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Exploring the Resemblance: Football Stadiums as Modern Cathedrals

Greg Devine


A football on grass with a blurred stadium in the background.

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That headline might slightly confuse you. I’m not saying that football stadiums are cathedrals, literally. Cathedrals still exist as houses of worship with incredible architecture. It’s that architecture I’m talking about here.

A football stadium and a cathedral look nothing alike. One is a gothic marvel made of stone whilst the other is a steel masterpiece. Both are engineering and architectural monuments. They both fulfil a purpose in a grand way that shows off the power of humanity’s building skills. Dive a little deeper and other similarities start to appear. Both buildings require complex engineering just to keep them standing. Cathedrals have flying buttresses to keep the walls upright and vaults that keep the roof where it should be. The modern equivalents in a football stadium are trusses and girders. Look how a stadium’s roof hangs over the side of the building, so that fans have an uninterrupted view. This is simply the engineering breakthrough of our time, in a similar fashion to flying buttresses. It’s the next step in architectural development.

Empty Football Stadium

Even how these buildings are built is strikingly similar. Stadiums and cathedrals are never built in one go. They’re extended, demolished, then redesigned over an extended period of time. Westminster Abbey still has its 11th Century foundations, but the rest of the building is unrecognisable. Its iconic towers were only built in the 1700s. One of Italy’s premier footballing venues is the San Siro, built in the 1920s. Just like a cathedral, it was extended, redesigned, and reimagined into the colossal amphitheatre of football it is today. St. James’ Park in Newcastle is the same. I look at old images of the ground and I can spot familiarities—like the pub that still stands. However, the rest was redesigned as the club grew in size over the decades. Its location and its hallowed turf are still the same. It still has its sloped pitch, and it still stands proudly on top of the hill overlooking the city centre of Newcastle, dominating the skyline.

That’s what cathedrals also do—dominate the skyline. These buildings are behemoths that overlook the area, and often, the entire city. From the sky, they demand your attention as a focal point of the area. 

Go inside both and they differ greatly; however, they still create the same reverence and atmosphere, due to their overwhelming size and scale. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many grand cathedrals from the Mediterranean to Russia. Every time you visit one, their immense size makes you breathless. Visiting huge stadiums like Wembley or Barcelona’s Camp Nou filled me with the same emotions.

Even the way we interact with these buildings is strikingly similar. Every other weekend, football stadiums are full of people, and every seat in the house is taken. It’s the same in a cathedral, you’re just sat on a pew instead. People come together in these buildings to support the same entity—either a football team or a religion. They become part of a community, they become its soul. The buiding almost belongs to the people; as a minimum, it represents them. Durham Cathedral, for example, has a stained-glass window dedicated to its mining history. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen is the home of Germany’s Schalke football club. The tunnel the players walk through as they come onto the pitch is designed to resemble a mineshaft, in reference to the area’s proud mining background.

I could go further with the similarities. In a cathedral, you sing hymns; in a football stadium, supporters chant. Where else do people come together in such large groups and sing in harmony? There are stained glass windows in cathedrals, saints, paintings and statues, all honouring the area. It’s the same in football stadiums; they honour the greats of the sport in statues, murals and banners. Whilst these people may be adored for different reasons, they all become immortalised in these venues. Even the naming of these places is similar; they’re often named after a saint or an important club figure. Cathedrals contain archives full of relics pertaining to the relevant religion; many football stadiums have museums that contain relics related to the club—such as old shirts and trophies.

Their similarities should be of no surprise. Cathedrals and football stadiums are both focal points within their communities. Sometimes, they even cross over—like in Scotland, with the catholic Celtic team and the protestant Rangers. 

Both are monuments of great architecture, adored by the people who visit them.

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