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Top Ten World Football (aka Soccer) Cities



 Soccer goalpost on Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro
This summer, the world's eyes will be fixed on South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first time the quadrennial football/soccer event has been hosted on the African continent. And that's a lot of eyes—an estimated 1.5 billion people tuned in to watch the final game of the 2006 tournament—a testament to the global appeal of the "beautiful game." To celebrate this year's running of the event, we give you the ten best soccer cities, where the game is part of the city's cultural DNA.
10. Munich, Germany
Although the German capital, Berlin, hosted the 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France, the southern German city of Munich is the country's true soccer powerhouse. FC Bayern Munich, which currently plays at the new 70,000-seat Allianz Arena in Munich's northern outskirts, has won 21 domestic league titles and a famous string of three consecutive European Cups in the 1970s. In 2009, Forbes.com valued it as the fourth-richest soccer club in the world, with annual revenues in excess of $465 million. Munich also holds a sadder place in soccer aficionados' hearts as the place where a number of the prodigiously talented Manchester United team, "Busby's Babes," died in a freak air crash in 1958.
9. Mexico City, Mexico
Soccer history runs deep in Mexico City, as does the well of local passion—especially if you happen to be American. The Mexican national team plays out of the fearsome 105,000-capacity Estadio Azteca in the south of the city, a cauldron of noise that literally sucks the air out of opposition players' lungs on account of its 7,200-foot altitude. It's where Diego Maradona scored his infamous "Hand of God" goal for Argentina against England during the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals, plus is a venue where the U.S. national team is yet to win a game after ten attempts to date (the team has also not won a game in all venues around Mexico City in 20 attempts!). Brazilian great Pelé also played his last international game at the Estadio Azteca during the 1970 World Cup Final against Italy (which Brazil won 4-1).
8. Glasgow, Scotland
The Scottish city of Glasgow, the country's biggest, is home to one of the fiercest footballing rivalries in the world: the "Old Firm" standoff between Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers. Today, the teams trade honors as champions of the Scottish Premier League, with no team from outside Glasgow having picked up the pennant since 1985. While this might be a testament to the dwindling quality of the game in Scotland, matches at either of these teams home stadiums is a unique, impassioned, and culturally enlightening experience. Several other teams with loyal local followings, like Motherwell and St. Mirren, play in the Greater Glasgow area if you can't score tickets to one of the Old Firm games (Rangers play at Ibrox by the Clyde on the west side of town; Celtic play at Celtic Park in the East End). The Scottish national team also plays home games at Hampden Park, host to regular cup games throughout the season as well as other concerts and events.
7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Football, soccer, the "beautiful game"… whatever you call it, the sport officially got its start in England in the mid-1800s, though it can trace its roots to games played in one form or another as far back as ancient Greece and China. These days, however, Brazil can rightly lay claim to being the spiritual home of the game. The national team is a five-time winner of the World Cup, an unmatched record stretching back to the country's first victory in 1958 (Sweden) and most recently in 2002 (KoreaJapan). You can see future stars of the game from the beaches to the favelas of Rio, though it's at the iconic Maracanã (officially the Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho) where you'll witness Brazilians' love of the game in all its colorful, samba-infused glory. Built for the 1950 Brazil World Cup, the stadium is said to have hosted almost 200,000 spectators during the final tussle of that tournament between Uruguay and Brazil (which Uruguay won). A municipally owned ground, the Maracanã regularly hosts matches involving Rio's four biggest teams—Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense, and Vasco. In dire need of an upgrade, the famous bowl will get a major facelift in time for the 2014 World Cup Finals, which are being hosted by Brazil for the second time.
6. Rome, Italy
In a city filled with gladiatorial mystique and the impressive shell of the ancient Coliseum, it should come as no surprise that one of soccer's most enduring city rivalries plays itself out in northwest Rome's 72,698-capacity Stadio Olimpico—shared home ground for the city's two biggest clubs, Lazio and AS Roma. Beyond the high skill and never-say-die commitment on the pitch, the stadium's off-pitch history is equally fascinating: originally the Stadio del Cipressi, it was built as part of a grand scheme to honor Il Duce called Foro Mussolini (Mussolini Forum), renamed Foro Italico after World War II; it picked up its Olimpico tag for host duties during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Today, AS Roma edge the crosstown rivalry after Lazio ruled the Eternal City roost for a good part of the 1990s.

Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium
FIELD OF DREAMS: FC Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain  (courtesy, Wikimedia Commons)  

5. London, England
To some it may seem misguided to include London on this list ahead of other soccer-mad English cities like Manchester and Liverpool. But the truth is, few other cities in the world can boast the sheer number of top-quality clubs, each with their own culture, histories, rivalries, and legions of diehard fans. The country's top league, the English Premier League (considered by many to be the world's best) boasts five London-based clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham, and West Ham. Even looking to the second-tier Championship, you'll find big London clubs featuring current, future, and former stars, as well as trophy rooms filled with some of the game's most coveted silverware. Then there's the newly-remodeled Wembley Stadium just off the city's North Circular, host to the 1966 World Cup Final that England won in a thriller against West Germany.
4. Buenos Aires, Argentina
British newspaper The Observer has listed the clash between Buenos Aires rivals, Boca Juniors and River Plate, as one of its top sporting events to see before you die—and judging by the commitment and passion of the opposing sets of fans, the (right) result could well be a matter of life and death. Both teams, each of which started out in the same working-class La Boca neighborhood, carry century-old sporting heritage into their annual superclásico matchup, an encounter that Argentine soccer great (and current national-team manager) Diego Maradona has likened to "going to bed with Julia Roberts." Soccer is the game in town, though it must be said that the Argentine domestic league has lost most of its superstar players to more lucrative leagues in Europe. La Boca continue to play in the La Boca barrio at 49,000-seat La Bombonera (the "Chocolate Box"), while River Plate have long since relocated to Buenos Aires's more ritzy Núñez neighborhood in the north of town, home to the 65,645-seater Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti.
3. Madrid, Spain
With the possible exception of the English Premier League, Spain's top-tier La Liga is currently the world's most glamorous domestic league, hosting superstar players such as Lionel Messi (Argentina), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), and Thierry Henry (France). Undoubtedly, Real Madrid is the league's show pony, a club that coined the term Los Galácticos to describe its squad of fantastically skilled and fabulously wealthy footballers (among them, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, and Luís Figo). The real rivalry here is not technically inter-city but with the other big Spanish club, FC Barcelona (see below); however, even the matchup between Real and Atlético Madrid sees its share of fireworks. And irrespective of the team you support, the experience of watching a live game mirrors that of nightlife in the Spanish capital, with games that start late and run into the next day. Real play at the storied Santiago Bernabeu, an 80,354-seat "cathedral to football," according to FIFA.com, in the heart of Madrid's financial district. Atlético play at the impressive 54,851-seat Vicente Calderón Stadium on the banks of the Manzanares River, also in central Madrid.
2. Milan, Italy
Soccer may be a working man's game throughout much of the world, but the actual people who play it at the top level are millionaires and playboys of the highest order. Witness Milan, a capital of fashion and football that attracts the likes of David Beckham and his clotheshorse wife, Victoria (aka, Posh Spice). But the football that's played in the city's cacophonous San Siro—85,700-capacity home ground to both Inter Milan and AC Milan—is anything but effete, with regular incidents of incandescent flares being tossed onto the pitch and militant tactics by hardcore fan groups like Inter's "Ultras." Inter Milan and AC Milan are the city's two top clubs, giving Milan a city-soccer pedigree that receives even more spice when you mix in another storied northern Italian club, Juventus, which plays just down the road in Turin.
1. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is one of the world's most atmospheric cities, and its soccer culture only serves to bolster this claim. Two teams, FC Barcelona and Espanyol, call the city home, though it's the former that truly elevates the Catalonian capital to the top of this list. A string of footballing greats have played for this famously socialist club, including Dutchman Johan Cruyff, Brazilian Ronaldo, and Argentinean Diego Maradona. Camp Nou, FC Barcelona's broad-shouldered, 98,787-capacity stadium, is Europe's largest stadium, not to mention being home to some of the continent's noisiest and most demanding fans. Smaller Espanyol plays at the newly opened 40,500-seater Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, following a disappointing spell out of the 55,926-capacity Olympic Stadium up at Montjuic (remember the scenic diving photos from the 1992 Summer Olympics, anyone?).