbury, only for that body of enlightened progressives, the Football League, to veto their use. Two years after the West Stand was opened, bereft of floodlights, recently crowned world champions Italy did battle with England here in 1934. Literally. Player after player was crocked in the fog, beyond the gaze of referee Carl Olsson and much of the 56,000-strong crowd.
In more modern times, floodlights have been phased out for stadium illumination along the roof, a budget-saving move perfectly suited to a world shaped by IKEA, but lacking any sense of mystery or romance. Let’s face it, where would you rather be, Dinamo Minsk v Spartak Vladikavkaz in a Soviet-built metropolis or Flatpack FC v Mallshopper Albion on the outskirts of a retail park brimming with mini-roundabouts?
While Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion underwent a major rebuild between 2008 and 2012, unlike Cologne’s original Müngersdorfer Stadion which it was modelled on, the architects here kept the signature floodlights. They may have torn down the the old roof and replaced it with a contemporary one equipped with solar panels, they still kept these twin-mast gantries. These are the first thing you see as you turn the corner towards the stadium – in the Sielwall ferry that carries you down the Weser in style on any given match day.
A classic Irish ground in every sense, Dundalk’s Oriel Park was opened a century ago when Casey’s Field began hosting games in the pre-League of Ireland days. Lights were installed for the floodlit era of European football, specifically for the visit of Hungarian champions Vasas in September 1967. ‘KICK-OFF 8 p. m. Under Floodlights’ it says on the match ticket and, sure enough, photos show 1966 World Cup players János Farkas and Imre Mathesz battling under lights for their 1-0 away win. Illuminating 90 minutes of football and other ground improvements tied Dundalk in debt for the next decade, though we have these developments to thank for Oriel Park’s vintage appearance, even today. Did you ever see floodlights more pylon-y? Perhaps this is what the makers of Subbuteo had in mind when they created the first floodlights for their table-football game.
Groundshared by FC Zürich and Grasshoppers, the Letzigrund was completely rebuilt for Euro 2008 when France, Italy and Romania played before a full house here. As part of the rebuild, planners kept the running track – which saw the world’s first ten-second 100 metres here in 1960 – and kept the signature floodlights lining the roof. Some four dozen toothpick-shaped spikes provide enough light to illuminate sports events and rock shows thanks to four megawatts of hydro-electric power generated by water gushing down Swiss mountains. Whatever the technology, these lighting spikes look effortlessly stylish, perfectly in keeping with Switzerland’s swish banking capital.
No longer with us, of course, but the four floodlights craning over Budapest’s Socialist-era superbowl were as much part of its look as the seating spread out in the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag. The ‘Giraffes’, as they were nicknamed, were added in 1959, almost a decade after Puskás, teammates and fellow citizens were lugging wheelbarrows full of bricks around the construction site of the soon-to-be Népstadion, the People’s Stadium. Until floodlights, Hungary had to play internationals by day, the 7-1 massacre of England in 1954 taking place in bright May sunshine. The scoreboard that recorded the seven goals was already in place, however, alongside a huge clock, the whole kit and caboodle requiring 14,000 light bulbs. The floodlights remained integral to the skyline over the Zugló district of Budapest, visible as your train pulled out of Keleti station, until the stadium was knocked down in 2017. The new Puskás Aréna, of course, has its floodlights integrated within the roof.
Shining out in bright gold backdropped by mountains, the Swissporarena cannot fail to impress those approaching it for the first time, such as the St Johnstone fans heading here for the Europa League fixture with FC Luzern in 2014. An entire book has been written about the work of Daniele Marques and Iwan Bühler on this stadium project, the architectural duo surely inspired by the floodlight solution of the Letzigrund in Zürich (see No.8). Here, the toothpick structures don’t run around the entirety of the roof but five spikes align each sideline, enough to light up any match without spoiling the chocolate-wrapper aesthetic.
We caught this one just in time, as the record ten-time East-German champions will soon be abandoning the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Where Stasi boss Erich Mielke watched his football, this showcase stadium hosted Dynamo Berlin’s European fixtures, against Kevin Keegan’s Liverpool, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Jimmy Scoular’s Cardiff. Illuminating proceedings were these bizarre tripod-type floodlights, the 1-1 draw with the Welsh Cup winners in 1971 (Beginn: 19.00 Uhr) marking Die Weinroten’s European debut. There’s been plenty of water under the bridge since then, or rather under the Wall, as the Death Strip where so many tried to escape East Germany runs immediately behind the main stand. All will be knocked down at some point in 2021 for a complete rebuild, during which time BFC Dynamo will return to their spiritual home and HQ of the Sportforum Hohenschönhausen – perhaps more suited to fourth-tier Regionalliga Nordost fixtures.
