Football: Football heritage under threat

Lottery cash crucial in the fight to secure unique pounds 1m collection for a new national museum
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The Independent Online
A unique football collection, worth at least pounds 1m and intended to be the "Jewel in the Crown" of a proposed National Museum of British Football, may be sold overseas within days unless funding can be secured to keep it in this country.

The Fifa Collection, acquired by the international governing body from Harry Langton, a Yorkshire-born former sports journalist, is the world's largest collection of football art, artefacts and memorabilia. It has been earmarked as the centrepiece of a new football museum to be established at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End FC. But while the museum's trustees wait to hear if their application to the Heritage Lottery Fund will be successful, representatives of foreign museums are stepping up their efforts to acquire the collection. "It is a stunning collection," Bryan Gray, Chairman of Trustees of the Preston museum, said. "It is essentially English, and it would be terrible if it was lost to the nation."

Tom Finney, the former Preston and England winger, has lent his support, and will attend a reception at Westminster this week to promote the campaign. "I think it's essential that we keep it here," he said last week. "It is the kind of thing that the majority of people have never seen - myself included - and they should have the opportunity to look at these objects. Preston is the right place for it, as founder members of the league, and as the former headquarters of the game. This is the sort of project that one would think the money should be spent on."

The collection, documented in a book (The Fifa Collection, Quintessence, pounds 30) contains representations of ancient Chinese, Greek, Roman and Anglo- Saxon forms of football, works of art depicting the 19th- century game, including Thomas Webster's 1839 painting "Foot-ball", and bronzes by the Austrian Adolph Wagner von der Muhl, as well as countless items of football ephemera, such as the oldest known table football game, manufactured in Preston in 1884.

Fifa say that they have agreed in principle that the collection - at present in storage in a warehouse in east London - should go to Preston. "We have always planned for the collection's base to be in the museum," said Keith Cooper, Fifa's director of communications, who has become a trustee of the museum. "There is no place for it here at Fifa. It was always due to be based in Preston, living in its own home. Or it will do, when the sale is completed."

But it is by no means certain that a sale to Preston will be completed. For Fifa is not the sole owner of the collection, and the co-owners, an American sports marketing company called Sports Properties International (SPI), say that there is no binding agreement with Preston and that they have been talking to other interested parties.

"No agreement has been struck with Preston," SPI's Clive Toye said from the company's offices in New York, apparently contradicting Fifa's statement. "We have agreed in principle, and we do not view with disfavour the idea of the collection ending up in Preston. But in the 12 months since we got involved there has been enormous interest from all over the world. From Uruguay, for instance [where the first World Cup was held], from Paris and their International Football Hall of Fame, from here in the US and from Asia, enormous interest, which is what it deserves." Fifa and SPI are in consultation about the asking price for the collection, which is though to be worth at least pounds 1m.

Foreign interest is evidenced by the comments of leading football figures from around the world who have seen the collection. Josee Santoni, of the Organising Committee of the World Cup in France in 1998, said: "The diversity of the original and historical objects is what makes it so special. It gives a unique perspective of football." Jim Trecker, the chief press officer of World Cup 1994 in the USA, described the collection as "the greatest selling tool I have ever seen for sport". Perhaps most ominously from the British point of view, Dato Peter Verlappen, the General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, declared: "It will attract great interest everywhere, especially in Asia. Although the game began in England, it has been very much nurtured in Asia."

The biggest problem for the Preston team is time. Their application for pounds 5.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund is now being processed by the fund's Museum Assessment Programme, and a decision is not expected until late February or early March next year. This may be too late to acquire the collection: SPI hope to have a sale complete within three months.

One solution that Gray has been pursuing would be to "fast-track" the funds for the acquisition. Though unwilling to comment on specific cases, a Heritage Lottery Fund spokeswoman conceded that money could be made available in a hurry "in extreme cases".

The "fast-track" will have to be swift indeed because, according to Toye, the opposition are becoming impatient. "We do have pressing approaches coming from elsewhere," he said. How much time is there? "Not much. To agree in principle - a matter of days. To a closure, a matter of three months." So the Heritage Lottery Fund's deadline of March would be too late? "I don't want to say `yes' to that absolutely, but if they don't get their skates on fairly quickly . . . by the end of February, you know, everything's finished and gone."