Yesterday Arsenal made an official offer to buy the ageing stadium which only the day before had been described by Fifa, football's world governing body, as the centrepiece of England's attempt to stage the World Cup of 2006. At a stroke a spanner was thrown in the works of that bid and in in the pounds 240m funding of the national stadium, pounds 120m of which was being provided by the National Lottery.
Arsenal are understood to have offered around pounds 100m and may be prepared to go higher, but they would also have spend many millions more to update an ageing ground. As a private company there is no possibility of them receiving lottery cash.
Coming just 24 hours after the Prime Minister gave goverment backing to the World Cup bid by meeting Fifa's president, Joao Havelange, the timing is an embarrassment to say the least. "I have spoken to various people at Arsenal and Wembley," Tony Banks, the Sports Minister, said yesterday, "and now we need to get this sorted by the end of the month. All I can add is that the matter needs to be clarified very quickly."
The FA also called for a swift resolution. "We have to assume they believe they are acting in the interests of their club and its supporters," its statement read. "However the Government and the rest of football have made it clear what we believe is in the nation's interests. We have worked immensely hard with the English National Stadium Trust on the proposal to buy Wembley Stadium with Lottery money. So it is now up to the Wembley board to make up its mind between the two bids.
"A deadline of 31 March has been set by the English Sports Council. That must be met to enable the scheduled rebuilding of the new national stadium to begin next year. Negotiations continue."
Arsenal's move stems from their desperation to increase their 38,000 capacity. Ideally they would prefer to expand Highbury but to do that they would need to demolish houses and they have been thwarted by objections from local residents. However a move to Wembley would not necessarily be backed by many fans of a club which has strong roots in Highbury and Islington. All the same it will not have escaped the attention of the club's vice-chairman, David Dein, that Arsenal's inclusion in any future European Super League could depend on the bums they can put on seats. In that light, Wembley's tradition as well as its 75,000 capacity become very attractive.
Yesterday's move might be seen as a move to put pressure on local councillors - or to lower the price of the King's Cross site which had been gaining credibility as an alternative - but the club statement could not have been less expansive: "The board of Arsenal Football Club has confirmed that it has made a proposal to Wembley plc to acquire the stadium."
Whatever the motives, the immediate winners were Wembley plc, which now has two bidders for its principal asset instead of the expected one. Sources suggest it is willing to sell to Arsenal at the right price. Its shares rose 14p to 364.5 yesterday and at one stage were up 22. A spokesman for the leisure group said: "We remain committed to the national stadium project but we are in the curious position where we are a commercial organisation and have to bear in mind the interests of our shareholders. If people come to us with a proposal, we have to listen to it. We don't know what the figures are at the moment and it's not like a normal proposition where money is the bottom line. There are lots of elements to consider."
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