Cardiff 2017, the Champions League enters the temple of rugby

Fair weather supporters” – This is how Hugh, my guide to Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, labels Welsh football fans.

Some years ago, it was difficult to see 10,000 people attending a football match — it didn’t look nice,” he says. He looks around, staring at the standings and the 74,500 empty seats.

Now it would probably be sold out.”

[The view from Principality Stadium’s East tribune]

His prediction will become a reality on June 3rd, when the Principality will host the Champions League final.

The sporting world in Wales is changing. After the National Team’s impressive run at Euro 2016, and the growth of the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen football is now in the spotlight and has become the main discussion topic in pubs.

Hugh, a down-to-earth man on his sixties, speaks in a hasty way, over his shoulder. He wears a hat with the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) crest — it’d be easy to mistake him for a rugby enthusiast bothered, almost threatened, by the sudden popularity of football. But the truth is facts prove him right: the sporting history of both this country and this stadium is tied to rugby, and football is only a bit player.

[The corridors leading to the locker rooms recall how important rugby is to this country]

People in Cardiff are visibly proud of the Principality Stadium, and they even mention it amongst the places not to be missed during a visit to the city — no without good reason, as some deem it as one of the most technically complicated buildings of the period stretching from late 20th to the first decades of the 21st century.

Designed and built from 1997 to 1999, the Principality Stadium is a masterpiece of sporting architecture and technology: it’s the most sustainable arena and can boast a cutting-edge retractable roof which can be closed in 20 minutes — the biggest in Europe (second only to Dallas Cowboys’ NFL AT&T Stadium in the whole world) and the second to have this specific feature after Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena.

[The roof of Principality Stadium seen from the highest seats of the third ring. Usually, the roof is closed in order to host concerts or motorcycle races. For this reason, the turf is built upon a system of removable stakes]

The complexity of the stadium is given by its location, right in the city centre and by the Taf river, with very little room to build. Architects also had to deal with Cardiff Rugby Football Club, whose stadium, Cardiff Arms Park, is just few meters north of the former National Stadium, which was demolished and replaced by the more modern Principality.

[Due to the little room builders had, the third ring of the stadium was built with a slope of 44%, the maximum allowed by law]

During the construction, Cardiff RFC refused to move away from their stadium to allow the erection of the new, also demanding that cranes didn’t loom over their pitch. For these reasons, building proved extremely hard and the north tribune of the former National Stadium could never be torn down and rebuilt.

[The “Cardiff Fault”: the Principality Stadium is not composed by perfect rings. The former National Stadium’s North tribune couldn’t be demolished, and remains that built in 1962]

In the two decades since its birth, the stadium has already been renamed twice — originally called Millennium Stadium, it took the name Principality Stadium in 2015 due to a sponsorship contract with the Principality construction company. With the 2017 Champions League final coming, it will turn into National Stadium of Wales, as the UEFA rules don’t allow sponsors to feature in the stadium’s name.

[The Welsh Rugby Union crest and the shirts of the rugby National Team. The Principality’s away locker room was said to be cursed – the first 12 games were won by the team using the home locker room]

Everything inside the stadium, prior to the maintenance work for the final, relates to rugby — videos, photos, trophies, badges, the pitch itself.

The history of the Principality Stadium itself is entwined with the one of rugby. The Millennium Stadium was built to become a temple for this sport – for the 1999 Rugby World Cup – and is owned by the Welsh Rugby Union. The arena also hosted three World Cups and countless Six Nations games.
On the other side, football has some memories in this stadium too. At club level, six FA Cup finals were played here, although it was just because Wembley was under renovation, and Parma faced Barcelona in a friendly in summer 2004 — on that occasion, goalkeeper Sebastian Frey said: “It’s a fantastic stadium, probably one of the best in the world”.

[The view at the end of the way leading to the pitch]

The Principality also hosted Wales national team from 2001 to 2011, with poor attendance and results — after that, Wales chose to move to the smaller Cardiff City Stadium trying to fill it up. The last relevant international game was a South Korea 2-0 win over Japan on 10 August 2012 during the third-place final of the London Olympics.

The Champions League enters a place where football is an intruder — Cardiff people see it as a signal, as if football were invading a space previously reserved for rugby.

Yet, all the rugby supporters, just like Hugh, have no doubts — it’s just a temporary loan, after which football will be moving back to Cardiff City Stadium, as Wales manager Chris Coleman has already stressed.
Hugh lives this moment as an annoying interruption of the long-lasting union between rugby and his country, caused by the current spotlights and “fair weather supporters”. As we go out, he shows me a photo.

[The first Welsh national team who played a game against England in 1881]

On that occasion, Wales couldn’t even gather 15 players. They were 13, so they asked some people in the streets to join. Then, rugby spread to the valleys and Southern Wales up to become the national sport,”

says Hugh.

He takes a break, then he turns and, while walking towards the exit, tells me in a hurried way, speaking over his shoulder: “And it’s still like that.

Cover photo ©Flickr user Ihouharane
Other photos ©Alessio Perrone