Football is the game of the people. It’s a unifying force: travel the world over, and you’ll meet someone you can talk to about the beautiful game. Spend a weekend at one of Europe’s top clubs, and you’ll see fantastic football in impressive stadiums. Here is the first part of our guide to some of the very best. Click here for Part 2.
Ticket prices shown are the lowest available for league match, for one adult with non-restricted view. Information correct as of 2015-16 season.
You can easily make the casethat the best and biggest football club in the world in 2017 is FC Barcelona. Take my advice, though, and don’t mention that to anyone from the Madrid. Every year, the Catalans play Real Madrid in El Clásico, the most watched football fixture in the world. Their rivalry is fierce and legendary, and matches between the two are sure to feature some of the finest players and most dramatic play available. If you can ever beat the rush for tickets, don’t pass up the opportunity. Be warned: even the low-prestige games are expensive here.
At the moment, Barcelona can count among their number the best footballer in the world, Lionel Messi. The diminutive Argentine may have his best years behind him, but he still lights up La Liga with impressive feats of skill and a potent left foot. He is the latest in a long line of world-class players – from John Cruyff to Xavi – that have plied their trade in the mighty, awe-inspiring Camp Nou. They have helped to make Barcelona far more than just a football club: to their supporters, the club represents Catalonia itself, and has become a symbol of its national character. Legendary player-turned-manager Pep Guardiola is a notable advocate for independence.
If you can’t make it to a game, a visit to the Camp Nou should nonetheless be a priority. The biggest stadium in Europe, it makes for a monumental sight. FC Barcelona Museum is a good one, featuring a collection of photos, documents, trophies and memorabilia detailing the club’s history, including the boots with which Ronald Koeman scored the winning goal in the 1992 European Cup Final, and the #10 shirt once worn by Diego Maradona.
Need to know:
Last title in brackets.
La Liga titles: 24 (2015-16)
Copa del Rey: 28 (2015-16)
European Cup/UEFA Champions League: 5 (2014-15)
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup: 4 (1996-97)
Camp Nou, 99,354
Tickets from €73
Getting there: You can get to the stadium by the city metro; various stations are within ten minutes’ walk of the Camp Nou. From the city centre, take metro line 3 to Les Corts.
Staying there: HotelREZ has some excellent properties in and around the city. A good choice is the luxurious furnished apartments of Barcelona Aparthotel Aramunt, located in the trendy Eixample district in the city centre.
Benfica and Sporting CP should be big clubs. They are big clubs, but they have been overshadowed by much bigger ones from their larger neighbour to the east. Nevertheless, the Lisbon pair are regulars in European competition, and Benfica continue to dominate their domestic league. It is said that, when Benfica and their second-city rivals Porto play one another, everyone in Portugal picks a side.
Benfica are by far the more successful of the two, with 35 league titles and 2 European Cups to their name. Curiously, it is said that their European drought (their last continental trophy came in 1962) is a result of a curse placed upon them by then manager Béla Guttmann. The mercurial Hungarian walked out of the club having been refused a pay rise; upon leaving Benfica, he allegedly declared, ‘not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion.’ Whether or not you believe in curses, Benfica have gone on to lose all eight of their subsequent European finals, the latest against Sevilla in the 2013-14 UEFA Europe League. Prior the 1990 European Cup final against Milan, club legend Eusébio prayed at Guttman’s grave to lift the curse. Milan won 1-0.
Naturally, Sporting CP and Benfica have a fierce rivalry. The Derby de Lisboa has been played 299 times over the decades, with Benfica leading 130-108. Between the 1940s and the early 1980s, the Portuguese title seemed to alternate between the two clubs, and it was only the rise of FC Porto in the mid-80s that put a stop to this dominance.
Need to know:
Primeira Liga: 35 (2015-16)
Taça de Portugal: 28 (2013-14)
Taça da Liga: 7 (2015-16)
European Cup/UEFA Champions League: 2 (1961-62)
Estádio da Luz, 64,642
Tickets from €20
Getting there: Benfica’s stadium is 8km to the north of the city centre. To get there, take the blue metro line from any central station to Colégio Militar/Luz, which is just a short walk away from the ground.
Primeira Liga: 18 (2001-02)
Taça de Portugal: 16 (2014-15)
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup: 1 (1963-64)
Estádio José Alvalade, 50,095
Tickets from €17
Getting there: Estádio José Alvalade is also out of town. Take the green or yellow metro line to Campo Grande, which is right next to the stadium.
Staying there: Almalusa Baixa-Chiado is a handsome historic hotel in the city centre, combining traditional features with modern comforts. It’s also just a short walk from a metro station.
One of the great tragedies of modern football is the sad decline of so many of Europe’s finest and most storied clubs. Like Benfica, Ajax once sat at the top table of global football; they have four European Cup titles to their name, and a host of star players have filled their ranks. Today, it is a minnow when compared to the near-infinite resources of super clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
In 1965, Ajax appointed alumnus Rinus Michels as their new manager. With his pioneering brand of Total Football, and a core of talented players like Johan Cruyff, Wim Suurbier and Piet Keizer, his team captured four Eredivisie titles and defied expectations to reach the European Cup Final in 1969, which they lost to Milan. In 1971, Ajax reached the pinnacle of football, finally winning their European title. That same year, Cruyff was named European Footballer of the Year, cementing his place as the best player in the world. The following year, Ajax completed a treble of the European Cup, the Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup. Now adding Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens and Arie Haan to their lineup, this Ajax team is fondly remembered as one of the finest of all time.
Unusually for such an important footballing city, Amsterdam has only one major club. As a result, Ajax’s main rivalry is with Feyenoord of Rotterdam; the match between the two is called De Klassieker. It’s an unmissable fixture – the atmosphere in Dutch football grounds is legendary. Most importantly, with the Eredivisie in seemingly terminal decline, it’s important to take a trip to the Amsterdam Arena while fine football and quality young players are still the order of the day.
Need to know:
Eredivisie titles: 33 (2013-14)
KNVB Cup: 18 (2009-10)
European Cup/UEFA Champions League: 4 (1994-95)
UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League: 1 (1991-92)
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup: 1 (1986-87)
Amsterdam ArenA, 53,748
Tickets from €28
Getting there: The Amsterdam ArenATrain is 10km from the centre. Bijlmer ArenA station, right next to the stadium, can be reached in 15 minutes from Amsterdam Central Station.
This article is Part 1 of 2. Click here for more from the beautiful game.
Cover photo: ¡Visca Barça! – Image by Oscar Gomez via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[Barcelona] _DSC6044 – Image by David Faulkner via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Benfica – Image by gyduxa via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Johan Cruyff lifting the European Cup – Image by Rob Mieremet via the Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (CC BY-SA 4.0)