Located at the heart of the imposing Foro Italico sports complex, midway between the Vatican and the historical centre of Rome, the Stadio Olimpico has staged some of Italy’s most high-profile sporting events over the past 61 years.
From the 1960 Olympic Games to the 1990 FIFA World Cup™, the stadium has welcomed teams of many colours, including the red and yellow of Roma and the sky blue of Lazio, the two clubs that take centre stage in this theatre of football.
The Foro Italico, situated in the north of Rome at the foot of Monte Mario, is the seat of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) and features, aside from the Stadio Olimpico, the magnificently elaborate Stadio dei Marmiento, which is surrounded by 64 Carrara marble statues, each a gift from the provinces of Italy.
The complex also boasts some 20 tennis courts, which play host to the annual Italian Open, and the Stadio del Nuoto aquatics facility.
It was at the end of the 1920s that Benito Mussolini instructed architect Enrico Del Debbio to lay the foundations of the Fori Mussolini (Mussolini’s Forum), a sprawling sports centre devoted to all forms of physical expression. Its centrepiece was to be the Stadio dei Cipressi, the first stage of which was completed in 1932 with Del Debbio in charge.
Further construction on the arena, which was to be a monument to the fascist movement, was undertaken in 1937, with another architect, Luigi Moretti, at the helm. However, the outbreak of the Second World War brought the work to a halt again. In 1949, CONI, which owned the site, ordered that the project be completed under the watchful eye of Annibale Vitellozzi.
Then named Stadio dei Centomila (One Hundred Thousand Stadium) due to its capacity, the venue was officially opened on 17 May 1953 with a football match between Italy and Hungary and the finish of the Naples-Rome stage of the Giro d’Italia cycling race. Its name was then changed to Stadio Olimpico, following Rome’s successful bid for the 1960 Olympics.
Eternal passion in the Eternal City
Derbies between Roma and Lazio, which are held at the ground at least twice a season, are generally heated affairs. The relationship between supporters of I Giallorossi, who tend to come from some of Rome’s most modest neighbourhoods, and of I Biancocelesti, who represent more affluent areas of the city, has always been tempestuous.
While the stadium’s Curva Sud, with a capacity of 8,537, is occupied by Roma tifosi, the Curva Nord (8,576 seats) is the domain of Lazio fans. The central Tribuna Tevere stand, which connects the two rival areas, often contains a mix of supporters during the Rome derby, a situation which has generated trouble in the past.
With Italy 1990 on the horizon, major refurbishments were carried out: the two end stands and one of the central stands were demolished and entirely rebuilt, and a steel and Teflon roof was added. The improvements pushed the capacity up to 82,922, making the Stadio Olimpico the second-largest stadium in Italy behind the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan, and the 14th largest in Europe.
Further renovation work took place in 2009, in order to conform to UEFA standards ahead of the Champions League final scheduled to be played in Rome that year. Security was enhanced and the seats were replaced, reducing the capacity to 72,698. European football’s governing body subsequently gave the arena an ‘Elite Stadium’ status.
The Italian national XI is the third team to regularly perform at the Stadio Olimpico, although in recent years matches have undergone somewhat of a decentralisation process.
It still remains the site of La Nazionale’s first continental triumph, on 10 June 1968, when the Italians defeated Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final replay of the UEFA European Championship. The first encounter, played two days earlier in front of 85,000 fans, had ended in a 1-1 stalemate.
During the 1990 World Cup, Gli Azzurri played their first five matches in Rome, beating Austria (1-0), USA (1-0) and Czechoslovakia (2-0) in the group stage, before disposing of Uruguay (2-0) and the Republic of Ireland (1-0) in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively
After being ‘exiled’ to Naples for their semi-final duel with Diego Maradona’s Argentina, they lost on penalties and therefore missed out on the occasion to return to the capital for the final.
The stadium was recently selected to host three group matches and a quarter-final at UEFA EURO 2020, which will be held in several different countries to celebrate the competition’s 60th anniversary.
Pope and pop stars
At club level, four European Cup/Champions League finals have been held at the Olimpico, including Roma’s defeat by Liverpool on 30 May 1984, notable for a memorable penalty shoot-out performance from Bruce Grobbelaar. Twelve years later, Juventus were also taken to penalties in the showpiece match, but held their nerve to beat Ajax.
In addition, the majestic venue has provided a home for Italy’s national rugby team, which moved from the smaller Stadio Flaminio upon being invited to join the Six Nations Championship.
Sporting events aside, the Stadio Olimpico has also staged popular opera performances (Puccini’s Tosca in 2000), papal addresses (John Paul II), and sold-out pop and rock concerts (U2 in 2005 and 2010, The Rolling Stones in 2007 and Madonna in 2006, 2008 and 2012).