More than 10 years ago, Simon Inglis wrote a piece for "When Saturday Comes" about the gradual disappearance of traditional floodlights. Inglis, as you may know, is a renowned sports architecture historian and the author of the classic "Football Grounds of Britain." Modern stadiums, he bemoaned, tend to have roof-mounted lights, rendering the old-fashioned, tall pylons that used to dominate many city skylines unnecessary. But those towers not only illuminated the pitch, they also told you where the ground was in the first place.
"All you've ever done was take more or less the right turn-off from the motorway and then drive blithely toward that distant set of floodlights on the horizon, like a moth homing in on a night light," Inglis wrote, adding that "like the spire of a distant church" the floodlight pylons signalled: "Local landmark. Place of worship."
On Aug. 2, I understood what he meant. We were walking down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II in Padua, Italy, on our way to Prato della Valle, the largest square in the country. Suddenly I noticed an unusual floodlight tower briefly visible between two buildings on my right. The tower was not as high as a normal football pylon and it had lights all around. I reckoned this probably meant it was a tower which stood in the centre of an elliptic sports facility and lighted a track, or maybe just parking areas. Which is why I walked on.
Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting in one of the many restaurants lining the Prato della Valle. I cast my glance across its expanse and suddenly noticed that behind the gate that stands at the southwestern end of the square I could make out this odd tower again. And behind the smaller pylon, I could now clearly see four large ones that roughly formed a rectangle.
A football stadium! How interesting, I thought. So there's a ground almost right in the historic centre of Padua, literally only a stone's throw away from the imposing Basilica of Santa Giustina and just a five-minute walk from the famous Basilica of Saint Anthony. This second basilica is one of only eight international Catholic shrines around the world, which is why you'll see so many pilgrims in Padua at any time of year. Outside Sant'Antonio, there are stalls that sell Christian souvenirs such as images of the saints, portraits of the Pope and church candles. Some of them also sell football scarves.
I wondered whose ground this was. Calcio Padova were playing in Serie B, as far as I knew, and I couldn't imagine professional games to be staged here, right between monasteries, coffeehouses and chapels. So we decided to have a look. We crossed Piazza Prato della Valle and walked down Via Giosue Carducci, as this seemed to be the street that led to the floodlight towers.
It turned out that the first, small tower with lamps on all sides belonged to a velodrome, an arena for track cycling. It was apparently still in use: The doors were closed, but a sign told you the opening hours of the velodrome and that it was named after someone named Giovanni Monti.
We continued down the street and came upon the wall that enclosed the football ground. It was adorned with graffiti I couldn't understand (as my Italian is virtually nonexistent), however, all of them were signed "UPD." Football logic dictated this had to stand for "Ultras Padova." Then I came upon a small metal plaque that bore the red-and-white crest of Calcio Padova 1910. Incredible. Was this tiny ground lined by two-story tenement houses really the club's stadium?
Noticing an open door, my curiosity got the better of me and I stepped in to find myself in a small courtyard. There were living quarters to my left, probably for the groundskeeper, and two cars, one of which had the club crest on the door. And straight ahead, maybe 25 yards from where I stood, you could see the inviting green of the pitch.
"Posso aiutarla?" ("May I help you?") a man standing near the cars asked.
"Excuse me, is this Padova's ground?" I replied in English.
"It's the old one," he said. He seemed happy that I had expressed an interest in the place. "The new one is on the other side of town. This one is now a monument."
Suddenly I noticed that there were quite a few commemorative plates on the wall of the small house. There was even, bizarrely, a mounted rotor blade. But I only had eyes for a bronze plaque with a few Italian words I didn't know. What I did know, though, was the man's name written in big capital letters across the middle of the plate: "Nereo Rocco."
That's when it hit me. This was not any old ground and I wasn't in any old football city. In 1955, Rocco won promotion to Serie A with Calcio Padova, nicknamed the Biancoscudati for their white shirts. Rocco then miraculously managed to keep the team without any star players in the top flight for six consecutive seasons, rather comfortably so. This unlikely success earned him a move to Milan, where he went on to win the European Cup.
How did the small club from Padua manage to hold their own for so long? Well, mainly by shutting up shop and playing a game that Europe came to know and fear as catenaccio. The two men who'd by and large invented this system in the late 1940s were Salernitana's Gipo Viani -- and Rocco, then with Triestina. As Jonathan Wilson writes (in "Inverting the Pyramid"), "It was only when he moved to Padova in 1953 that the success of his methods become apparent again."
