“By showing that it is possible to pick yourself up, win and triumph, Maradona was the embodiment of redemption for a team that had been going through its darkest years. He offered a message of hope and awe to the whole city. The Argentine star’s footballing victories allowed not just the Napoli football team but the entire city of Naples, which so fully identified with him, to taste victory.”
This was the statement issued by the City Council of Naples a few days after Diego Armando Maradona died when, on 4 December 2020, it adopted Mayor Luigi de Magistris’s proposal to rename the San Paolo Stadium after the Argentine champion. The decision was not without its detractors: some people thought it imperative for the stadium to retain the name of Saint Paul, the Pozzuoli district’s patron saint; others suggested using both names, calling it the San Paolo – Maradona Stadium. But this is just the most recent chapter in the history of a stadium that, ever since it was first designed, has had a long and interesting past.
Before the San Paolo Stadium
Prior to the Second World War, the biggest stadium in Naples was the famous Partenopeo Stadium, also known as the Ascarelli Stadium. Built in 1930 with wooden stands, and then largely rebuilt in 1934 with reinforced concrete stands in preparation for the World Cup that year, the Partenopeo stadium was destroyed by bombing raids in 1942. Until a new stadium could be built for them after the war, the Napoli team played at the small stadium in the Vomero district.
Design and Construction of the San Paolo Stadium
The Fuorigrotta district, which was undergoing rapid urbanization at the time, was chosen for the new stadium. Architect Carlo Cocchia, a former professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Naples (and later at the Politecnico di Milano) was commissioned to design the facility. As well as the San Paolo Stadium, during his career Cocchia also designed the Volturno Power Station, the passenger building at Naples Central Station, the Castellammare spa complex, University Hospital, and a number of other major public works.
In Cocchia’s initial design, the stadium was configured as just one elliptical ring. Later designs added a second, separate ring below street level. Cocchia envisaged these large ellipses in reinforced concrete, with travertine-covered terraces that reprised an aesthetic popularized in Fascist-era rationalism. Much like the Meazza Stadium at San Siro, Milan, whose unique characteristics remained very much in evidence even after Salini Impregilo’s late 1980s refurbishment, the San Paolo Stadium is often described as Brutalist, an architectural movement that was popular in 1950s Europe.
Like many roofless stadia in South America, the San Paolo Stadium was originally designed to be open to the elements. The stadium’s hallmark features were its external reinforced concrete ribs – 56 in all – accessed via wide ramps.
Construction began on the San Paolo Stadium in Naples on 27 April 1952. The first stone was laid at a ceremony attended by the then-Prime Minister of Italy, Alcide De Gasperi. Undertaken by the Engineers Corps, construction work lasted for seven years. The first match to be played at the stadium, on 6 December 1959, was a championship match between Napoli and Juventus: the hosts won 2-1.
Originally called the Stadio del Sole to signify the city’s post-war rebirth, the stadium also housed a six-lane athletics track. Within four years, it had been renamed after the patron saint of Pozzuoli. In the Eighties, a proposal was put forward to dedicate the stadium to Attila Sallustro, the great 1930s Napoli striker who went on to manage the stadium for many years. The Bishop of Pozzuoli, however, would not hear of it.
San Paolo Stadium Capacity
When it was first built, the San Paolo Stadium had a capacity of 90,000 standing spectators. The Olympic Stadium in Rome, inaugurated six years earlier, could accommodate 100,000 standing spectators (reduced to 65,000 seated spectators in 1960, and then raised to 82,000 seated spectators after Salini Impregilo’s refurbishment between 1987 and 1990). After its most recent renovations, the Maradona Stadium’s capacity is 54,726 seats. Large as this number may seem, this capacity is considerably lower than the world’s largest stadium, from the Rungrado May Day Stadium in North Korea, which has 150,000 seats, to the Bryant-Denny Stadium, in Alabama, which has 101,821.
Modernization and Renovation
The first major redevelopment of the San Paolo stadium took place in the run-up to the 1980 European Championships, when the floodlighting system was redesigned, an electronic scoreboard added and, above all, a two-story building built where the “Posillipo” grandstand is today. Not long afterwards, after Maradona joined the team, demand grew for permission to build an additional tier of seating and raise the stadium’s capacity.
However, construction of the third ring did not begin until the 1990 World Cup. The added height, however, was only used for a short time: it had to be closed to the public owing to never-resolved stability problems. Despite this, the stadium’s appearance was changed significantly by the addition of a shiny polycarbonate roof. Although handy for protecting spectators from the elements, the roof undoubtedly diminished the unique character of the original design. Underground parking was added in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup, yet once again, a series of logistical issues ensured that it never went into service.
Further works have been carried out this millennium. The stadium underwent a restyling in 2010, and another round of stadium-wide works in 2019, when Naples hosted the XXX Universiade. The stadium’s overall capacity was slightly reduced following the addition of new, wider seats and the installation of large screens.