As you cross the Rio Ebro and head south along the wide avenidas through its centre, the city of Zaragoza treats you to some magnificent sites. Its graceful fusion of Moorish, medieval and more recent styles of architecture lifts your hopes and expectations, so much so that when you see La Romareda, the city’s municipal stadium, your initial reaction is one of disappointment. It’s an “Is that all there is?” moment. Thankfully, the story of Real Zaragoza is a lot more interesting than the utilitarian and rather undistinguished stadium it plays in.
The citizens of Zaragoza and for that matter, other parts of Aragon, took their time to fully come to terms with football. Organised competitions did not truly get underway until 1915, a good decade or so later than neighbouring Catalunya. The first important team to emerge in the Aragonese capital was Iberia Sport Club, which was formed in 1917 and went on to dominate the early years of the regional championship. The only real challenge Iberia experienced came in the form of Sociedad Atletica Stadium, who was founded in 1919 and pipped Iberia to the championship in 1924 & 25. Another team founded in 1919, Zaragoza Football Club, joined forces with Sociedad Atletica Stadium in 1925 to create Club Deportiva Real Zaragoza, but Iberia continued to reign supreme and featured in the inaugural season of La Segunda in 1928-29. Iberia was undoubtedly helped by the foresight of its directors who had developed the city’s first purpose-built stadium, Campo de Torrero. Opened on 7 October 1923 with a match against Osasuna, Torrero was to the south-east of the city centre and had a final capacity of 20,000. On 18 March 1932, Iberia and Club Deportiva Real Zaragoza agreed to merge and form FC Zaragoza, or as we know them today, Real Zaragoza.
You can read about the early years and the Campo Torrero here. This story moves on to 1956 when work began on a new stadium under the guidance of architect Francisco Riestra. The project cost 21.5 million pesetas and the ground featured a large covered main stand on the west side. The cantilevered roof covered the upper tier, whilst on the opposite east side stood a large two-tiered terrace. The smaller end terraces were slightly curved leaving a space of around 8 metres between the touchline and the front of the terrace. The stadium had been built on open fields named La Romareda, just to the south of the city’s university and around 3 kilometres west of the old Torrero ground. It opened on 8 September 1957 in front of a capacity crowd of 27,000, Zaragoza beat CA Osasuna 4-3. The new stadium acted as a springboard for during the 1960s the club flourished. The cause was helped in no small part by Lapetra, Canario, Marcelino, Santos & Villa, a quintet of players who saw Real Zaragoza reach unprecedented heights. The club reached the final of The Copa del Rey in four successive seasons, winning two finals and also found success in the Inter Cities Fairs cup winning the trophy in 1964. League form wasn’t too shabby either as Zaragoza finished in the top five places in every season from 1961 to 68.
As that great team of the sixties broke up, Zaragoza’s form suffered and the club dropped to La Segunda at the end of the 1970-71 season. Their absence from the top division was brief as promotion was won with a third-place finish in 71-72. Steady progress was made over the next couple of seasons with the club achieving a best-ever finish of second place in La Primera in 1974-75. During the 1976-77 season, La Romareda was extended, with both end terraces gaining an upper tier and covers, which extended around from the main west stand. The new capacity stood at 50,000. Whilst the roof was going up, the club was going down to the second division again. The 1977-78 season brought the club its first league trophy when La Segunda title was secured with a point to spare.
In 1978, La Romareda was confirmed as a host venue for the 1982 World Cup and underwent a 120 million peseta refit. This included adding a roof to the newly refurbished east side, adding seating to the upper tiers, and new press facilities in a two storey free standing block behind the main west stand. This was linked to the ground and Zaragoza had eyes on using it for their club offices. The municipality baulked at the idea and quickly installed their own bureaucrats after the tournament was over. La Romareda now had a capacity of 46,920 and hosted three matches during the finals featuring Yugoslavia, Honduras and Northern Ireland. They were poorly attended with the ground barely half-full for the Yugoslavia games and only 15,000 attending the Honduras-Northern Ireland fixture. The participants are commemorated with their names on individual flag poles at the main entrance to the stadium. Now established in La Primera, the eighties saw further success for Zaragoza when a third Copa del Rey was secured in 1986 with a 1-0 victory over Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon.
The nineties saw further refurbishment of La Romareda in advance of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. The refit saw seating added behind the south goal and a ring of booths or Palcos added to form a band around the stadium between the first and second tiers. This reduced the capacity to 43,349, not that it was ever remotely tested during the Olympics. The six group matches and one quarter final that La Romareda hosted, attracted a pitiful aggregate of 35,500. Real Zaragoza continued to thrive in the top flight finishing third in 93-94 before securing a fourth Copa del Rey at the end of the season with a win over Celta Vigo. This saw the club enter the following seasons UEFA Cup-Winners Cup which saw Zaragoza secure their second European title in remarkable fashion thanks to Nayim’s astonishing effort to beat Arsenal in end of extra time. The stadium was finally converted to an all-seater stadium in 1998 when the lower tiers of the north end and east terrace were seated, giving the ground a current capacity of 34,596.
The start of the new millennium began brightly with a fourth-place finish in the league and a fifth victory in the Copa del Rey, beating Celta Vigo once again, this time at La Cartuja in Sevilla. However, it was really just papering over the cracks, for at the end of the 2000-01 season, in a desperate scramble for survival, Real Zaragoza escaped relegation by a solitary point. Their 24 year-long stay in La Primera came to an end a year later, however, when finishing bottom of the league in 2001-02. As before, the club immediately bounced back and finished the 2003-04 season in a creditable twelfth place. In March of 2004, Real Zaragoza reached the final of the Copa del Rey and won the trophy for a sixth time thanks to a 3-2 victory over Real Madrid at the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. The Spanish Super Cup was won for the first time at the start of the following season and the club continued to show steady if unspectacular form in the league. Despite this promise and a not inconsiderable budget, the wheels came off during the 2007-08 season as form fell away in the final quarter and the club was relegated. Once again, the stay in La Segunda was just a season-long affair, but when they returned to La Primera, Zaragoza struggled to be competitive, dropping back to the second tier in 2013.
As with all major leagues, the revenue from television rights plays an important factor. However, the imbalance of the distribution of these funds weighs heavy on clubs such as Real Zaragoza. This puts extra emphasis on match day revenue and for all its undeniable impact over the years. La Romareda is antiquated and simply not up to providing the modern spectator with the experience they want, or the revenue the club requires. From the outside, the stadium resembles something one used to see in the former Soviet block. Its construction of pillars and brick infill, mixed with open mesh fencing that displays the internal skeleton of the terraces, is at best grim. On the south-west corner of the ground is the strange juxtaposition of El Cuboa, a modern mirrored cube that doubles as the tourism offices, next to the beige and ever so bland Mundial Press Centre.
Inside the stadium is slightly better, although time has taken its toll. The lower tier is very shallow and the roof offers it no protection from the elements. The upper tier is covered, but very cramped. That’s not to say that the stadium doesn’t have some nice touches. The palcos, a ring of segregated booths that sit between the two tiers offer a great view and are just close enough to the rear to gain some benefit from the roof. I also like the goal nets, which have to be among the deepest anywhere in world football. La Selección has made four visits to La Romareda, the last being in 2004 when they lost 0-1 to Greece. Over the past decade, there has been plenty of talk about rebuilding La Romareda or relocating, but with greater constraints of public money, all plans have been shelved. This leaves Real Zaragoza stuck in La Romareda. I’m sure that as time passes and the stadium becomes more of an anachronism and a relic of a bygone era, it will create more interest, but that will be out of curiosity rather than admiration.