The most important of Braga’s many hilltops is the sanctuary of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place of pilgrimage for Christians who climb the winding white-and-gold staircase to its doors.
Six kilometers west, planted on Monte do Castro as if it were a piece of Lego, is another monument that is out of proportion but completely natural in a way that suggests the god played a role here too.
But Braga’s Municipal Stadium was designed, engineered and built by humans – and on Tuesday, it will host one of the greatest clubs in the world, Real Madrid.
Braga will become the 152nd club Real Madrid have played for in 68 years of continental football, but the 14-time European champions will never play on a ground quite like this.
At the end of the spiraling roads that lead to the highest point in the Dome, next to an old quarry lies a playground that seems to defy logic.
A position whose foundation is in the rock; A giant scoreboard perched on a granite bridge behind one goal; Nothing but an empty space behind the other, offering a panoramic view of the city below.
The stadium, known as “A Pedreira” (The Quarry), would have been ordinary if not for architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose design won the Pritzker Prize in 2011, considered the Nobel Prize of architecture.
“Being an architect is not an easy life, and to gain international recognition for a small country like Portugal… I will not pretend to suffer from false modesty,” says Souto de Moura. The athlete.
“The Braga Stadium is perhaps the most difficult project I have ever undertaken. And perhaps for this very reason, it is the one I enjoyed the most.
Souto de Moura was not the architect who originally handed over the reins of the project in 2000. The vice president of Braga 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 it was too expensive.
They called to ask if he could put them in touch with Santiago Calatrava, the architect who designed New York’s Oculus World Trade Center. He informed the council that they would likely face a similar problem.
Sensing an opportunity, he agreed to hold a meeting the next day to discuss the brief where the capacity was decided to be 30,000.
They found a plot of land to build a playground, in a valley with a waterway. They thought the terraces could follow the curves of the valley. “I visited it and fell in love with it,” Souto de Moura says.
“I still have the pictures I took at that time. Above ground was this old quarry. I started to imagine the stadium below, surrounded by the rock. I told the council I wanted to build it there with a 15,000-seater stand carved into the rock and then do the same on the other side.”
“There will only be two stands and people will be able to get a good view of the match. One thing I realized while designing the stadium is that each stadium is now a TV studio.
“That’s why the lighting was designed to be almost perpendicular above the pitch (shining from the ends of both stands), and as close as possible. I’m no football expert but it’s a kind of theatre, with actors on both sides.
Transforming his drawings into reality 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 trusses, columns and cables could not be part of the aesthetic as they are in most football stadiums.
The western amphitheater was carved into the granite massif to give the effect of a Greek amphitheater. The process involved excavating 1,700,000 cubic meters of solid rock and gravel before the eighteen one-metre-thick piers were installed with anchors.
He drew inspiration from the Inca bridges and the roof of Washington Dulles Airport in shaping his vision for the cover over the stadium, and it was the experience of working alongside Álvaro Siza Vieira to create the Portugal Pavilion at World Expo 98 that he drew upon most.
“It was a large open space under a concrete cover. “It made me realize that it was possible to cover the structure without using glass or anything else,” says Souto de Moura.
“But UEFA said there had to be natural light, and that the pitch had to be ventilated so the cover couldn’t be completely closed. I tried to make simple adjustments to let the light in from above, using holes in the cover, but the sun would come in and make circles of light on The playing field.
“I abandoned that idea and thought of leaving a rectangular opening the same size as the stadium dimensions.”
A colleague traveled to UEFA’s headquarters in Switzerland and got approval for his plan to lay two concrete slabs covering each stand, connected and secured by a 25-metre network of steel cables that stretch across the pitch. Each of them is connected to beams that are fixed to the quarry rock.
It was a huge task to achieve the right balance of forces with no columns to support the roof, which is a cantilever supported only by the western trestle with cables embedded in the rock. Large beams at the top of both supports add support, but it took computer simulations and small-scale model tests in a wind tunnel before the construction was safe.
The stadium was successfully completed in time for UEFA Euro 2004, a tournament in which Portugal lost to Greece in the final.
However, Braga still regularly fills only half of the stadium, which belongs to the city council, and Ricardo Río, the mayor of Braga and president of the city council, confirmed that the stadium was for sale earlier this month.
Estadio 1 de Maio was the long-term home of Braga from 1921 until 2003. The club was paying just €500 (£435; $533) a month to rent its current stadium, and with improvements needed to modernize the facilities, the board is cutting ties.
“The dialogue has been opened, so we will make an official assessment of the value at which the stadium can be sold. It makes sense for the stadium to be used by Braga,” Rio said.
“I do not intend to claim the €200 million invested in this facility, but it is clearly an amount that allows the city council to recoup it and, for example, make other projects viable, including the rehabilitation of Stadium No. 1.” Mayo, who after these years of abandonment, ended up suffering a very rapid decline.
There has been talk in recent years of the possibility of building a new Braga stadium on the old site, an idea that saddens Souto de Moura more than it saddens the change of his unique stadium.
“Portugal is one of the host countries for the 2030 World Cup, and to be eligible for the knockout matches, you need a stadium with a capacity of 60,000 seats,” he says. “Braga has only 30,000. When it was built, Braga usually finished in the bottom half of the table, and were often in danger of relegation. Now they are near the top, so people are now demanding more from the club.
“If it had been the other way around and the stadium had been too big, people would have complained too. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Until 2013, Braga had won only one title, the Portuguese League Cup in 1966. Since then, the team has consolidated its position as the fourth best team in Portugal, winning four domestic cups and establishing itself in Europe, reaching the 2011 Europa League final and qualifying for the group stage. Champions League for the third time this season.
In keeping with their growing ambitions, Braga is close to completing their project The “Sports City” project, which was first launched in 2017, features a new women’s stadium complementing the sprawling academy building and playing fields above the municipal stadium.
It was home to Braga where it developed into one of the great players in Portuguese football – and is now 22 per cent owned by Paris Saint-Germain’s owner, Qatar Sports Investments.
It’s not on the grand scale of the Bernabeu, but in a world of glass and stainless steel, this cliff-side concrete stand is as much a work of art as it is a football stadium.
(Top photo: Diogo Cardoso/Getty Images)
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