Goalposts moved in Wembley capacity debate

Steve Tongue hears Wembley's claim that 2006 is is worth only £3m
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The Independent Online

They have met the Prime Minister and Prince Charles, landed by helicopter on the Wembley pitch and had Sir Geoff Hurst tell them exactly how far behind the line his shot was in 1966; they have watched two of England's Champions' League representatives collide at Stamford Bridge. Still to come are visits to four other Premiership grounds and Liverpool's state-of-the-art training complex, plus a gala dinner at Hampton Court Palace.

They have met the Prime Minister and Prince Charles, landed by helicopter on the Wembley pitch and had Sir Geoff Hurst tell them exactly how far behind the line his shot was in 1966; they have watched two of England's Champions' League representatives collide at Stamford Bridge. Still to come are visits to four other Premiership grounds and Liverpool's state-of-the-art training complex, plus a gala dinner at Hampton Court Palace.

That is all part of the dream being sold to Fifa's team of six inspectors as they tour the country this weekend assessing England's bid to stage the 2006 World Cup. What the delegation, from Australia, Canada, China, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, will not be aware of is quite how much manoeuvring and politicking, rumbling and grumbling is going on behind the scenes at Wembley, which is understandably being presented as the crown jewel of the bid.

However much the delegates enjoy hearing Chris de Burgh (an Irishman) sing, receiving a toy model of a World Cup 2006 taxi or meeting Hugh Grant, walking up the tunnel beneath the Twin Towers at Wembley with full crowd effects (sorry about the Twin Towers, gentlemen, bit too heavy to move) is likely to provide a more graphic memory of what England has to offer.

What they will not know is that Wembley is resisting pressure to increase the capacity of the new stadium beyond 90,000, which would be necessary to stage an Olympic Games; that the company has also criticised a "disgraceful" lack of investment by London Underground in the main local tube station; and that the local council are miffed at not having been invited to any of this weekend's shindigs.

At a joint media briefing with Sir Geoff Hurst on Friday, Bob Stubbs, the chief executive of Wembley National Stadium, allowed England's hat-trick hero centre stage to wallow in the prospect of creating "the most magnificent football stadium in the world". Only later did Stubbs go into detail about some of the problems. The question of providing sufficient capacity to stage the 2012 Olympics is a serious one, and the issues of transport and relations with the local community are others.

The number of seats for spectators at athletics events at the new stadium will always be considerably less than for football, because of the need to instal a raised platform for track and field. Stubbs insists: "When the project started, the Olympics requirement was for 65,000. We have a legally binding contract for 65,000, but the requirement has since changed to 80,000." He believes the goalposts have been moved, in every sense. To meet the change in Olympics capacity, as the British Olympic Association want, means adding at least 10,000 extra seats, which led to last week's reports that the new stadium would reach the magic figure of 100,000, not seen at Wembley since before the Taylor Report was implemented for the first all-seated FA Cup final of 1990.

The BOA want that done right from the start to enhance London's proposed bid for the 2012 Games. Stubbs claims that the cost of adding an extra tier at the top of the stadium would be prohibitive: "To add just over 10,000 seats adds up to about £50m - Premier League grounds have been built for less than that. And as well as being the most expensive seats to build, they're the furthest away from the action, so it's a double-whammy. They're just not economic seats to put in - if it was that easy, they'd already be there: 90,000 is the optimum figure."

Following the intervention of the Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, a compromise may be reached: subject to a feasibility study due next week, extra seating could be put in at ground level instead, at a later date.

Remarkably, Wembley claim that England being awarded the World Cup would be worth no more than £3m to them, in rentals for matches played there - "neither here nor there compared to an investment of £500m". What they are more interested in is improving the road network and the three railway stations that serve the whole complex, including Wembley Park underground and the Chiltern Line's pitifully inadequate Wembley Stadium station.

Brent Council - whose leader said it was "unfortunate" not to have been invited on Friday - have yet to give planning permission for the new stadium and have suggested that £30m will be necessary to improve the infrastructure, to which Stubbs replies: "Our assessment is nowhere near that." He has harsh words too for London Underground: "We think they're making £6m a year out of customers visiting this complex. It's a disgrace that Wembley is served by a 1920s urban tube station."

Dreams and reality; after the Fifa bigwigs had been whisked away by helicopter to their next jolly-up, members of the press and public walked back to Wembley Park to find no trains running in either direction - signal failure. And, as the rain began to fall, there was not even a World Cup 2006 taxi in sight.

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