West Ham begin life in Olympic Stadium with a good win and full crowd
LONDON -- On the eve of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the stadium that was the centrepiece of London 2012 began its new life as the permanent home of West Ham United. Or, as the Hammers' new badge has it, West Ham United London; the addition of the capital's name suggests the club is morphing from a proud, East End working-class institution towards a corporate entity keen to stake its place within one of the world's financial centres.
Thursday's Europa League third-round qualifier, second leg, won't live long in the memory, even if the historic occasion will. NK Domzale couldn't match their heroics of last week in beating Slaven Bilic's team 2-1 in Slovenia. With Cheikhou Kouyate scoring twice in the first half, the Hammers swiftly took charge to ease into the playoff round. Sofiane Feghouli, an Algerian winger signed from Valencia in June, scored two minutes from time just when it looked he might rue a slew of missed second-half chances. One more tie and the group stages beckon.
"It's a good feeling," said Bilic after the 3-0 win. "We are not going too over the top about our performance, but for a game like this, it was good. It was a mature performance, and we are one week fresher."
After almost six years of waiting for the move and no shortage of controversy along the way, West Ham's owners want their club to become a regular on the European scene and fill the new stadium, just like they did here: 54,000 fans enjoyed the novelty, with the promise of an enlarged 60,000 capacity to come.
A renaming from the Olympic Stadium to the London Stadium means a repeat of the confusion that many suffered when trying to work out whether the old ground was called the Boleyn Ground or Upton Park. But there, the similarities just about end, as the new place could hardly be more different. Where a stroll down Green Street to the old HQ took fans down a narrow stretch of greying tower blocks and past an outdoor market, visitors to the new premises make their way through the huge, three-tiered Westfield shopping mall, always packed with shoppers at the best of times, into a vast boulevard dominated by the stadium's towering structure.
Queen Elizabeth Park, in which the London Stadium is situated, is so vast as to be disorientating. On the south side is an open-plan area of walkways and waterways usually frequented by joggers and cyclists, its shrubbery now grown high four years after being planted for London 2012. With highly expensive new-build apartments being constructed all along its fringes, the surroundings are like no other in the English Premier League. West Ham enjoy a wholly futuristic setting.
As for inside the ground, all is equally modern, with spacious concourses and big screens behind each goal. And what of the atmosphere, a subject of fevered worry among those reluctant to leave the Boleyn? The prematch rendition of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" was loud enough, albeit not quite as spine-tingling as it often was in the rafters of the old Bobby Moore stand.
The fear is that the new stadium's atmosphere will lapse into the type of low-volume torpor that often occurs at Arsenal's Emirates, but it wasn't a concern on opening night.
"I was not worried, but I didn't know," said Bilic. "This was the first time we could judge, and it was more than I could expect. It was loud and there is no point comparing it to Upton Park -- it's a completely different thing. It was a great atmosphere, and I'm not afraid of the new stadium."
Another subject of unease is the sheer distance from the field that many fans will find themselves as a result of the stadium retaining a running track that will still be used for athletics meetings. The shallow-angled West Stand has been split into two separate sections divided by walkways. That might not lend itself to a red-hot atmosphere but the opposite East Stand is a complete stand, a far more steep bank.
Wherever you sit, those who require glasses must remember to bring them but most, though not quite all, will have a full view of the entire pitch and won't suffer the restricted views on offer in the old Boleyn "Chicken Run," for example.
Before, during and after the game, there were frequent reminders of the unfamiliarity of surroundings. "I'm sorry if I am late, but it's a long walk," Bilic joked.
It is going to take a while to get used to, but a painless first night suggested West Ham should be happy in their new home.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.