Featured photo: Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images
Sometimes, architectural projects defy any human logic and that is definitely the case of the gigantic San Nicola Stadium in Bari. We don’t always know what’s the rationale behind such decisions: It can be money, politics, power, fame, etc. Whatever the reason may be, one thing is for sure: The city of Bari finds itself with a fantastic stadium, an architectural masterpiece, but placed somewhere where it apparently doesn’t belong.
The San Nicola is often referred to as a paramount example of a cattedrale nel deserto (literally a “cathedral in the desert,” an Italian expression comparable to the English “white elephant”) due to the weather conditions of the location, the fact that the surrounding area is almost entirely abandoned and in poor condition, and, of course, its exorbitant construction costs which were disproportionate to the future utilization of the structure.
The San Nicola is Italy’s third-largest stadium in terms of capacity, just behind perhaps the country’s most emblematic playing grounds: the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and the San Siro in Milan. If we think that the city only has one team, and that said team is probably one of the most disbanded and re-founded teams in the history of calcio, currently playing in the third division, we can begin to understand why this gargantuan structure has attracted so much attention and perplexity.
However, don’t let this introduction fool you: The stadium is a magnificent venue and, when completely lit at night, has a fantastic charm. Due to its peculiar hyperboloid shape, it is also known as l’astronave (“spaceship”). The inner part also has a particular look: The higher ring is composed of 26 upper tiers, each separated by an 8-meter gap, which gives them the appearance of petals and the whole stadium the resemblance of a “flower.”
Like for many other major football venues in Italy, the history of the San Nicola in Bari is linked to the designation of the country as host for the 1990 World Cup. Back in the days, aside from the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, there were no major grounds capable of hosting international matches in Southern Italy. The Comune of Bari seized the opportunity and, afraid of being passed over by Lecce (a city in the same region of Apulia), launched a plan to create a new stadium since their 50-year-old Stadio Della Vittoria was not in the condition to host this type of spectacle.
The famous Italian architect and Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Renzo Piano was chosen to lead the project. Construction works began in October 1987 and finished in May 1990, seven months later than expected.
Such delay made the original idea of an opening match between Bari and incumbent World Champions Argentina, scheduled for May 10, impracticable. Other attempts were made to host the Mitropa Cup Final but, finally, in a great hurry, the stadium was inaugurated on June 3, 1990, as Bari faced European Champions Milan. The match resulted in a 2-0 victory for Bari, with Milan lacking most of its star players who were already preparing for the World Cup with their respective national teams.
The hasty opening was no exaggeration. Less than one week later, on June 9, the San Nicola hosted its first World Cup match between the USSR and Romania.
As far as the name is concerned, we must keep in mind that we are in the South of Italy (if you have not already done so, we recommend you check our article on the San Paolo in Naples), famous for its sentimental, histrionic, and passionate people. Outside of Italy, Bari is not as famous as Napoli or the major Sicilian locations – despite boasting some relevant touristic and monumental attractions.
Most people from Bari are Christians like the majority of Italians and their faith is mainly entrusted to their beloved, local patron Saint – San Nicola. When a popular referendum was called to choose a name for the new stadium, the San Nicola option was the winner with almost twice as many preferences as the second most voted option…
After hosting several World Cup matches, including Italy’s Third Place Playoff against England, the stadium was used primarily for Bari’s games, in an age when they were still playing in the Serie A.
In 1991, the San Nicola was chosen to host what is to date the biggest football event to take place in it: The European Cup Final between Red Star Belgrade and Olympique Marseille. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the most boring continental Finals ever seen, which saw the Yugoslavian side and their numerous supporters prevail on penalties after a goalless game.
Since 1990, Bari’s history has been one of steep decline, and their stadium experienced the same. The Galletti (“Bantams”) lived their best period right in the year of the Italian World Cup as they won the Mitropa Cup – the team’s only international trophy. They wandered between Serie A and Serie B since then, until they went bankrupt in 2018 and were re-founded for the fourth time in their history and the second in only four years.
Napoli’s President Aurelio De Laurentiis acquired the newly-reformed club, which had to restart from the Serie D (the fourth division), and in one season got promoted to the third category – where they currently lie.
As it could be expected, a stadium of such magnitude has become too big for the team and today is barely able to meet all its living expenses, which means that, over the years, its conditions got worse and worse – far from its initial splendor.
However, if you find yourself in the beautiful, underrated Mediterranean city of Bari, whose architecture resembles a Greek city, we recommend you also stop by the San Nicola Stadium: It is still an architectural work worthy of admiration, like few other stadiums in the world.
You can sit in one of the “petals” and enjoy a lower-level of football but with the same feeling and passion that you would experience in any Champions League match. Or, if you are feeling nostalgic, you can imagine being back in 1990 watching Salvatore Schillaci taking a nerve-free penalty in the 86th minute to the right of Peter Shilton and earning Italy a World Cup bronze medal.
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