Wembley offer could stall World Cup plan

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The Independent Online
THE SALE of Wembley Stadium, the home of English football, could run into last-minute problems after the holding company revealed yesterday that it had received an approach that may lead to an offer for the entire group.

The twin-towered stadium is in the process of being sold to the English National Stadium Development Company, which will redevelop the site with the help of Lottery money as part of England's bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

The last minute approach to Wembley, which also controls Wembley arena and other leisure interests, has come from Enic, the investment vehicle run by Bahamas-based financier Joe Lewis. Enic already controls stakes in Glasgow Rangers, Vicenza , Slavia Prague and AEK Athens. It was also linked with a possible bid for Tottenham Hotspur last year.

Shares in Wembley soared by nearly 18 per cent to 367.5p on the news, valuing the company at just over pounds 200m. Enic's approach is thought to involve a cash and shares offer. The group does not want to jeopardise England's bid for the 2006 World Cup and if it does make a formal bid it will not necessarily block the stadium deal.

Enic's approach has arisen from an acrimonious split in the Wembley board. It is understood that the non-executive directors of Wembley are unhappy about the way the stadium sale plan has been handled, and that they invited Enic to look at making a possible offer. The non-executive directors include Jarvis Astaire, the veteran boxing promoter, and Peter Mead of the advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers, as well as Wembley's non-executive chairman, Claus Hultman.

The possibility of a last-ditch bid for Wembley is likely to infuriate the Sports Council and others associated with England's World Cup bid. Though the 2006 Word Cup is still seven years away, the disruption of a bid will be unwelcome.

Wembley's executive directors, which number only the chief executive and finance director, are understood to be cool on the Enic interest because of weakness in Enic's share price. The board hopes to press ahead with the sale of the stadium for pounds 103m. The move has cleared most of the hurdles and now needs only to be approved by shareholders. Schroders and Philips & Drew, the leading investors with 37 per cent of the equity between them, are thought to support the sale.

A deal, with the Sports Council and the Football Association as the main backers, has already been outlined between Wembley and the ENSDC.