I can’t help but feel that Real Racing Club de Santander’s Estadio El Sardinero has been getting away with it for too long. You see whenever this slightly stodgy, but functional stadium is photographed from the air, it can’t help but look spectacular. Alas, it has nothing to do with the formulaic 1980’s architecture. No, it’s all down to the wonderful backdrop of the Playa El Sardinero and the lush Cantabrian coastline.
Racing sold their old, but delightful El Sardinero stadium to the municipality in 1983. In return, they received 175 million pesetas and the use of the new stadium for a nominal annual fee. Work began in early 1987 on a piece of scrubland 150 metres to the west of the old stadium. The new stadium was designed by architect Juan Jose Arenas and opened on 20 August 1988 with two friendly matches. The first featured Racing against Real Oviedo, which was followed by Real Madrid against Everton. That first season at the new stadium saw Racing finish a creditable fifth, but a year later the club finished 17th in the division and dropped to Segunda B. At the time, the Estadio El Sardinero was the most modern and advanced stadium to have staged football at this level, a point emphasised in March 1991, when the Spanish National team used the stadium for the first time when they played Hungary. It was the first match La Seleccion had played in Santander for 64 years. Despite losing 2-4 to Hungary, the National side was back in Santander little over a year later to record a 1-0 victory over England. El Sardinero has staged four further matches featuring La Selección, the most recent being a 1-0 victory over the USA in June 2008.
Racing made short work of their one and only appearance in Segunda B, winning Group II and then topping their play-off group that featured Cartagena FC, Getafe CF & Cordoba CF. The club made a steady start to life back in La Segunda with a tenth place finish in 1991-92, before third place a year later secured a promotion/relegation play-off with Espanyol. A 0-1 victory in the first leg at the Estadi Sarria was enough to see Racing return to La Primera after a six-season absence. That first season back in the top flight saw Racing finish eighth, their best league placing for forty years, however, the remainder of the decade was often a long and it has to be said, successful battle against relegation. The drop finally came in May 2001 when Racing finished 19th, but this time there was to be no long term decline as the club bounced back into La Primera at the first time of asking. The return to La Primera brought about problems on and off the field as the club, struggling at the bottom of the division, was on the verge of bankruptcy when a certain Dmitry Piterman appeared and so unravelled one of the more bizarre episodes in the club’s history.
Piterman acquired 24% of the club’s shares and saved the team from folding. Not content with a “knight in shining armour” role, Piterman then decided to appoint himself as first-team coach. The Spanish FA refused to allow him access to the field of play as he did not have any coaching qualifications, so he appointed a friend who had the minimum level required, installed himself as club photographer and coached the team via his “puppet”. The club scraped through and avoided relegation on the final day of the season, but tiring of Piterman’s antics, the other directors upped their share capital and Piterman was eventually ousted.
Since then with the notable exception of the 2007-08 season, Racing has populated the lower reaches of the league. The sixth-place finish in 07-08 did earn them a place the UEFA Cup for the first time, where they progressed to the group stage. With more financial problems in the offing, venture capitalist Syed Ahsan Ali bought the club, only to renege on practically all of his promises. Tired of his empty promises, the rest of the club’s board resigned in October 2011, just as Interpol launched an investigation into Ashan Ali assets. The inevitable relegation to La Segunda followed in April 2012. More disruption on and off the field led to another desperate season. and so, just over two decades after Racing’s last appearance in the regional leagues, they returned to Segunda B. There followed a widely publicised dispute when players & staff went unpaid from the start of the 2013-14 season. This came to a head when Racing refused to start the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final with Real Sociedad.
Let’s get back to talking about the stadium as I do feel I’ve been a little unfair. I’m sure the people at the municipality and the club feel they have done a sterling job and there’s no denying the fact that El Sardinero is as tidy a medium sized stadium you can find in Europe. My point is that you will find stadiums of this ilk and era all around Europe. There is no denying they are all perfectly functional and it has to be said the El Sardinero in particular, looks fresh for a stadium in its third decade. Juan Jose Arenas’ design is clearly influenced by the stadiums that went up in Germany and Holland in the mid-eighties. No problem with that, because the design works and all 22,400 seats have an unimpeded view of the pitch. Three sides of the stadium are made up of a lower tier of white seats and an upper Tribuna of green seats. The main west stand is slightly larger thanks to a row of corporate boxes sandwiched between the two tiers. Four corner stands neatly link it all together. The roof is raised on the west side to take account of the additional height of the stand below and provides excellent shelter to all four stands. Which is just as well, for Santander in the winter months gets rain from all sides as it heads in from the Bay of Biscay and the nearby Picos de Europa. Poor old Racing. If it isn’t the opposition forwards or some dodgy businessman pissing on them, then it’s the weather. Still, what a lovely view!