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England's 2018/22 World Cup bid analysed

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It is 13 years since England last hosted a major international football tournament. Euro 96 went down as a big success, with some of the highest attendances in the tournament’s history. It is strange now looking back from just over a decade later knowing how football has changed in such a short space of time. Euro 96 was one of the last tournaments held in more traditional stadia. Compare the likes of Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough and the other grounds that have since been expanded such as St James’ Park in Newcastle and even Old Trafford with those that hosted the last World Cup in Germany – the new Allianz Arena in Munich, the revamped Olympiastadion in Berlin which held the final, the Arena AufSchalke and the new Zentralstadion in Leipzig. In just 10 years, the criteria for holding international tournament matches has changed a great deal, and the bar of what’s to be expected has been raised – probably by the high standard of stadia in Japan and South Korea in 2002, most of which were built from scratch. This is why when comparing the venues of 1996 with the proposed grounds for the 2018/22 World Cup bid, what immediately stands out is that Anfield and the City Ground have already been overlooked, Wembley has been completely rebuilt, and the remaining 5 stadia – Old Trafford, Villa Park (Birmingham), Elland Road (Leeds), Hillsborough and St James’ Park – have either already been expanded and/or will be expanded further if they are successful. It’s even more of a contrast looking back to 1966 – 3 of the 8 (Ayresome Park, Roker Park and the White City Stadium) are now gone, whilst Goodison Park remains under threat and will not be part of the next bid.

Is this is a good or bad thing? Although it’s all well and good having brand spanking shiny new stadia to go and watch a World Cup match in (especially if you’re eating prawn sandwiches), I think the last couple of World Cups have lost a bit of their charm by being held in perfect stadia. They lose some of the atmosphere of days gone by. Euro 96 was a watershed as the last tournament held in ‘traditional’ grounds. The standard has now been raised. The grounds now being put forward for 2018 demonstrate this – many have been built in recent years or will be built in the years leading up to 2018. But it’s easy to get romantic about it. There is another angle to come from – that we come from a much better position than many of the other countries bidding because we wouldn’t have to build many new stadia. The standard is already high – some need capacity increases or the odd tweak, but would then hit the standard quite easily – whilst there is scope to build a couple of new grounds if FIFA are that desperate for it, as no doubt South Africa and Brazil will keep raising the bar.

It is indeed a very interesting list of grounds that has bidded for a spot on the bid. I will now go through each one and evaluate their chances:

Birmingham – Villa Park
Villa Park is traditionally one of the biggest and best grounds in the country, having hosted numerous FA Cup Semi-Finals, England internationals in 3 centuries, and the last Cup Winner’s Cup Final 10 years ago. With its traditional position, current UEFA Elite status (which a World Cup venue requires) and a current capacity of over 40,000 (projected to rise to 50,000 after work is completed in time for 2018), it has a strong chance of being included and would be a popular choice.

Bristol – “Ashton Vale”
This new stadium is the proposed new home of Championship side Bristol City, who currently play their football at Ashton Gate, a traditional ground with a 20,000 capacity within site of Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. The new stadium has a planned capacity of 42,000 if they are successful, but is planned to go ahead even if they are not successful, albeit with a smaller capacity of 30,000. The design features a traditional box shape and single tier stands. Although it doesn’t have a top flight team, Bristol is a footballing town, with Bristol Rovers also playing in the Football League in League One. It’s location in the South West, some distance from the footballing centres, would also be a major plus point.

Derby – Pride Park
It will be tough for Derby to get a spot on the bid with competition from the other East Midlands bids. Pride Park is one of the older new grounds, opening in 1997, but it will need to be expanded for the World Cup – a planned expansion will take the capacity to 44,000. The fact that the ground is there is an advantage over neighbours Nottingham, although it lacks its footballing history. It could be a close run thing if they are up against Leicester, though. It has hosted England before, with the Three Lions thrashing Mexico 4-0 here back in 2001.

Hull – Kingston Communications (KC) Stadium
The East Yorkshire city of Kingston-upon-Hull is another to have a geographical advantage, but may be up against Leeds for a slot. The modern KC Stadium, which opened in 2002, is the home of Premiership side Hull City, whose rise through the leagues has been meteoric in the last decade, and rugby league side Hull FC. The current capacity of just over 25,000 will be increased by 20,000 if successful. To address concerns that it’ll just leave a white elephant of a stadium, about 11,000 of this will be made up of temporary seating, giving the stadium a normal capacity of 34,000. Success here would be a great boost for the city that was, until 2008, the largest in Europe never to have had a top flight football side.

