The world of soccer is aided in its beauty and addiction by its one of a kind atmospheres. No other sport on earth produces the choreographed chants, banners, flares, and overall intensity that a soccer match can provide. Often, it spills into a lifestyle, sometimes referred to as Hooliganism, sometimes as Ultras. Regardless of the name given to the hardcore supporters of their clubs, they maintain a presence inside stadiums that makes a match far more than 22 players chasing a ball.
Today’s article is a unique one—A listing of the most intimidating venues that most readers to the site aren’t going to know about, located in the epicenter of soccer, Europe. We can talk about Anfield’s European Nights, Ibrox, Celtic Park, and on and on until we’re blue in the face, and these are also British grounds, which are usually more familiar to the average reader—but there are many other atmospheres worth mentioning. Here are 10 “Off-Your-Radar” locales.
1. Stadion Rajko Mitic, Belgrade, Serbia
Club: Crvena Zvezda(Red Star) Belgrade
The Serbian Marakana(Yes, it’s nicknamed after the famous Brazilian stadium) is one of the most bone-chilling places to play soccer in the world, and it’s tops on our European list of features. The stadium is set into the earth, with 12 million square feet of soil removed to achieve this intimidating “below ground” feat. As such, the locker rooms sit in the basement of the facility, which is actually below the level of the playing pitch. It’s one of the most intimidating walks an away player will make in his career, through a maze of narrow corridors with peeling paint, all-the-while hearing the raucous Delije(Red Star’s Ultras) setting off smoke bombs, throwing road flares at the pitch and exercising their vocal chords—before the match even begins.
The Delije have held traditional ties with Spartak Moscow and Olympiacos Athens ultras, which is loosely based on the three nations Orthodox religious ties, are Serbian Nationalists, and many fought in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. It’s often speculated that the in-stadium chaos between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb ultras was the ignition switch for the war. Eastern Europe is known for its intense atmosphere around big matches, sometimes violent ultras and the different way of life. The Belgrade Derby, contested between Red Star and their hated rivals Partizan, is one of the most intense rivalries on the planet. Throw in the fact that Red Star is finding its footing again on the pitch as a Champions League regular, and it’s one of the toughest places in the world to go win a match.
In this video, the Belgrade Derby is referred to as one of the most intense on earth and a “must-see.”
Here’s the famed tunnel system on the day of a Derby
2. Turk Telecom Arena, Istanbul, Turkey
Things get rowdy enough inside the TTA that the fans have labeled the moniker “Welcome to Hell” on the ground. From a well-built roof that holds in noise to crank up the decibel level to flares, a wall of ultras and even choreographed gunfire(Yes, gunfire), the TTA is among not just the most intimidating venues to play a match in Europe, but would make a Top 10, if not Top 5, anywhere on earth.
Galatasaray’s fortress is well worthy of a place here and could very easily be number one, and would be, if not for the hallway walk at the Marakana in Belgrade.
Here’s the Galatasaray crowd vs. Manchester United a few years back:
3. Marshal Jozef Pilsudski Municipal Stadium, Warsaw, Poland
Club: Legia Warszawa
Any stadium named after a famous military leader, war hero, patriot, and beloved nationalistic politician has to have a reason to be on a list like this—and the Polish Army Stadium, as it’s also referred to, doesn’t disappoint. Legia ultras, the Zyleta, are some of the most hardened in Europe. They show in force for every match, regardless of opponent, and make themselves heard—Their tifos are some of the most controversial in Europe. These guys are the torchbearers of stadium insanity in the country.
The entire stadium joins in their choreographed chanting and jumping around at certain points of the match(It’s like the 4th quarter Jump Around at Wisconsin, but better), and their antics have seen Legia handed empty stadium bans by UEFA and the Polish Federation on multiple occasions over the years. The shiny new stadium that replaced their crumbling Communist Era ground is a massive atmosphere upgrade, and the intensity of the crowds puts this Eastern European capital in the top 5, and if we showed some bias, we could easily have 2 other Polish stadiums inside the top 5 when they are “on the big stage.”
Polish ultras, in general, are not the type of people you want to run into walking down a dark alley in the opposing kit. They’re weightlifting, kielbasa eating, kickboxing machines. They are fiercely nationalistic and conservative politically for the vast majority, and Legia’s Zyleta is at the top of that list.
