British journalist Ryan Herman still remembers the first football ground he ever visited as a kid in 1978 — the sights, the sounds and yes, the score.
Liverpool beat West Ham United 2-0 on that day at the latter’s home grounds, Upton Park, but for Herman, the experience was about so much more than his team’s victory. The stadium in east London has since been demolished, but the feeling of wonder Herman felt standing on the terrace behind the goal there is something he still senses whenever he has the chance to visit a new venue.
With that first match and many others in mind, Herman begins his new book, “Remarkable Football Grounds,” with a statement that may surprise many fans currently watching the 2022 FIFA World Cup: Sometimes the game itself, he says, isn’t the most interesting part of the story.
“It’s everything that goes on around it,” Herman told CNN.
Aerial view of stadium of Monaco at sunrise, view from La Turbie, landmark of Monaco, Monte-Carlo, port Cap Dail, port Fontvieille, Monaco Ville Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
As he puts it in the book’s introduction, “the journey to the match, going to a part of the world you’ve never been to before (and may never go again), learning about its history, sampling the local beers… and the post-match arguments about a dubious offside” can be just as captivating as any on-field highlights.
To many, it’s known as “groundhopping” — traveling to football stadiums across the world to take in not just the matches, but also the places where they’re played. It’s a subculture Herman said a “small, determined band of individuals” subscribe to, and one that, in a sense, he’s bringing to the broader public with his book.
Herman doesn’t consider himself a groundhopper, but his early career covering several football teams took him to many pitches. He stopped keeping score long ago, but estimates he’s been to more than 100 grounds.
“I love the fact that football serves as a way of going somewhere that you wouldn’t otherwise visit,” Herman said.”Remarkable Football Grounds” takes readers to some of the world’s most stunning places where the sport is played, featuring dramatic photos and details about each locale that even the most devoted fans might not have heard.
Boys watch a Mountain Villages women’s friendly soccer match between FC Gspon and FC Saas in Gspon, in the Swiss Alps. At some 2000 meters, the pitch can only be reached by cable car lift that can carry up to 10 people or after a 45 minutes walk. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Herman hasn’t yet had a chance to visit all the grounds featured in his book, but said researching it was itself a fascinating journey. He recounts tales of eccentric club owners, political clashes and surprising historical details, explores the high-tech architecture of modern stadiums and highlights the hidden stories behind pitches found in jaw-droppingly beautiful — and sometimes unexpected — locations.
Historic City of Trogir in Croatia Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Qatar has strongly denied the allegations, stating that the health, safety and dignity of “all workers employed on our projects has remained steadfast.” Officials have also denied reports that far more workers — as many as 6,500, an investigation from The Guardian has claimed — died during stadium construction than the government’s tally of three work-related deaths.
Herman says it was important to include Qatar’s stadiums, given the tournament’s significance. But in addition to discussing some of their architectural innovations — like Stadium 974’s exterior, made from shipping containers, and the cooling system inside Al Janoub Stadium — his book also alludes to the controversies over how workers were treated, and casts a skeptical eye on organizers’ claims of environmental sustainability.
At various points, Herman refers to certain stadiums as temples or cathedrals. It’s an apt comparison, he said, given how faithful many football fans are to their team, the wider sport and the places it’s played. Regular attendance at a chosen team’s games, and passionate chance for its players, he said, can be its own form of worship.
Aerial view of the village Eioi with snow-covered mountain range, football field and dramatic sky during sunset (Faroe Islands, Denmark, Europe) Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
“It’s that sense of devotion and the outpouring of emotion that people give in football grounds,” he added.
And in some cases, like Pancho Arena in Felcsút, Hungary, the comparison is more literal. The stadium’s architecture features dramatic archways and a lattice roof that required 1,000 tons of wood to build. “The interior is quite extraordinary,” Herman writes in the book, “and you’re more likely to feel like you’re walking through a cathedral or a monastery than a football ground.”
Whether large or small, all the football grounds featured in the book are a “visual feast,” Herman said. And some of the most visually impressive grounds, with the most incredible stories behind them, he noted, have more humble origins.”Among the stronger aspects of the book are the hidden gems, if you like — the small clubs where it isn’t about winning necessarily. It’s about the fact that these clubs just exist, and they are the bedrock of the community,” Herman said.
As a football fan and someone who relishes recounting interesting stories, Herman said it’s that spirit of the sport he hopes to capture, from small community efforts to mega-structures that cost millions of dollars.
“Football isn’t just about the World Cup. Football brings together people … So many people are divided now for different reasons,” he said, “but they are united by football.”
Remarkable Football Grounds by Ryan Herman Credit: Harper Collins