FA to buy Wembley stadium, spiritual home of English sport, for pounds 103m

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The Independent Online
THE FOOTBALL Association's hopes of hosting the World Cup in 2006 were given a massive boost yesterday when a consortium led by the FA sealed a deal to take control of Wembley stadium.

Shareholders in Wembley plc, the private company which owns the stadium, yesterday voted overwhelmingly to sell the famous Twin Towers to the consortium for pounds 103m.

The vote marks the end of a tortuous, four-year process to close the sale.

It also ended a last-ditch attempt by two private leisure companies and three dissident Wembley directors to renegotiate the agreement.

A host of luminaries involved in England's World Cup bid welcomed the news.

Sir Bobby Charlton, a member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning side said yesterday: "The current Wembley was regarded as one of the wonders of the sporting world when it was built in the Twenties, and I am sure that is what we will think when the new stadium is unveiled."

Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said: "The new Wembley is at the heart of our bid to secure a number of major international events including, of course, the 2006 World Cup. This is more excellent news for these campaigns."

Alec McGivan, England's 2006 campaign director, promised that the new Wembley would be "the finest stadium in the world".

Under the terms of the deal, Wembley is being sold to the English National Stadium Development Company - a consortium backed by the FA and partly funded with National Lottery money. The consortium plans to spend pounds 200m on building the new stadium.

Bob Stubbs, the chief executive of the consortium, said the designs for the new stadium would be finalised in the summer and a planning application would be submitted in September. That would clear the way for demolition work to begin in September 2000.

Wembley, which was completed in 1923, is a listed building and the consortium will have to convince the planning committee at Brent Council in north- west London - and National Heritage - that the new design is an improvement on the existing stadium.

Designs are being drawn up by a team of architects led by Sir Norman Foster.

Until the last moment, however, the sale was shrouded in controversy. Small shareholders who attended the extraordinary general meeting yesterday morning opposed the sale. However, they were overwhelmingly outvoted by several large fund managers, allowing the sale to be cleared with a 79 per cent majority.

The controversy follows a long-running campaign by three non-executive directors of Wembley - Peter Mead, Jarvis Astaire and Roger Brooke - to block the sale. The three, who argued that the deal undervalued the stadium, had encouraged rival leisure companies to make a bid for Wembley plc.

Both ENIC, the football investment group which controls 25 per cent of Glasgow Rangers, and SFX Entertainment, a US leisure giant, indicated they were willing to launch takeover bids for Wembley plc if the vote was postponed. However, they were overruled by the rest of Wembley's board - a decision which was ratified by the shareholders yesterday.

Last night, Mr Mead said small shareholders in Wembley had been "filibustered by the corporate equivalent of the union block vote".

However, sources close to Wembley said any move to delay the meeting would have undermined the deal to sell the stadium. Under the terms of the agreement, the sale would fall through if it had not been completed by 15 March.

Yesterday Sir David Hill-Wood, the chairman of the FA's treasury committee and a shareholder in Wembley plc, told the shareholder meeting any attempt to renegotiate the deal would have been pointless.