German tennis icon Boris Becker once described Wimbledon as his living room, but his country’s national football team feel more at home at the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, widely known as the Westfalenstadion. In fact, when construction was completed on 2 April 1974, the-then West Germany coach Helmut Schon went as far as to say that the only better stadium in the world was the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Known across the country as the “opera house of German football”, the Westfalenstadion was originally built for the 1974 FIFA World Cup™. The 54,000-capacity stadium, which was under construction for three years and completed just in time for the tournament, cost a total of 34 million German Marks to build. It was opened on 2 April 1974, hosting a charity match between Borussia Dortmund and arch-rivals Schalke, and has since served as a model for the construction and expansion of many stadiums. It was the first venue in Germany solely designed to host football matches, with no running track separating the spectators from the pitch, just like at British grounds. And since its completion, the stadium has witnessed many a breathtaking moment.
Wolfgang Overath, formerly of Cologne, once expressed his jealous admiration of the stadium: “It has only one disadvantage - it’s not in Cologne…” Quite ironically though, Borussia Dortmund actually has the city of Cologne to thank for the opening of the arena 40 years ago. In 1965 the club’s decision-makers decided to build a new stadium rather than expand the Rote Erde Stadium (BVB’s former home, which is situated directly next to the arena). And the city of Cologne’s decision not to construct a new stadium at the beginning of the 1970s paved the way for Dortmund to make an application for the 1974 World Cup – and therefore for the construction of a new stadium, for which substantial financial resources were available at the time.
New stadium a springboard to success
Zaire, Scotland, Sweden, Brazil and tournament runners-up the Netherlands all played group stage matches at the Westfalenstadion during the 1974 World Cup, before the stadium helped give a new lease of life to Borussia Dortmund. The club, who had been competing in the third tier when the tournament took place, were promoted back to the top flight just two years after the finals and made a return to European competition in 1983.
The stadium has also had to grow to reflect the club’s rapid rise on the domestic and European scene. Having been renovated and expanded on many occasions since the beginning of the 1990s, the arena now has a capacity of 83,000 and holds around 80,000 fans in its stands for each home game. The venue boasts a unique atmosphere, and has certainly made an impression on many an opposing fan. The 100m-wide, 52m-deep and 40m-high south stand – the largest standing area in a European stadium – holds almost 25,000 fans, and the eight acidic yellow pylons which support the roof are 62m long, stretching majestically into the air over the Ruhr region in the west of Germany.
No wonder, then, that local fans modestly nicknamed it “the temple” and consider it the most beautiful stadium in Germany. What no one disputes, though, is that it is one of the biggest and most comfortable venues in Europe.
A simmering volcano
Tickets are sold-out almost every time 1997 UEFA Champions League winners Borussia Dortmund are in action, and the stadium was also packed to the rafters for the 2001 UEFA Cup final between Liverpool and Deportivo Alaves. A decision was made shortly afterwards to expand the stadium corners, thus increasing the number of seats to approximately 69,000. For the 2006 World Cup, however, it had a slightly lower capacity of 65,000 and hosted four group games, a Round of 16 match and a semi-final. But more expansions were still to come.
In 2009 the renowned English newspaper The Times named the Signal Iduna Park the best stadium in the world. “It has been built solely for football and to allow the fans to show their support. The final of every European cup competition should take place there. It certainly boasts the best atmosphere on the continent,” the review read.
The magnificent construction has also served the national team well. Germany remained unbeaten at the Westfalenstadion for over 32 years, a run which started when they defeated Hungary 5-0 in their first-ever international match in the arena on 17 April 1974. In fact, the team won 11 out of 12 matches in Dortmund during that time, the exception being a draw with Wales in 1977. “The atmosphere could hardly be better. The stadium’s like a simmering volcano,” declared former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann, while former international and Bremen legend Tim Borowski added: “The fans in Dortmund are phenomenal. It’s a real advantage for the team to receive such vocal support.”
One defeat in 15 matches
However, not even the fans’ vocal support could prevent disaster in Germany’s 13th match at the Westfalenstadion, with the country’s 2-0 semi-final defeat by Italy at the 2006 World Cup still a source of disappointment today. The host nation’s World Cup hopes evaporated on 4 July 2006 when Philipp Lahm, Michael Ballack and Co were eliminated by the Azzurri in what remains the team's sole defeat at the venue. Germany drew 1-1 with Italy in February 2011 in a repeat of the 2006 clash, having already beaten Russia there 2-1 in October 2008 during their World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Signal Iduna Park should also play a leading role in German football in the years ahead. State-of-the-art technology has long been associated with the stadium, where four large video screens measuring 41 square metres have been available to fans since 2011 and where a free Wifi system is set to be installed at the start of next season.
Yet despite technology and modernisations, one thing is certain: this stadium will witness its share of the sensational and the spectacular, both in the stands and on the pitch, in the years and decades to come.