The most important of Braga’s many hilltops is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a pilgrimage site for Christians who climb the white and golden zigzag stairs to its door.
Six kilometers to the west, planted on Monte do Castro like a piece of Lego, sits another monument that is both incongruous yet perfectly natural in a way that suggests the divine also played a part here.
But SC Braga’s Municipal Stadium was designed, engineered and built by humans – and on Tuesday it will host one of the biggest club sides in the world, Real madrid.
Braga will be the 152nd different club Real have played in 68 years of continental football, but the 14-time European champions will never have played in a stadium with such a background.
At the end of the circular roads that lead to the highest point of the Dume area, right next to an old mine, lies a stadium that seems to defy logic.
A stand with foundations embedded in stone; a huge lackey sitting on a granite embankment behind one goal; and nothing but empty space behind the others, offering a view of the city below.
The stadium, known as “A Pedreira” (The Quarry), could have been unremarkable were it not for architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose creation won the Pritzker Prize in 2011, considered the Nobel Prize of architecture.
“Being an architect is not an easy life and to be internationally recognized for a small country like Portugal… I’m not going to pretend that I suffer from false modesty,” says Souto de Moura. Athletic.
“The Braga pitch might be the hardest project I’ve ever done. And maybe for that very reason, the one I enjoyed the most.”
Souto de Moura was not the architect who initially took over the reins of the project in 2000. The vice president of Braga’s city council had already approached Norman Foster, the mastermind behind the Gherkin building in London and the glass dome of the Reichstag in Berlin, but he was too expensive.
They called to ask if he could put them in touch with Santiago Calatrava, the architect who designed the World Trade Center Oculus in New York. He told the council they would likely run into a similar problem.
He saw an opportunity and agreed to a meeting the next day to discuss the summary, where it was decided that the capacity should be 30,000.
“They had found a site for a stadium, in a valley with a waterway. They believed that the stands could follow the curves of the valley. I visited and fell in love with it,” says Souto de Moura.
“I still have the pictures I took back then. Above the land was this old mine. I began to visualize the stadium below, blocked off by the cliff. I told the council I wanted to build it there with a 15,000 capacity stand cut into the rock and do the same on the other side.
“There would only be two stands and people would be able to see the game well. One thing I realized while designing the course was that every course is now a TV studio.
“That’s why I designed the lighting to be almost vertical over the pitch (they shine down from the ends of both stands) and as close as possible. I’m not a football expert but it’s a kind of theatre, with actors on both sides.”
Bringing his sketches to life required innovation, painstaking experimentation and years of safety testing – all while staying within budget and a three-year construction time.
The main ambition was to integrate the stadium into the environment, so supporting pillars, poles and cables could not be part of the aesthetics, as they are in most football stadiums.
The west stand is cut in granite mass to give the effect of a Greek amphitheater. It involved 1,700,000 cubic meters of hard rock and gravel that were excavated before 18 one-meter-thick uprights could be held down with anchors.
Drawing inspiration from Inca bridges and the roof of Washington Dulles Airport in formulating his vision for the stadium canopy, it was the experience of working alongside Alvaro Siza Vieira to create the Portugal Pavilion at Expo ’98 that drew heavily on him. .
“It was a large open space under a concrete cover. It made me realize that it is possible to cover structures without using glass or anything else,” says Souto de Moura.
“But UEFA said that there needed to be natural light and that the field needed to be ventilated so that the cover could not be completely closed. I tried to make some adjustments to allow light to come in from above, using holes in the cover, but the sun would have come in and created circles of light on the field.
“I gave up on that idea and thought of leaving a rectangular opening that was exactly the same size as the court’s proportions.
A colleague traveled to UEFA headquarters in Switzerland and got approval for his plan to have two concrete slabs over each stand, connected and held up by a network of 25-metre-long steel cables stretching across the pitch. Each one is connected to a structure, which is attached to the rock of the mine.
It was a monumental task to achieve the correct balance of forces without pillars to support the roof – which is a truss supported only by the west stand with the stringers anchored into the rock. Two large beams at the top of both stands add support, but computer simulations and smaller model tests in wind tunnels were needed before it was safe to build.
The stadium was successfully completed for Euro 2004, a home tournament where Portugal lost to the Greeks in the final.
Yet Braga still regularly only fills half of the stadium, which belongs to the city council, and Ricardo Rio, mayor of Braga and president of the city council, confirmed the stadium was for sale earlier this month.
Estadio 1 de Maio was Braga’s long-term home from 1921 to 2003. They have been paying just €500 (£435; $533) a month to rent the current stadium and, with renovations needed to modernize the facility, the council are set to end ties.
“The negotiations have started, so we are going to make a formal assessment of the value of the pitch that can be sold.” It only makes sense that the stadium is used by Braga,” said Rio.
“I am not going to claim the 200 million euros invested in this facility, but of course an amount that will allow the City Council to repay and, for example, make other projects viable, including the rehabilitation of the Estadio 1 de Maio, which after these years of abandonment, has ended up suffering from very rapid degradation.
In recent years there has been talk of Braga building a new stadium on the old site, a thought that upsets Souto de Moura even more than the alteration of his unique creation.
“Portugal is one of the hosts of the 2030 World Cup and to be eligible for the knockouts you need a stadium with 60,000 seats,” he says. “Braga only has 30,000. When it was built, Braga usually finished in the lower half of the table, often in danger of relegation; now they are near the top, so people are now demanding more from the company.
“If it were the other way around and the stadium was too big, people would also complain. It is a risk to the profession.”
Until 2013, Braga had only won one major trophy – the Portuguese League Cup in 1966. Since then, they have established themselves as the fourth best team in Portugal, winning four domestic cups and establishing themselves in Europe, reaching the 2011 Europa League final and reaching the Champions League group stage for the third time this season.
In line with their growing ambitions, Braga are close to finishing their The ‘Sports City’ projectfirst launched in 2017, with a new women’s stadium complementing the sprawling academy building and pitches above Borgerleikvangin.
It has been Braga’s home as they have grown to be one of the big boys in Portuguese football – and are now 22 per cent owned by Paris Saint-Germain owners Qatar Sports Investments.
Not on the grand scale of the Bernabeu but in a world of glass and stainless steel, this concrete amphitheater against the rock wall is as much a work of art as it is a football pitch.
(Top photo: Diogo Cardoso/Getty Images)
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