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Official Review by Michal Karas, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Ever since the regime change, various Polish government officials had promised to do something about Stadion Dziesięciolecia. The outdated giant with no tenant was leased to a marketplace operator and began its life as Jarmark Europa, Europe’s largest market. Some said that no matter if you needed clothing, pirated CDs or a Kalashnikov, everything was there. Except for actual sports.
Several Sports Ministers failed to change the situation until Poland applied to host Euro 2012 with Ukraine. Warsaw was the only Polish city meeting infrastructure demands, so a proper stadium had to be built. Designed together by German GMP Architekten and Polish JSK Architekci, the new venue was to resemble a wicker basket, a piece of traditional Polish craft. Instead of wicker, the cladding was created with aluminum mesh forming a silver-red mosaic of national colours. These aesthetics didn’t enjoy a warm welcome, often criticized as tacky and too imposing in Warsaw’s skyline. However, within just two years the stadium became a major landmark of the Polish capital, appreciated by many residents.
Inside there are 58,145 seats spread over two tiers, covered with one of the largest membrane roofs across Europe. The Central part is retractable and hidden behind four giant screens hovering above the field. This entire layout is derivative to the Commerzbank Stadion in Frankfurt, designed by members of the same design team.
As Poland was granted the right to welcome Europe’s best teams in Warsaw in 2012, controversies over the stadium began surfacing. First, it became Poland’s most expensive sports project and still hasn’t been fully covered to date (May 2014). The estimated cost has grown to roughly $650 million, at least 25% over the initial budget.
And while public expenses started to inflate, questions over legacy use were raised, met with confusion by the investor, a subsidiary of Polish Sports Ministry.
It wasn’t until January 2013 that the stadium signed its first long-term contract with Polish Football/Soccer Association, PZPN. Still, with only six international games every year and one Polish Cup final, Poland’s most popular sport represents less than 30% of all major events at the stadium. The rest of the calendar includes expositions, concerts and exhibition gigs in less popular sports, like American football and even windsurfing.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Poland doesn't have a big tradition of consumption during sports events, resulting in many stadia offering only one or two kinds of meals to choose from. Compared to those grounds, Warsaw represents a higher standard and has about ten different dishes for regular fans to enjoy.
Still, the offerings are extremely modest at Stadion Narodowy compared to other international venues. Popcorn, burgers, sausages and the Polish fast-food zapiekanka, all from microwave, are the dominant positions. Coca-Cola's basic beverage selection is aided by warm tea and coffee, plus non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beer, the only kinds allowed at mass events throughout the country.
Concession stands are located around the stadium, along the main promenade, but attempts to buy anything during the halftime break may end with a long half-hour wait at sports events.
The prices are very much what one might expect from Warsaw, Poland's most expensive city. At the end of the day it may turn out that your ticket cost less than the semi-fresh burger and Coke you were served. While many people may accept the moderate quality of what they eat, the prices are a lot harder to digest.
As a country, Poland offers a very vivid stadium atmosphere created by numerous ultra groups, widely accepted by other parts of the fan bases. However, modern stadiums tend to limit the spontaneity of most vibrant sections severely, not allowing people to stand, bring in larger flags or other materials, especially pyrotechnics.
So it is with Stadion Narodowy, which has a long list of banned items and unwelcome behavior, preferring what many Poles call a 'picnic' atmosphere, more oriented for consumers than supporters. Also, as there is no team playing here every two weeks, there hasn't been a decent basis for local fan culture to develop with its own traditions and customs.
That said, the stadium offers great acoustics and the steep double-deck stands give very decent views across the stadium, making the field seemingly close even 40 meters above ground level. This means that once the crowd gets animated eventually, the stadium may turn into a true cauldron that makes one shiver. Getting things started with many 'accidental' viewers is still challenging, though, and the speaker system isn't particularly convincing for many people in leading the cheers.
Stadion Narodowy, literally translated as National Stadium, is set on the much forgotten east side of Vistula, in the Praga district of Warsaw. Location was forced by the previous ground's setting and the stadium is considered crucial to Praga's revitalization by some.
The district is already beginning to change with new businesses opening around Narodowy, but on the whole it's still considered one of Warsaw's less attractive parts. This may not be seen as fair to many people, because Warsaw, almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during WWII, has some very interesting historical architecture left precisely in Praga, while the west side was nearly leveled in the 1940s.
For a tourist, visiting this place gives a feel of the 'real Warsaw', without skyscrapers and fancy sushi restaurants, but with neighborhoods remaining as they used to be, living in a seemingly different order.
The stadium itself also attracts people for non-event visits. Surrounded by decently-planned public green areas, the place offers great leisure and community activities and is open to everyone from dawn until dusk.
There were several attempts to get Legia or Polonia, Warsaw's two largest sports clubs, to move some of their fixtures here, but without success. As a result the stadium doesn't have its own fan base. During games of the national team it enjoys capacity crowds, but not really a vibrant fan community. There are attempts to change this situation and revive the once-famous national team roar, but the road is still long.
Relocation of the national stadium to Warsaw (from the southern city of Chorzów) was contested by some Poles, but this city remains the best located one and by far best-connected, providing access from nearly every place in Poland.
Within the city itself, Stadion Narodowy holds a very important and easily accessible place. It's a 20 minute walk from the city centre, straight along Jerozolimskie Ave without taking any turns at all. Several bus and tram lines serve the venue, as well as a rapid rail system that has a specially-built station right outside the building. There is also a subway station nearby, though the line itself is a new one and doesn't operate yet.
Road access is a different story. Warsaw is notorious for its traffic. Thus reaching the stadium with its limited parking spaces may become a pain once the downtown rush hours begin. Then again - this is precisely why the stadium is served by all available public transport means and with the rapid rail you may reach it within 20 minutes even if you live outside the city.
The return on investment really depends on what event you choose. Stadion Narodowy cooperates with various event organizers and business models for the events and vary dramatically. Should you choose domestic football, represented only by the Polish Cup Final every year in early May, the price is next to nothing. In 2014 it cost only 20 zloty (under $7) to attend the game, making it one of the best European cup finals in terms of value for the money. However with concerts, the experience costs pretty much the same as most large European venues, making $70 a more expected figure to pay despite Poles earning much less than most EU citizens.
While the stadium's simplistic symbolism is sometimes criticized, Stadion Narodowy actually has a few interesting, perhaps even thrilling stories to it, also associated with national pride and symbolism.
The building is elevated on an artificial hill which used to form stands of Stadion Dziesięciolecia. That hill was actually built in the early 1950s with immense amounts of rubble from the bombed city, or what was left of it. That landfill represents Warsaw's revival, a process carried out daily for years, by hundreds of thousands of people coming from across Poland to rebuild the city from ruins to a European capital again.
The old stadium also saw Polish philosopher Ryszard Siwiec commit suicide by self-immolation during annual harvest celebrations. This was his way of protesting against Poland's unjust military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Being of sound mind he was shouting his protest statements while the flames took his body. Though he demanded not to be rescued, his life was saved temporarily and he died after four days of agony. Many people didn't see the incident itself with the stadium's 100,000-capacity and it had been covered up by communist authorities for over two decades, but Siwiec's sacrifice is remembered with a plaque and his own street outside the new stadium. Before that he received the highest honors from presidents of Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia.
**Michal Karas is the editor of Stadium DB.
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