Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield hope, in staging the matches for the European football championships, to do for England what the Italia 90 World Cup and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics did for their host nations - relaunch their country in the world's eyes, encourage foreign investment, attract business, galvanise tourism. What hardly anybody has noticed is that the Government is leaving them to get on with it virtually unaided.
The FA is giving the cities pounds 160,000, and another pounds 181,000 has been made available from sponsorship quangos. But the direct funding of pounds 100,000 from the Department of National Heritage, split eight ways, is regarded with incredulity and contempt by the councils concerned. What had promised to be a dazzling national commercial success is descending into an ugly and acrimonious squabble.
The Treasury will enjoy pounds 9m of VAT from ticket sales alone, and the total VAT receipts from tournament-related spending could top pounds 22m. The decision, then, to provide municipal England with not much more than a month's wages for a top international has been condemned by one irate organiser as a "frigging nightmare", provoked fears that future British bids for international sporting events will be jeopardised, and prompted at least one city to consider legal action against the Government.
"The whole thing leaves a very sour taste in the mouth," said John O'Shea, deputy leader of Newcastle City Council. "We've been spectacularly short- changed, and quite frankly, we feel cheated and let down."
Mr O'Shea is putting the final touches to a three-week programme of cultural events. Live theatre, dance, comedy and music will celebrate the championships, promote Britain - and cost the people of Newcastle at least pounds 75,000. "And much of that money," Mr O'Shea says, "will be going on things as mundane as cleaning the streets. We are seriously debating whether we can take the Government to court over this."
At the root of the problem lies the sponsorship deal imposed by UEFA, the event's governing body. Eleven major sponsors - such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and MasterCard - bought exclusive rights to Euro 96. Unsurprisingly, they showed little interest in sponsoring local programmes.
"We didn't even get a chance to approach the 11 sponsors until December last year," explains Ian McNicol, head of leisure and tourism for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, "and we weren't getting rejections until February. That didn't leave anything like enough time to set up other deals. Basically, we were left flat broke and busted, and everyone's had to dig damned deep into their own pockets." Only Newcastle and Sheffield have secured a major local sponsor.
According to Mr McNicol, the Department of National Heritage offered its measly pounds 100,000 only after personal intervention on behalf of the cities by David Mellor, the former heritage minister. "It's simply incredible," Mr McNicol said. "The world has changed tremendously since 1966, and all major events like this expect to see a huge cultural programme. You'll find the French making the most astounding cultural statements over the World Cup in two years' time, and there's been a Dutch guy in Birmingham for 12 weeks now, looking at what we are doing for Euro 96.
"What happens here? The cities have done a terrific job, and will put on fantastic festivals, but we've had nothing like the support we would have hoped for."
The cities, council leaders all point out, never even bid for the tournament in the first place. Euro 96 was secured for England by the FA and, while the cities welcomed the opportunity to stage the event, all claim they were initially promised far greater funds.
"We were expecting pounds 100,000 each from National Heritage to fund our cultural programme," complains John Collins, deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, "and that's the figure we were working on. The whole thing has been a bureaucratic nightmare."
Further, the cities have received no extra money for policing the tournament and providing back-up services such as translation and street cleaning. Nor has Lottery money been made available; though the law was recently changed to allow future one-off sporting events to bid for Lottery funding, it was too late for Euro 96.
The Department of National Heritage robustly defends its arrangements. The cities, it insisted, asked for only pounds 400,000 in the first place and said that they could then raise some pounds 2.5m elsewhere. Though the department itself has provided only pounds 100,000, the extra pounds 300,000 was available from two quangos: Sportmatch and the Association of Business Sponsorship for the Arts.
But, the cities object, they can only get the quango money if they match it pound-for-pound. "Sportmatch," said Mr Collins, "placed such narrow definitions on the kind of activities which qualified that it was a waste of time. We put up event after event and got nowhere." Sportmatch has handed out only pounds 31,000, though the ABSA has put up pounds 150,000.
The Football Association's role in co-ordinating activities has not escaped criticism, either. The FA donated some pounds 160,000 to the cities, and advised them on how to approach sponsors, but it has been accused by some city leaders of being "unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery". In turn, FA insiders complain that the Government has been "startlingly short-sighted" in its failure to provide greater funding, but also that the cities have proved at best hapless in their efforts to attract sponsorship. "Perhaps if the Government had given them pounds 2m they wouldn't have known what to do with it anyway," one source sighed.
When Euro 96 finally begins on Saturday, all eyes will be on the crowds. Fireworks for the opening ceremony have been cancelled, for fear of inflaming hooligan trouble, and performers have reportedly been asked to waive their fees. "The begging bowl has gone out," an insider has admitted.
"It's a typically botched, last-minute cock-up," says John Williams of the Sir Norman Chester Foundation for Football Research. "No thought seems to have gone into the opportunity this offers to sell ourselves to the world. Only this country could ever run an event like this."
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