At a time when Italian football is facing problems of low attendances and stadiums in desperate need for redevelopment – especially in terms of their ownership – in Europe people are already working towards a more fan-orientated future.
This isn’t about the “two-speed Europe” that we often hear about in other contexts; it is more a matter of working in “two (very) different time periods”.
It’s something that people really need to start thinking about in Italy, as many Italian clubs are struggling with either redeveloping or completely rebuilding their own stadiums.
While our main problem is about how to bring people back to the stadium, in Germany – and now in England – the big question is how to make things better for those who are already there.
Everyone now seems to be sure what the answer is: to reintroduce “standing areas” in the stands and go back to watching matches standing up.
Although clubs have spent the last 20 years heading strongly in the opposite direction, the strength of this idea is in its modernity.
When considering standing areas, the primary concern is for them to be safe. No one wants to go back to the notorious terraces of the 1980s, which could be calm if everyone behaved themselves (I only have good memories of my own experience on the terraces at the old Lansdowne Road in Dublin) but, at the same time, if problems flared up then people could easily become trapped.
The idea is to give supporters their voice back, to recreate a sense of fan participation which has largely been watered down in the ‘spectacle’ of the modern game.
Safe standing areas have existed in stadiums in Germany, Sweden and Austria for a while now.
Some stadiums are technologically simple, like Bochum’s Vonovia Ruhrstadion, where safety barriers are simply clipped into place every few rows and can be replaced by seats when needed, or vice versa. Then there are more intriguing solutions, like at Hamburg and Stuttgart, where seats fold out from inside the stand itself.
The most striking example, including for its scale, is Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, where the famous SüdTribüne is completely free-standing for all domestic games (for UEFA and FIFA competitions, seats are installed as due to competition regulations).
However, when considering the under-discussed matter of safe standing, Dortmund are quite a unique example. The South Stand has always had standing areas (and since the 2015/16 season additional standing areas have been added to the North Stand), and there are actually two different methods in operation in the stand.
The lower part of the stand follows the classic terrace style, with metal crush barriers that hark back to the old days; the upper part, on the other hand, has had rail seating installed. This is how people think about safe standing areas nowadays, where rows of foldable seats are connected to a safety barrier.
With two options in one installation, this is the current solution that is gathering momentum at European clubs and which will provide the best combination of ‘freedom’ for fans with accordance with the laws introduced into football in the early 1990s.
As this system, which combines foldaway seating with a higher support, will be installed by row, it will allow spectators to choose whether to stay seated or to stand up and lean on the railing in front of them, in compliance with the stadium’s health and safety standards.
Moreover, thanks to an internal locking mechanism, the seats can be kept down for European matches where rules require all fans to be seated.
Even the world of British football is starting to accept the idea that it is worth trialling such an option.
In 2014 the first (very small) standing area was installed at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate (however it is only used for rugby games), and this summer an entire section of Celtic Park was modified to fit a rail seating installation.
The work – which cost around £500,000 – replaced each seat one at a time, and each new seat occupied exactly the same space as the previous, traditional seat. A total of 2,600 seats were changed, but the replacements still ensure the functionality and versatility required in modern football.
The media’s push towards this initiative is increasingly strong, and it’s here that the club-fan relationship, in certain countries, is shown to be direct and productive.
Celtic undertook lengthy consultations with their fans to establish the best course of action (the photo above shows the safe standing area at Celtic Park), and other clubs are exploring the same possibility.
Brighton are considering preliminary studies and are canvassing their supporters’ opinions – the ground itself, the Amex Stadium, was inaugurated just five years ago.
It’s the same situation at Liverpool, perhaps the club who have been most negatively affected by the negative effects of the terraces. The club’s supporters group have been asked to adopt a position on the effectiveness of the new rail seating system and to consult and engage with the families of the victims of Hillsborough.
There are still a lot of difficulties, however, particularly from a legislative point of view.
While Scotland isn’t subject to the rules introduced by the Taylor Report (which is why Celtic were able to decide to install a safe standing section), the Premier League and the Championship are and, for now, English clubs are limited to conducting preliminary surveys on costs, feasibility studies and canvassing supporter opinions.
However, many believe that the time is right for things to change in football and in its stadiums, spurred on most of all by the necessity for clubs to listen to the needs of their fans in order to keep the spirit of the game and how people experience it alive.