Grounds for fearing a white elephant

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The Independent Online
S TADIUMS, or stadia as the Imperial Roman Football Association used to call them, have managed to hog a significant amount of headline space over the past seven days despite a swell of spectacular and far more riveting news involving the passage of rugby players through walls suddenly rendered invisible, the keenly anticipated debut of Juninho and the ritual disembowelment of British football in Europe.

You would have thought there were enough urgent sporting matters for us to mull over without having our attention distracted by controversy over which inaccessible part of England we are to plonk a hulking and vastly expensive stadium by a date in the next century when many of us will have hung up our spectating boots and be slumped in armchairs with handfuls of pounds 5 coins studying which game to watch on Pay TV. There is nothing more boring than an unbuilt stadium unless it's a half-built one and neither can match for tedium an artist's impression in which the building is bathed in a holy light and there are a few people dressed by Versace sprinkled nonchalantly among the flower beds waiting for the ornamental gates to open.

Had the panel appointed to select a site for England's national stadium fulfilled their obligations we would have known about it last Tuesday and we would be getting on with our lives. Unfortunately, the representatives of the three sports who would use the stadium mainly - football, rugby league and athletics - could not make a decision between redeveloping Wembley, at a cost of pounds 167m, and building a new stadium at Manchester for pounds 134m.

So they are going to inflict six months of further bickering on us. Meanwhile, the other candidates have slunk away with various good reasons for their disappointment, particularly Birmingham. What makes this rivalry so intense, of course, is the large amount of lottery money available. Presumably, if there was no lottery they wouldn't have such grandiose schemes in their briefcases. No one seems to be imposing a sense of perspective about our real sporting needs. In fact, the more money churned out on a Saturday night the further we depart from the original aims of those whose tireless campaigning sold the concept in the first place.

The priority should be to build facilities where they are needed most and not for providing plastic seats 100 yards from where someone else is participating. If you were to take an objective view - which is probably the only view you'd get from the back row of one of these stadiums - we ought to be concentrating on improving the skill of our performers rather than the comfort of our spectators.

Any spare lottery money ought to be directed towards raising the ability and fitness of the nation, especially in those areas where there are few opportunities for healthy activity. I am fully aware that pounds 105m is being directed into many other sporting projects but the stadium alone will get a similar amount. This is far from a creative use of the windfall.

The stadium panel may have done the nation a favour by their dithering because it gives them and us a chance to reconsider how urgently we need the facilities upon which they are adjudicating. Why do we need to combine the needs of athletics with the other two sports? How often do we need an 80,000-seater stadium for an athletics event unless seat-hopping is to be introduced as a new Olympic sport?

Athletics would be better served by a purpose-built stadium of some 20,000 capacity adjacent to the Centre of Excellence we keep hearing about. Birmingham would be an appropriate site for such a venture but Manchester would appear to have the edge in this respect because, whatever happens to their bid for the national stadium, they are already earmarked for a smaller arena where they will stage the 2002 Commonwealth Games which they were awarded on Friday to a comb-and-paper fanfare.

The world's most boring sporting event will not help them clinch the national stadium. It will be an outrage if it does. What would helpwould be the support of a major club. If Manchester United or City, or both, were to throw their lot in with a giant stadium, you would have to regard it as a commercially viable idea. But they won't and it isn't.

Rugby league would be the second sport to use the new stadium and, to be fair, they fill Wembley once a year and three-quarters fill it if the Australians are visiting. But now that the game is moving to summer, the Challenge Cup will be held at a different time of year and may lose its traditional appeal. At the moment it still has Wembley at its disposal but by the year 2000 its relationship with the RFU may be such that it will be offered that rarely used concrete monstrosity at Twickenham. By the year 2010 there might be only one code of rugby. Is such an uncertain future worth the investment?

As for the FA, it has to use Wembley for England internationals until the year 2002, thanks to a contract that has robbed the big provincial clubs of international games for many years. What will be the drawing power of the England team by then? Might not they benefit from doing the rounds of the traditional cradles of the game like Old Trafford, Anfield, St James' Park, Hillsborough, Villa Park, Stamford Bridge, Highbury and White Hart Lane?

Capacities will not be as big as a new stadium but the advances in television coverage might by then have cut live audiences. Urgent re-thinking is needed before we wrap the trunk of a white elephant around the ankles of generations to come. Or can't we be bothered to think of a more inspired and constructive use for lottery money?

W HILE screaming along with most of the nation at the failure of our strikers to give us a goal in European matches in midweek, it suddenly occurred that we should be shouting at our defenders. They make our strikers look and feel so good in Premiership matches that when they come up against decent defences in European and international matches they start struggling. The answer is to make our defences better. But if we do that, the Premiership would not appear as exciting and goal- productive as it does now. Interesting dilemma, isn't it?

L ESTER PIGGOTT is 60 years old today and as some- one who celebrated the same landmark last weekend may I thank him for making it such a bearable age. It was only this year that he turned in his riding licence and I have enjoyed being reminded of his achievements by reading Hugh McIlvanney's excellent new book McIlvanney on Horseracing which contains much enlightening stuff on the great man. I particularly like the story of how the American press criticised him for holding up Sir Ivor before he won the Washington International in 1968. The following year, Lester won the race again on Karabas. The Americans crowded round to ask when he thought he had the race won. "Three weeks ago," Lester said. "Now f--- off." I do hope he gets his knighthood back soon.

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