The UEFA Super Cup will be the first major European club showpiece occasion staged in Northern Ireland, where the national stadium has benefited from recent renovations which give it an impressive modern sheen.
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When the Chelsea and Villarreal captains, César Azpilicueta and Raúl Albiol, lead their teams out for the UEFA Super Cup match in Belfast on Wednesday night, the big occasion will not just represent the start of the latest European club football season, but also the first time that a major UEFA club event has taken place in Northern Ireland.
The National Football Stadium at Windsor Park first opened in 1905 and is taking its place in the spotlight as Chelsea, the winners of last season’s UEFA Champions League, and Villarreal, the UEFA Europa League title-holders, go head to head in the current campaign’s curtain-raiser.
"UEFA decided several years ago to take the Super Cup around Europe, and Northern Ireland is the latest of our member associations to have the chance to play host to this major international football occasion," says UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin.
"Windsor Park is the home of Linfield FC and Northern Ireland’s national team and has been the setting for countless memorable matches. The Irish Football Association is a loyal and dedicated member of UEFA, and we are certain that it will relish the challenge of staging a match of this importance."
Previous UEFA Super Cup hosts (single–match format)
2020: Puskás Aréna, Budapest
2019: Beşiktaş Stadium, Istanbul
2018: Lilleküla Stadium, Tallinn
2017: National Arena Filip II Macedonian, Skopje
2016: Lerkendal Stadion, Trondheim
2015: Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, Tbilisi
2014: Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
2013 Eden Aréna, Prague
1998–2012: Stade Louis II, Monaco
Renovated venue ready for the big stage
The Windsor Park stadium, named after the district in south Belfast where it is located, underwent a £38m makeover, starting in 2014, with aid from UEFA’s HatTrick assistance programme, which uses money generated from EURO tournaments to help develop the game across Europe.
Three new stands were built, as well as the new headquarters of the Irish Football Association (IFA), which are now situated in the East Stand. The renovated venue was officially opened on 8 October 2016 with Northern Ireland’s 4-0 win against San Marino in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier. When no restrictions are in place, the stadium has a capacity of over 18,000.
"Windsor Park is my Wembley," says Linfield’s manager, David Healy, who scored 36 goals in 95 appearances for his country between 2000 and 2013. It was at this stadium that the former striker became a national hero by grabbing giant-killing winning goals against England in 2005 and Spain almost exactly a year later.
"There honestly isn’t a ground like it for me,” says Healy, who has won the Northern Irish Premiership title four times and the league and cup ‘double’ twice since taking charge of Linfield in 2015. "I always dreamed of playing at Windsor Park, not Wembley."
HatTrick funding a bright future for young stars
Thanks to ongoing HatTrick support, more of Northern Ireland's young talent can dream of emulating Healy's achievements for the national team.
The new Irish FA-UEFA Elite Youth Academy, situated 12 kilometres outside of Belfast, provides young players with a top-quality environment for developing their sporting, academic and life skills.
In preparing players for the transition from youth to professional football, the academy aims to build, grow and sustain a pool of high-quality footballers to give the national side the best possible chance of qualifying for major international tournaments.
The scheme is part of UEFA's Elite Youth Academy programme, with Northern Ireland joined in the scheme by Finland and Israel. The IFA receives over €200,000 each year towards the running costs of its academy.The UEFA Elite Youth Academy programme
HatTrick – UEFA's helping hand to national associations
As a non-profit organisation, UEFA is committed to reinvesting as much as possible of the revenue generated by its national team and club competitions into the development of the game.
Since 2004, UEFA European Championships have funded the HatTrick development programme, by which UEFA annually distributes an average of €195m to Europe’s 55 national associations. The money supports a wide variety of football development activities, such as improving infrastructure, supporting women’s football, kick-starting social responsibility activities, and running coach and referee courses.
By 2024, HatTrick will have channelled a cumulative €2.6bn into projects across the continent – making it one of the largest development initiatives in sport.
The programme’s contribution to the long-term welfare of European football has rarely been clearer than during the past two seasons, when clubs, leagues and associations struggled to cope with lost revenue due to fewer matches and reduced ticket sales. After reassuring associations in April 2020 about its next four-year HatTrick commitment (equivalent to €775.5m from 2020–24), UEFA released a total €236.5m for member associations to invest in protecting their national game and meeting the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.