Leeds – Elland Road
One of the oldest grounds on the shortlist, Leeds United’s ground was opened in 1897. It was a Euro 96 venue and has also hosted a number of England friendlies, most recently a game against Italy in 2002. Its last renovation was in 2006, but plans are in the works for two of the stands to be rebuilt, potentially increasing the capacity to over 50,000. Leeds is a great footballing city in the great footballing region of West Yorkshire, with United once being one of England’s top sides. But it has fallen on hard times in recent years, slipping to League One after financial problems. Will tradition count against them if the FA decides to go with more unorthodox venues?

Leicester – Walkers Stadium
Another of the East Midlands cities on the list, Leicester City’s Walkers Stadium is another modern development, opening in 2002 to replace Filbert Street. It is another to have hosted England when they played Serbia & Montenegro here in 2003, and the ground has hosted the Football Conference play-off final that year. It’s another of the shortlisted stadiums to have expansion plans, with an increase from 32,500 to at least 40,000, if not 50,000. It is probably in competition with Derby and Nottingham, so a larger capacity would definitely give them an advantage. It could be a close run thing.

Liverpool – Anfield/Stanley Park
The story of Liverpool FC’s new stadium is a long-running saga that has been well-documented. 1884-built Anfield’s capacity of just over 45,000 does restrict the club that could probably fill a ground twice that size every week. Thus, plans have been on the table for a long time for a new stadium to be built in the Stanley Park area nearby the great stadium. The current plans are for a 60,000 capacity stadium, with the potential to expand to 73,000 if needed. The design itself is spectacular – retaining the classic box shape and with an 18,500 seater stand designed to imitate Anfield’s (in)famous Kop. However, Liverpool’s American owners have struggled to raise enough money and work is currently on hold. Thus, it could well be that Anfield is used once again, as it was in Euro 96. It has also hosted England and Wales internationals, and is a proposed venue for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Either way, it is likely to be Liverpool’s only representative, as Everton’s proposed new stadium in Kirkby has seemingly fallen through.

London – Wembley Stadium
There’s nowhere like Wembley. The home of English football will always be the greatest stadium in the land and will almost certainly be the venue for the World Cup Final if England win the bid. This would make it the 3rd stadium to hold the Final twice, after the Azteca in Mexico City in 1970 and 1986 and the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro in 1950 and 2014. However, it is a totally new stadium, completed in 2007 – the Twin Towers have been replaced by the giant arch. Nonetheless, it retains its iconic status, hosting all the major national football finals and the majority of England internationals. With a capacity of 90,000, it is the 2nd largest stadium in Europe behind the Nou Camp in Barcelona and will host the 2011 Champions League Final, the 6th time it will have done so. And it’s worth remembering that it’s not just a stadium – Wembley is a very atmospheric location. Although access is difficult and a national stadium in Birmingham would have made more sense, it is really the only true location for the national stadium.

London – Olympic Stadium
One of the more controversial inclusions in the bid, the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford is the centrepiece of the 2012 Olympics to be held in the city. The stadium design itself isn’t too spectacular, especially when compared with Beijing’s “Bird Nest” Stadium. It is also designed with athletics specifically in mind, which will not go down well with football fans that hate stadiums with running tracks. Although the planned capacity of 80,000 is set to decrease to 25,000-30,000 after the Games, it has been suggested that it could be used as the home of a football or rugby team, possibly Leyton Orient, London Wasps, Saracens or even as a cricket venue. If included as a World Cup venue, a higher capacity than the proposed post-Games one would be needed, but the potential is there.

London – Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s new 60,000 seater stadium, also known as Ashburton Grove, opened in 2006, replacing nearby Highbury. It is the biggest and one of the most popular of the new generation of stadia, ranking behind just Old Trafford in capacity in English club football. It is also lined up as a 2015 RWC venue and is a strong contender for the football bid. However, what could count against it is that 3 of the 4 proposed London venues are located in North London, including Wembley.

London – “New White Hart Lane”
Tottenham Hotspur have plans to build a new 56,000 capacity stadium next door to current home White Hart Lane in time for the 2012-13 season, although it will not be completed until the following year. The naming rights will be sold off (unfortunately) but it’s a nice-looking stadium – although it is another of the bowl-shaped modern stadia, it will include a more traditional single-tier stand to create atmosphere. But it is up against it to make the bid due to the locality of the Emirates Stadium.

