The brilliant shape of sporting things to come

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Despite investment in English grounds stimulated by the Taylor Report, our stadia remain primarily football grounds, used once a fortnight for three-quarters of the year. Like most of Europe, we prefer our grounds to host, for the main part, football only.

Despite investment in English grounds stimulated by the Taylor Report, our stadia remain primarily football grounds, used once a fortnight for three-quarters of the year. Like most of Europe, we prefer our grounds to host, for the main part, football only.

The American multi-purpose event venue has not come to European football. Save in Arnhem in the Netherlands, that is. The Gelredome, home of Vitesse, is a football ground, concert hall and conference centre all rolled into one.

Little Vitesse failed by a whisker to qualify for the current European Champions' League. But they are leading the world in stadium design. Not only does the roof retract to allow matches to take place in the open air, but also the playing pitch can be moved and maintained outside the stadium to allow the grass to grow and to enable other events to take place inside. The roof allows no light in and so lighting effects can be used at any time. The pitch occupies a block approximately one metre deep. It weighs 11,000 tons and is pushed into place by four massive engines. It is truly fantastic to witness it sliding into the arena at 90 centimetres per minute.

When the pitch enters the stadium, it leaves room for parking spaces. The arena itself, a venue for three matches in next year's Euro 2000 finals, seats 26,500, soon to be increased by 5,000.

Ernie Walker, the former chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, who is now chairman of Uefa's Stadia Committee, said: "It is the most important step in the development of large-scale multi-purpose sports complexes since the Colosseum was built."

The cost of the Gelredome, which opened last year after 10 years of planning, was just short of £50m. The venue boasts 74 executive boxes and 2,000 square metres of conference space to service the borrowing. The cages and riot police have been replaced by friendly stewards.

Karel Aalbers, who led the project and chairs the stadium board, feels that the Gelredome provides a social facility for the whole community which, in a country less football- mad than others in Europe, is the key to long-term business prosperity. While success on the field will always be important "no longer is it a matter of life or death." But the new stadium does give Vitesse the opportunity to challenge for regular European football; season ticket sales have trebled.

"If Ajax is real butter," says Aalbers, " then Vitesse is a low-fat spread, a modern dairy product young, fresh, slimmer, smaller but still thoroughly successful."

On match days the Gelredome generates an atmosphere similar to English grounds with no fences and the spectators close to the action. Visiting fans are made as welcome as those of the home team. Stewards wear the opponents' colours and outlets sell their merchandise.

While the top English clubs will continue to thrive in the traditional manner, is the Vitesse approach not the way forward for clubs at a lower level?

The Football Association's World Cup 2006 bid organisation claims, with some justification, that England is a centre of excellence for the stadium industry, citing the expenditure of £600m in the development of England's football grounds. 78,000 extra seats are planned before 2006, primarily to accommodate the growing demand of Premier League supporters. The atmosphere, the commercial infrastructure and the crowd management procedures, fashioned admittedly from the desperately tragic events of the 1980s, all combined to enable England to put on an impressive show for the recent Fifa inspection visit.

But only Coventry City are intending to use a retractable roof and transportable pitch -- in their new 45,000 seat stadium, Arena 2000, north of the city.

And it seems that the cost of a roof would have taken the total cost of the new Wembley to around £500m. Planners are gambling that, even in the middle of the next century, when the new stadium may be coming towards the end of its life, events supporters will not be demanding the comfort of the latest state of the art developments in design. Although Wembley will, under the terms of government and National Lottery assistance, be made available from time to time for athletics and rugby league, it will primarily function "and be funded" as a traditional football stadium.

The German engineer who designed the Gelredome regards his work, in small measure, as recompense for the destruction caused to the area by his forbears. And it is the whole region that is benefiting from the new stadium, for it is part of a wholescale process of modernisation and regeneration. The municipal representatives who have put up some of the investment regard the integration of the Gelredome as critical. Brent Council, in contrast, requested millions of pounds as a condition of their planning consent for Wembley.

Comments