Winter weather, security concerns and UEFA rankings: Chelsea games at unusual venues

Chelsea’s ‘away’ game against Atletico Madrid tonight is taking place in Bucharest, some 1500 miles from the Spanish capital. To mark the occasion, we have delved into the history books and discovered it is not the first time the Blues will be playing at an unexpected venue away from home…

We meet Atletico on neutral territory in Romania because of travel restrictions enforced by the Spain government during this era of the global pandemic. It will be our third visit to the 55,000-capacity Arena Nationala, having twice before played Steaua Bucharest there.

In fact, those matches in 2013 took place at the new national stadium and not Steaua’s then-regular home ground, Stadionul Ghencea, because of its UEFA four-star ranking and significantly larger capacity. They are among a clutch of European away fixtures we have contested against sides competing in bigger and better stadiums than their own, including Austria Memphis in 1994, St Gallen in 2000 and Levski Sofia in 2006.

Our game at CSKA Moscow in 2004 actually took place at the stadium of their great rivals, Lokomotiv, while Nordsjaelland called Copenhagen’s Parken home for their solitary Champions League group campaign in 2012/13.

Maccabi Tel-Aviv opted to move their game against us in 2015 from the Bloomfield Stadium, where their neighbours Hapoel had beaten us at the beginning of the century, to the newly-opened Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, some 60 miles north and twice as big.

Hooliganism fears was the cited reason why our first European away game of the modern era, against Czech Republic’s Viktoria Zizkov in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994, was shifted from Prague to the small city of Jablonec, near the Polish border. That didn’t prevent a huge travelling support taking over the 6,000-capacity Strelnice Stadion.

The only previous fixture prior to tonight’s that has moved to an entirely different country than had been planned was back in December 2003. A series of suicide attacks across Istanbul a couple of weeks prior to our away fixture against Besiktas prompted enough security concerns for UEFA to switch the fixture to Gelsenkirchen, normally the home of Schalke.

The large Turkish population in Germany ensured it was a 52,000 sell-out. It felt like Istanbul had been transported for the night, and as the fervent ‘home’ support looked to give their heroes an advantage they threw missiles at the Chelsea players and staff. Our bench ended up behind umbrellas to protect themselves (pictured top), while the start of the second half was delayed because there were so many streamers in one corner of the pitch. The Blues weathered the storm and won 2-0.

Qarabag haven’t played in their hometown of Agdam since the Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out in 1993, and they opted to use the grandiose Olympic Stadium in Baku for their inaugural Champions League group stage campaign in 2017/18. The following season, Vidi’s new MOL Arena Sisto did not have UEFA category status so our Europa League fixture was played in Budapest, instead.

The weather has played its part, too, specifically the Russian winter: ‘Following a pitch inspection in Kazan, UEFA are of the opinion the pitch and climate conditions at the Tsentralny Stadium, Rubin Kazan’s home ground, cannot guarantee the best possible conditions.’ So it was an old haunt, Moscow’s Olympic Stadium, that Chelsea travelled to for the 2013 Europa League quarter-final second leg.

Just 19,000 people, included a few thousand Rubin supporters that had made the 500-mile trip from Kazan, were in attendance. The Blues lost 3-2 but advanced on aggregate, as we did in the previous round having been beaten 1-0 by Steaua in Bucharest. They, and the disappointing defeat at St Gallen on the night Roberto Di Matteo’s career was ended by injury, are the only games we have lost in these unusual circumstances.

There are further anomalies. Chelsea’s very first experience of competitive European football came in the Fairs Cup in 1958. Two of the teams we played – Stavenet/Frem and Belgrade – were composite XIs and therefore had no real ‘home’ ground. Domestically, four FA Cup ties have been switched to Stamford Bridge because the opponent’s ground was deemed unsuitable, most recently against Barnet in 1994.

And there is always one exception to the rule. In May 2012, we contested the Champions League final against Bayern Munich on what was supposed to be ‘neutral’ territory, but was in fact their home patch, the Allianz Arena. Thankfully it didn’t matter!