The circular lights at Partizan, the former Yugoslav National Army Stadium, have illuminated many a classic European fixture. Here, Real Madrid nearly slipped up in the snow in their first European campaign, a 3-0 win for the Belgrade side that almost reversed the 4-0 scoreline at the Bernabéu a month before on Christmas Day, 1955. Set atop wooded Topčider Hill, they still offer an authentic depiction of Tito-era Yugoslavia, PARTIZAN spelled out in the stark black and white seating below, and Belgrade beyond. On the horizon stands the city’s first skyscraper, the Ušće Tower, 98 metres of Communist headquarters designed by the same architect as the Partizan Stadium, Mika Janković. At night, the lights in its windows used to spell out TITO, whose Youth Day rallies used to take place here at Partizan, a mass annual event illuminated by the floodlights here.
3.Vasil Levski Stadium
Unveiled shortly after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Vasil Levski was almost knocked down a decade ago when planners reckoned a state-of-the-art arena in the Sofia suburbs would be a better idea. Pah! What’s wrong with authentic Communist grandeur with all kinds of nationalist iconography thrown in, from the name itself, of a tragic Bulgarian revolutionary from the 1870s, to the backdrop of Mount Vitosha. Standing proud on each corner of this low-sloping bowl are four extremely narrow floodlights, easily picked out as you cross Gradina Park to get here, or step off the tram on the edge of the city centre. Many have slipped up, in fact, heading for the more traditional floodlights of CSKA Sofia immediately behind. The stylish pylons here don’t date back to Stalin, of course, but to the late 1960s, when Bulgaria still qualified for World Cups. The lights were bright enough for referee Gerhard Schulenburg to spot a frustrated George Best apparently deck a Bulgarian opponent at a qualifier here in 1972. A full house for Bestie’s red card, today the stadium fills for the derby between Levski and CSKA – and little else.
How about these beauties? Sadly no longer with us, the Dinamo Stadium took floodlighting to the nth degree, featuring vast waffles that must have lit up the whole of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, let alone Minsk. Archive photos show floodlights here in the heart of the Belarus capital in the 1960s, but these date back to the 1980 Olympics, when Minsk shared hosting duties for the football tournament. Syria’s and Algeria’s players must have appreciated the stadium development as both teams held Spain to a draw. Two years later, Dinamo Minsk took their only Soviet title. Three decades later, the stadium closed while a long-winded rebuild took place. You could make a case for also including the new Dinamo Stadium, its floodlights like lacrosse sticks, bent at a low angle, over an arena opened in 2018 – over the classic colonnades of the Soviet stadium, in fact – but many might prefer to track down where the original floodlights went. Those looking for them in the Minsk History Museum will look in vain.
1.Zenit St Petersburg/Petrovsky Stadium
Floodlight for floodlight, the Dinamo Stadium in Minsk outshines its contemporary in St Petersburg, but the Petrovsky Stadium has visual impact like no other, almost completely surrounded by the waters of the Malaya Neva, three bridges down from the Hermitage – and it’s still in operation. Home of Zenit for more than two decades until the Krestovsky Stadium opened for the 2018 World Cup, the Petrovsky then hosted Tosno’s single campaign in the top flight and Zenit-2 reserves in the third tier. Whatever the occasion, these angled floodlights bent inquisitively over an elegant colonnaded arcade originally planned when Lenin was still alive set the scene perfectly. While the first iteration of the stadium does indeed date back to 1924-25, the lights almost certainly came with the preparations for the 1980 Olympics when the Petrovsky was used for warm-ups. They were shining brightly in 2008 when Zenit tonked Bayern Munich – Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Kahn and all – in a legendary UEFA Cup semi-final here, 4-0. With the current Russian champions now based across the water, however, and Tosno disbanded, the future of the Petrovsky is anything but bright.
+1 AS Trenčín
An honourable mention should go to AS Trenčín, who won the Slovak title in 2015 and 2016 based at the Štadión na Sihoti between the train station and the canal. Whether you caught any of those winning campaigns or noticed four giant lollipops as your train was pulling into Trenčín, this ground is now but a memory. Knocked down in 2014-15, it is being replaced by a 12,000-capacity all-seater, all-covered, pylon-free arena part-funded by the Slovak FA. As for these floodlights of old, almost child-like in their design, they’re history, mementoes of an era being pushed aside in the name of design and energy costs.