Here’s one of their famed choreographed chants:
4. Pancyprian Gymnastic Association Stadium, Nicosia, Cyprus
Club: APOEL Nicosia
The GSP Stadium in Nicosia may not be as shiny as the Turk Telekom Arena or the Army Stadium in Warsaw, nor are their crowds as big on a regular basis, but when European Competitions roll around, magic happens. “Nicosia Nights” as I refer to them on Corner Kick USA. The APOEL regulars are supported by a group of passionate ultras that pack the GSP to the brim with their club colors. Their Ultras travel as well as anybody in Europe, and they, like many, fancy a confrontation. They’re fiercely Pro-Greek, and most APOEL fans happen to think Cyprus should be Greek…Makes for an exciting evening of politics mixing with the sport.
To top it off, things can get rowdy enough inside the GSP that the ultras are separated from the casual supporters in the main stands by a spiked fence with barbed wire wrapped around the top.
Here’s one of those magical “Nicosia Nights” in the 2016-2017 Champions League Qualifying Round, as APOEL hit three stoppage-time goals to pull a magical comeback against Norwegian powers Rosenborg.
5. Poljud Stadion, Split, Croatia
Club: Hajduk Split
Some clubs have the support of a city; others have the support of half of a country. Hajduk Split is one of those clubs. They have an Ultras group claiming to be the oldest organized firm in Europe, The Torcida, and no matter where in Dalmatia you travel, you are bound to see the imagery of the Torcida or the Hajduk logo on buildings, cars and tattooed on arms. Hajduk may not be big European movers right now like their hated archenemy Dinamo Zagreb, but the Dalmatian club regularly boasts the largest average attendance in the Croatian league.
When they have a European match, play Dinamo or fellow title-contending regulars Rijeka, the Poljud is filled to the brim. Outside of the well-organized chanting, flares, and tifos, the stadium is built to hold the noise from the majority of the crowd with its roofing. The most intimidating part of the entire experience for a visiting club undoubtedly takes place before the match even kicks off, as the entire stadium sings the Hajduk song, “Dalmacijo” Here, take a look for yourself:
6. Stadion Miejski(Municipal Stadium), Poznan, Poland
Club: Lech Poznan
We said there could be three Polish stadiums in the Top 5 if we showed some bias and added this ground and Wisla Krakow’s Henryk Reyman stadium, but the second of those grounds makes our list at #6. The intimidating stadium on Bulgarska Street is a cacophony of noise from the second the turnstiles open until the last fan leaves. The roof traps in all the noise, all the smoke—even the cigarettes, which aren’t supposed to be smoked inside the ground…I’ve been there and witnessed this with my own eyes. Perennial Polish title contenders Lech Poznan call this venue home. The supporters of the Railwaymen(The club’s moniker in Polish is Kolejorz, and the club was closely associated with the Polish Railway firm PKP from 1930 until the mid 1990s) form a wall of blue and white throughout the entire stadium and for big matches, the fans will stand and chant in unison around the entire stadium.
They’ve had some special European nights inside that building, specifically a run about ten years ago when the club featured some of the top players in Eastern Europe, including a young Robert Lewandowski. Of late, the club has found itself mired in the mid-table as a result of some poor signings and has also found itself bounced from European competition by small-time competition from Iceland(part-timers Stjarnan) and Lithuania(Zalgiris Vilnius) over the last few years and fans turned out in smaller numbers for their last Europa League Group Stage appearance(There was little faith amongst anyone that the team would be competitive), but rest assured, when Poznan is on its day, this is one of the best stadiums you’ve never heard of.
Here’s a clip of Poznan’s ultras in action:
7. Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus, Greece
Another stadium named after military leader. Karaiskakis was a fallen leader of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. The stadium sits on a site of the former Velodrome from the first modern Olympiad, is home to the biggest Greek club, and also to the most incredible Greek ultras. Olympiacos count, according to several polls over the years, nearly half of all football fans in the greater Athens region as supporters of the club.
The atmosphere is intense enough that even the Lion himself, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has paid his respects to the fans after playing there. Former PSG star Lucas Moura stated that the ground was the most intense atmosphere he had ever played in, and even PSG owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi said that he had never seen fans like Olympiacos up close before in his entire life. Endorsements from super-names of the sport of the last decade certify Olympiacos to be included on this list.
