The final whistle blows, and I am seven years old again. I’ve got a cheap black jersey tucked into a pair of shorts that are too big for me, and double knots on the tiniest pair of cleats you’ve ever seen. It’s my third season in the Salvation Army rec league, and by now my teammates and I are veterans of the post-game hustle. The whistle blows, parents cheer from the comfort of their foldout chairs, and we rush to the sideline to participate in the time-honored tradition of gruffly acknowledging the other team after a game. In later years, we’ll get in straight lines and shake hands with every player on the opposing team, and later still we’ll just wander around the field after the whistle, bump a few fists, and call it a day, but today I am seven years old, and when you are seven years old, that means tunnels (and for a seven-year-old, tunnels are the best part of your mom signing you up for the league, unless we are considering halftime snacks, in which case halftime snacks are the best part.)
For some deranged reason, instead of shaking hands, my earliest youth teams lined up in pairs, held hands, and created human tunnels for the other team to walk through, while we cheered and jumped for them. This was, of course, reciprocated by the other team, so that we also got the chance to walk through a human tunnel before running off to meet our parents. The whole tradition baffles me to this day.
There are other tunnels in soccer too- impressive, non-human ones. They are brick and concrete and wholly different from the tunnels of my youth. These tunnels mark the distance from the locker room to the field in most professional stadiums, and instead of wrapping players in splayed hands and warm cheers, they are meant impose and impress.
Before professional games, players can spend 20 minutes lined up in these tunnels, waiting to process out onto the field with refs and coaches. In that brief window of time, the built space transforms from a tunnel into focused silence, amicable chat, shifting bodies, and nerves. Every player is only thinking about where they are and where they’ll soon be. It’s a vulnerable space, especially for visiting teams, and many clubs have taken advantage of it as an opportunity for unmatched pre-match intimidation. They have built these spaces to intentionally disrupt the delicate focus of their rivals with awe, alarm, and even straight-out terror. Below are three tunnels that do intimidation through architecture better than most:
Veltins Arena – FC Schalke
In third place, we have the mining-themed tunnel at Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The stadium is home to the Bundesliga club, FC Schalke, and has a 62,271-person capacity for league games. In acknowledgement of the impact mining has had on Gelsenkirchen, FC Schalke redesigned their steep tunnel to look like a coal mine, complete with faux-rock walls and dramatic lighting. It pays homage to the local mining community, and gives visiting teams the feeling of being swallowed by the earth. It’s a win-win for the club, really.
Selhurst Park – Crystal Palace FC
In second place, we have the tunnel at Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace FC in the Premier League! It’s so narrow, the players have to enter the stadium in a single file line, one by one facing the roar of their fans. Selhurst has a lower capacity compared to some of the premiere league stadiums (25,486 compared to Anfield’s 53,394), but the fans sit almost directly on top of the pitch. As players make their way to the field one by one, Crystal Palace fans are happy to remind visiting players just how alone they are. It’s bold, it’s nerve-wracking, and it was built in 1924.
Rajko Mitić Stadium – Red Star Belgrade
In first place by a mile, we have the downright hostile tunnel at Rajko Mitić Stadium, formerly known as Red Star Stadium. It is home to Red Star Belgrade and the Serbian National Football Team, and every detail in their tunnel is designed for maximum intimidation, from the claustrophobic curved walls to the bleak, tube lighting on the ceiling. Additionally, “the walk to the pitch takes longer than a minute and is deliberately unwelcoming with its graffiti-coated walls and armed police presence.” It’s low lighting manages to give visitors the sense of being hundreds of feet below ground, and it echoes with the shouts and jeers of the 60,000 fans above. This tunnel, so dissimilar from the joyous tunnels of my childhood, is the ultimate intimidator.
Additionally, because I came across this while researching professional stadiums and I need someone else to see it, please enjoy the following video of Red Star Belgrade celebrating their advance to the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League group stage by inviting a full brass band into their locker room. It’s a striking departure from the desolate tunnel just steps away.
Architecture and design can have massive impacts on a player’s game mentality and stadium experience. These are just three of my favorite examples of intimidation by tunnel, but they are by no means complete or comprehensive. If you have a favorite stadium feature, tunnel or otherwise, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.