Manchester – Old Trafford
“The Theatre of Dreams” remains England’s 2nd most important football stadium after Wembley, having hosted many England matches and being the home of Manchester United. Its current capacity of nearly 76,000 puts it only behind the National Stadium, making it not only a near-certainty for the bid but also a highly likely venue for knockout stage matches. There are even plans to redevelop the South Stand to increase the capacity to about 95,000, making it the biggest stadium in Britain. It has plenty of international pedigree, being a venue in 1966 and 1996, and hosting the 2003 Champions League Final. Although it is primarily known as a football venue, it has also hosted the Rugby League World Cup Final and annually hosts that sport’s Super League Grand Final.

Manchester – City of Manchester Stadium
Due to Old Trafford’s location in Trafford, Manchester will be able to get away with having 2 World Cup venues, the second potentially being Manchester City’s COMS, also known as Eastlands. The stadium was built in time for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and was then converted into a football stadium in time for the 2003-04 season, increasing the capacity to over 47,000. It has since hosted the UEFA Cup Final in 2008. Due to Manchester’s (and Lancashire in general) football heritage, I would say it is possible that both Mancunian stadiums will make it onto the bid.

Milton Keynes – stadium:mk
One of the more surprising shortlisted venues, the new town of Milton Keynes has little footballing history. The new 22,000 seater stadium (potentially to expand to 40-45,000) opened in 2007, and is the home of Milton Keynes Dons, who controversially relocated to the town and its National Hockey Stadium from Wimbledon in 2003. The stadium also has a stupid name. Thus the selection of MK would probably be quite controversial, despite its ideal location on the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow and the M1 motorway. Its unorthodoxy may also play into its hands, as the FA may see it as a “new market” to try and help. But to me, there are only 2 words I associate the idea of a 45,000 seater stadium in MK – “white elephant”.

Newcastle – St. James’ Park
Newcastle United’s 52,000+ seater stadium, which first opened in 1892, is one of the most famous in England and is situated in one of England’s great football cities. Although the team has fallen on hard times in the last couple of years, the fans remain some of the most dedicated in the country, and you can guarantee World Cup matches will get big attendences whoever is playing. The stadium is another to host RWC matches in 2015, as well as Olympic football matches in 2012, having also been a venue in Euro 96. A likely venue in an England World Cup.

Nottingham – “Brian Clough Arena”
One of English football’s traditional homes, Nottingham’s 2 Football League clubs, Notts County and Nottingham Forest, are 2 of the oldest in the country, being founded in 1862 and 1865 respectively.. However, Forest’s City Ground, a Euro 96 venue, is now out of date, and there are now plans for a new 50,000 seater stadium (which could be named after Forest’s greatest manager) if Nottingham and England are successful. This would be located in Holme Pierrepoint as part of a new large sports complex that would also include a smaller community stadium for rugby and athletics. It is an impressive proposal, but the project has been beset by political issues, which could play it into the hands of the city’s East Midlands competition.

Plymouth – Home Park
Championship side Plymouth Argyle’s home (no pun intended) ground is the centrepiece of the Devon city’s bid for a slice of the World Cup pie. The Pilgrims have had plans to expand their ground for a while, with phase 1 completed in 2001. Being part of the bid would presumably mean a further expansion on top of this to turn Home Park into a stadium big enough and capable of hosting World Cup matches. The city itself has a lot going for it, being located in a beautiful (well I would say that, given that I’m half-Devonian) county dedicated to tourism. Its location in the South West a long distance from any of the major football cities should help as well. A surprisingly likely contender, perhaps?

Sheffield – Hillsborough
Still living in the shadow of 1989 and all that, Sheffield Wednesday’s home stadium was a venue in 1966 and 1996, and could make it again with some ambitious plans for a redevelopment that would take the capacity to nearly 45,000 by 2013. This will centre around modifications to the West Stand, the infamous Leppings Lane end of the ground. The past credentials of the stadium should help it but it will be going up against Bramall Lane for a spot.

Sheffield – Bramall Lane
Sheffield United’s stadium is the oldest ground still to be hosting professional football, having been opened as early as 1855, and will probably be competing with Hillsborough for a spot, as it is unlikely that both Sheffield stadiums will make it. With a capacity of over 32,000, it is about 7,000 behind Hillsborough, but they also have plans to expand to around 44,000. They have also done more work on the stadium recently, possibly giving it a slight advantage. The choice will be difficult – the heritage of Bramall Lane or the international pedigree of Hillsborough.

