Football: Museum plea on lottery fast-track

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Football's governing body, Fifa, has agreed that its unique collection of football memorabilia, art and artefacts will be sold to a new football museum in Preston, providing that Heritage Lottery funding is available to purchase it. Meanwhile the museum's request for funds has been short- listed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The agreement, signed by the Fifa general secretary, Sepp Blatter, is a significant advance in the battle to ensure that the collection, currently in storage in east London, stays in this country. The collection's co- owners, the American firm Sports Properties International, had been willing to listen to offers for it from museums in the United States, South America, Asia and Europe. But the collection's future will not be entirely secure until Heritage Lottery funds are forthcoming.

Another important point is that Fifa's letter of intent is only binding until the end of March next year. If funds to purchase it have not been secured by then, they are free to consider other destinations for the collection.

Fifa and SPI are thought to have paid around $1.5m (pounds 1m) to acquire the collection from Harry Langton, the British former sports journalist who built it up. They are prepared to sell it to the Preston museum for the same amount. On Friday evening Fifa confirmed that SPI had agreed to the proposed sale. "We are on a good track now," Fifa's Flavio Battaini said from their headquarters in Zurich. "We go in a good direction."

Fifa have maintained all along that Britain is their favoured destination for the collection, which they do not have the space to display in Zurich. SPI plan to use funds from the sale for further acquisitions of sporting memorabilia, in which there is a lively and lucrative market, evidenced by Christie's pounds 305,000 sale in Glasgow last Wednesday.

Bryan Gray, the chairman of trustees of the Preston museum, told a meeting at the House of Commons last Wednesday that the museum, which is part of a new development at Preston North End's Deepdale ground, was ready to house the Fifa collection. "The ground floor there is all shuttered up, ready to put the collection in place," he said.

Tom Finney, the former Preston North End and England winger, also addressed the Westminster meeting. "It is marvellous to think that ordinary folk will be able to go along and see this collection," he told a gathering of MPs from the all-party football committee, academics and Heritage Lottery Fund representatives. "That is why we have come, cap in hand, hoping that you will support us, and hoping that the lottery will consider football in a different light to the way that many people think about it."

On Friday, Gray confirmed that he had received Fifa's letter, which he described as "very positive", and also said that the Heritage Lottery Fund had agreed to consider his request to "fast-track" Preston's application for funds to acquire the collection. "They have agreed to come back to me not later than the end of next week," Gray said. "I cannot ask for more than that."

Fifa's letter at least gives the Preston team time to put their case, with the imminent threat from overseas interests forestalled. But Gray and his staff live in fear of a "killer bid" - for instance from French interests, keen to commemorate the World Cup in 1998 - that could still wrest the collection away from its home country. "Five million pounds from Monsieur Chirac, and Fifa could still change their mind," Gray said.