Put differently, I had inadvertently stepped into a place where football history had been made. It was the spiritual home of an idea and a style that had changed the game. Almost exactly 10 years after devoting many lines to Rocco in my book about the history of the European cup competitions, I was suddenly only a few steps away from the very pitch on which he'd taught his players how to defend and then counterattack.
I pointed at the plaque and addressed my wife, who was still waiting at the door, saying: "I think this says that a very famous football coach has worked here, Nereo Rocco." I doubt the groundskeeper understood German, but I suppose it pleased him even more to hear Rocco's name from this tourist's lips.
"You can go inside," he said.
"Are you sure?" I asked hesitantly.
"Yes, sure. Go and have a look," he replied. "Just close the door behind you when you leave." So I went.
Abandoned football grounds have a very peculiar atmosphere, not unlike churches no longer in use. You know that people once came here in large numbers to have an experience they couldn't have elsewhere. And if you close your eyes, you can almost hear their voices, their cries of joy and despair.
This is why people like Roland Gerlach from Erlensee, a small town east of Frankfurt, seek out such places and then visit them. Gerlach is not really a groundhopper, because the rules of this pastime require you to attend a game -- and there will never again be any games at the grounds Gerlach likes the most. "Other people visit cathedrals," he says. "I check out grounds that have been deserted."
It's not far-fetched to make that connection. Photos of the abandoned Pontiac Silverdome, the site of the first World Cup game played indoors, do recall a derelict cathedral. Once the roof comes down, which is bound to happen soon, the arena will resemble the Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany, named for a saint who's said to have planted a sword in the ground that cannot be removed.
And from the pitch in Padua, you can see the Basilica of Santa Giustina and the tower of the parish church rising behind the north stand. Standing there, I wondered how many players have cast a furtive glance toward those buildings while stepping up for a penalty over the course of all the years they played professional football here.
The ground is called Stadio Silvio Appiani. It's named after a Calcio Padova player-manager who died during World War I at only 21 years of age. Before it opened, Calcio Padova played their home games in what is now the velodrome next door. It's also named after a footballer, because Giovanni Monti, as I later learned, was a Padova striker. (He was also an aviator and died in a plane crash, hence the mounted rotor blade.) The football-only Stadio Silvio Appiani served as Calcio Padova's ground between 1924 and 1994, then the club moved to a typically characterless modern stadium -- complete with a running track -- in the far north, next to the motorway which leads to Trento. That means the Silvio Appiani has been deserted for more than 20 years.
It tells. The terraces were crumbling, the fences rusty, the plastic dugouts full of holes. Yet this small place was fantastically atmospheric. In fact, the ground is so intimate that one of the floodlight pylons isn't even within its boundaries! Instead, it stands in a green belt on the other side of Via Marghera, the street that runs past the southern end of the ground.
There was a lone plastic banner which had been left hanging and declared "Padova Primo Amore." Rising behind it was a white building with red wooden shutters. The people who lived there must have watched many games from the privacy of their home in the old days, before the ground was left to rot.
One thing, though, was near-perfect: the pitch. I suppose the groundskeeper is still cutting the grass with regularity, either for Rocco's ghost or in the hope that the club will one day return. Who knows? It might.
During our stay, the travails of Calcio Padova were the most debated item on local television. I soon learned that the club, relegated from Serie B in May, had such financial problems that it wouldn't be allowed into the third division. In mid-July, Padova announced they would no longer field senior teams but continue to exist as a youth football club.
Two weeks later, a group led by a local businessman founded a new club called Biancoscudati Padova, whose name and badge clearly references the team once coached by Nereo Rocco. It was all very confusing, especially for a stranger who doesn't speak Italian.
While my old Volvo -- built the year after Calcio Padova moved to a new stadium -- bravely fought its way across the Alps and toward Bavaria, I began to wonder if there's a place like the Stadio Silvio Appiani in Germany. Then I thought about the Olympic Stadium in Munich. Was that still in use?
I imagined the legendary canopy roof slowly decaying, the running track where Lasse Virén won two gold medals in 1972 overgrown with weeds and the spot from where Gerd Muller scored the winning goal in the 1974 World Cup final covered by a molehill.
But no. Upon my arrival in Munich, I learned that a massive lumberjack sports event, sponsored by a manufacturer of chainsaws, had just been held at the Olympic Stadium and that the ground would soon be the site of the bouldering world championships.
Just when I began to wonder whether it's sometimes better to be abandoned, I heard that the Olympic Stadium had also hosted the international convention of the New Apostolic Church this summer. Almost 50,000 people had attended the divine service on Pentecost Sunday sitting in the stands from which I had watched the 1997 Champions League final. Yeah, I thought, that's more like it.