Sunderland – Stadium of Light
Opening in 1997, the 49,000 capacity Stadium of Light replaced 1966 World Cup venue Roker Park as the home of Sunderland. It was one of the first of the modern generation of English stadia and has generally received positive reviews since opening. It has also hosted 2 England internationals. The stadium was designed with expansion in mind, with a potential future capacity of 60,000 once an additional tier is added – it is unknown whether this will happen if the World Cup bid is successful. It should make the final shortlist, as it will probably be considered necessary to have 2 stadiums in the North East.

Other stadiums
There are a number of notable omissions from this list. Portsmouth originally made a bid, but pulled out in November due to a lack of financial provision – there had been plans for a spectacular new stadium for the city’s team, but instead it seems that an expansion of home ground Fratton Park is more likely. With Southampton also not putting their St Mary’s Stadium forward, the South Coast hopes rest on Plymouth. Other cities that did not bid despite having modern grounds include Reading (Madejski Stadium), Coventry (Ricoh Arena), Middlesbrough (Riverside Stadium), Bolton (Reebok Stadium, actually located in nearby Horwich) and Stoke (Britannia Stadium).

As explained earlier, plans have for a new stadium for Everton have now fallen through after planning permission was rejected. It was to have been a controversial move, moving the team outside of Liverpool into Knowsley. Instead, it seems they will remain at Goodison Park, a large but outdated stadium. Chelsea’s ground, Stamford Bridge, is also not being considered, due to its less than ideal location, along with another large London ground, West Ham’s Upton Park. No appearance of any of the other Lancashire sides as well, such as Preston, who have spent millions redeveloping Deepdale in recent years, and Blackburn.

A decision was taken earlier on to not include any Welsh or Scottish stadiums. Although the 2015 RWC will feature games in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, it will not take any part in any 2018 proceedings, with the same going for the sizeable Glaswegian stadiums Hampden Park, Ibrox and Celtic Park.

The Final Selection
All 15 cities have put together impressive, plausible bids, and I’d love to see all the proposed grounds used, but only 10 can go forward into the final bid. Whatever combination is selected, England will have a strong bid and a very good chance (albeit no guarantee) of becoming hosts, potentially expanding Britain’s “Decade of Sport” that also includes the 2012 Olympics in London, 2013 Rugby League World Cup, 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, 2015 Rugby Union World Cup and 2019 Cricket World Cup.

The cities that are likely to be chosen to go forward for the bid will probably be spread out so that they aren’t conglomerated around the same areas. Thus, the battles are likely to be fought between a small group of cities for particular spots. There are also rules about the capacities regarding which rounds each stadium can host – the Final must be held in a stadium with a capacity in excess of 80,000, the semi-finals in stadia that have a capacity of over 60,000, and for other matches over 40,000 seats are needed. My selections would be:

London – Wembley (90,000)
London – Emirates Stadium (60,000 – known as Arsenal Stadium for sponsorship reasons)
Manchester – Old Trafford (76,000+)
Liverpool – Anfield/Stanley Park (45,000/60,000)
Birmingham – Villa Park (51,000)
Bristol – Ashton Vale (42,000)
Plymouth – Home Park (40,000+)
Newcastle – St James’ Park (52,000)
Sheffield – Bramall Lane (44,000)
Sunderland – Stadium of Light (49,000+)

Final – Wembley
3rd Place Play-Off – Villa Park
Semi-Finals – Wembley and Old Trafford
Quarter-Finals – Emirates, Villa Park, Stanley Park (or Stadium of Light), St James’ Park
2nd Round – Wembley, Emirates, Old Trafford, St James’ Park, Stadium of Light, Anfield/SP, Villa Park, Bramall Lane

I’ve decided that none of the East Midlands cities (Derby, Leicester and Nottingham) should get spots, with preference instead going to giving 2 stadiums to the extreme regions of the North East and South West. There just aren’t enough spots for the East Midlands to get a stadium for themselves, and with Sheffield, Birmingham and the North West in easy reach, it’s not exactly going to be too devastating, although if they do get a slot it may go to the Walkers Stadium (which would have to be renamed the Leicester City Stadium or something like that for the tournament).

I’ve also gone for Sheffield over Hull and Leeds due to its more ideal location. I’m also unsure of the City of Manchester Stadium’s prospects – it depends on whether the FA end up being biased towards the bigger cities such as London and Manchester. They could also favour the quirky cities – I’ve included Plymouth on the strength of where it is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hull and Milton Keynes did creep in, although it’s hard to see where they would fit in using a common sense approach.

Well, those are my thoughts – now we’ll see what the FA decide in due course…


Written by James Bennett

December 6, 2009 at 04:02

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