Here’s the Olympiacos Ultras at their finest:
8. Partizan Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia
Club: Partizan Belgrade
We can’t include one Belgrade superclub and neglect the other, now can we? While there are several additional clubs in Belgrade, including OFK and Vozdovac(Who play on the roof of a mall), the previously mentioned Red Star and Partizan are by far the most important and influential in the entirety of Serbia, not just in Belgrade. Partizan fans still often refer to the ground by its former name, the Yugoslavian Army Stadium. The club has been forced to play numerous domestic and European matches behind closed doors over the last decade due to the actions of supporters, especially those of the infamous Grobari.
The Grobari sit on the south stand of the ground and are some of the biggest hellraisers on the continent. Their actions actually got Partizan booted from European competition during the 2007\2008 UEFA Cup. During the away leg against Bosnian side Zrinjski Mostar, Grobari traveled in large numbers and fought with police, stewards, and Mostar supporters alike—The kicker—Partizan won the two-legged tie 11-1 on aggregate. A separate group of supporters who splintered from the Grobari, Zabranjeni(The Forbiddens) now sit on the Northside of the stadium—As if one group of lunatics wasn’t enough—Partizan’s got two. Bring an extra pair of underwear when you go play there, just in case…
Grobari in action:
9. Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, Croatia
Club: Dinamo Zagreb
The Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb makes this list not so much for their atmosphere inside the ground, as the stands sit far back from the field, and there is no roof to hold in the noise, but because of the Bad Blue Boys. Crowds at Dinamo Zagreb, especially for league matches, are not very large these days, in spite of the team having a star-studded lineup, producing some of the best young Croatian talent of all time and being perennial title contenders along with hated rivals Hajduk Split and Rijeka. The reason casuals stay away isn’t because they know Dinamo will beat most teams besides Hajduk and Rijeka by multiple goals or because they don’t want to see top Croatian prospects—Many worry for safety, in their own ground, while others believe that owner Zdravko Mamic is simply out for personal gain by selling players and not investing further into the ground or club needs.
The Bad Blue Boys are quite possibly THE toughest firm in Europe. They have a history of violence with other ultras, police, and even with players. Many of the original BBB was involved in the Balkan conflict as front line soldiers, and that deep-rooted hatred for their enemies has subsided little over the years. The BBB and Delije of Red Star, their hated rivals from the old Yugoslav league, as we mentioned previously, are sometimes credited as kick-starting the conflict between Croatia and Serbia with their famous fight in the stadium.
Here’s a video from about a decade ago which outlines the BBB:
10. Ljudski Vrt, Maribor, Slovenia
One of the best small stadium atmospheres anywhere on earth can be found tucked away on the left bank of the Drava river in Slovenia’s second-largest city of Maribor. The People’s Garden, as the name translates, isn’t named for a war hero or anything of the like, but the Maribor players may as well be such legends to the fans.
Their league support yo-yos based on the opponent from sellouts against capital city rivals Olimpija Ljublana to just a few thousand for matches with relegation-threatened sides, but when the Ljudski Vrt is full, it’s a special time, especially during European competition. Maribor home fans have seen their fair share of high drama, extra times, penalty-kick wins, and group stages over the last 15 years or so, and leading the way are the Viole, the Maribor Ultras. They sit in the tightly packed endzone areas of the stadium and provide a show of flares and banners to match their lively chanting. It’s not a big stadium, but it behaves like one. For that, the tiny Ljudski Vrt makes this the final entry of this Top 10.
Here’s the Viole in action:
We’ve only hit out on ten stadiums and groups of supporters out of thousands in Europe. There are another hundred grounds and groups that could be featured, and maybe one day, they will find their place on Ambush Sports. We could have made Honorable Mentions a mile long, from Wisla Krakow to Ferencvaros and many other clubs throughout Central and Eastern Europe, but for now, we stop at these ten. Cheer on, ultras.
Grounds of: Red Star, Legia, Hajduk, Lech, Partizan, and Maribor: wikipedia.org
Galatasaray, APOEL: Youtube.com
Dinamo Zagreb: timeout.com