$1 billion cost stalls plans for new Wembley Stadium

British government balks at fund bailout

May 03, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Pele played it and U2 rocked it.

The Summer Olympics came here in 1948, the World Cup in 1966 and Bill Haley and the Comets in 1972.

But now, staring at a price tag of about five times the cost of building Camden Yards, the British are having a tough time finding cash to rebuild Wembley Stadium, the most fabled sporting venue in the land, and perhaps in the world outside America.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government was on the defensive over news that it rejected making a cash bailout to help fund a new Wembley where the old one stands.

Apparently, even the soccer-mad British have a difficult time justifying the projected $1 billion cost of a state-of-the-art, 90,000-seat stadium. The venue would be used a few times a year for England's international soccer games and big rock shows and might form the centerpiece for future Olympic and World Cup bids.

For now, the old Wembley lies empty, its turf stripped and future uncertain.

It's as if Yankee Stadium were abandoned in the Bronx.

England's Football Association, the soccer stewards who oversee the stadium through a subsidiary company, sought more than $200 million in government aid to keep alive what was supposed to be a privately funded project. A $200 million grant from the National Lottery was used to purchase the stadium site in a north London neighborhood.

Blair's government, facing a potential election next month, declined to cough up any more cash, especially with soccer enjoying unparalleled wealth. The government has already been stung by one billion-dollar flop, the Millennium Dome, site of a critically savaged, economically ruined yearlong exhibition that simply won't fade away because the empty tent still sits by the Thames River.

William Hague, leader of the opposition Conservatives, called the stadium impasse a "fiasco." During an impassioned debate in the House of Commons, others urged the resignation of Culture Secretary Chris Smith, the minister who oversees sporting matters.`The collapse of the project has brought humiliation to Britain, and people here and all over the world are shaking their heads in disbelief that under this government nothing seems to work," said Peter Ainsworth, the Tories' shadow culture secretary.

Smith said he wasn't going to resign and declared the cash bailout for the project was "simply not on." At the same time, though, he said "no options are ruled out," including creating a new Wembley or refurbishing the old stadium.

Plans for the new stadium have changed several times over the past few years, with battles over the number of seats, inclusion of a running track and addition of a hotel and conference center.

Birmingham and Coventry are each due to make a pitch to serve as home to a national stadium, and soccer's rulers are said to be planning to listen with interest.

Basically, England's Football Association seems to be taking a leaf out of the U.S. sports owners' playbook: When all else fails, leave open the possibility of a move.

Like any old ballpark, Wembley was showing its age before shutting its doors last fall after a last ceremonial kick of a soccer ball by Brazilian star Pele. The sightlines were atrocious, the bathrooms unspeakable and the North London location difficult to reach for many outside the capital.

But it still had some architectural flourishes, such as the white Twin Towers that could be seen for miles by fans trooping in for the games.

And the joint was crammed with memories.

Through much of the 20th century, Wembley was a place where legends were made and sporting dreams came true, often in front of royalty sitting in a special box.

Three days after construction was completed, Wembley opened in April 1923 when the Bolton Wanderers played West Ham in the FA Cup final, soccer's Super Bowl. About 200,000 people showed up, and the game got started only when a cop on a white horse named Billie cleared the crowd away from a goal line.

The first post-World War II Summer Olympics came to Wembley in 1948, with Holland's Fanny Blankers-Koen starring on a track of compressed cinders collected from fireplaces in Leicester. Despite leftover war damage and food rationing, the British managed to stage a successful Olympics.

Eighteen years later, England had its greatest sporting triumph when its soccer team defeated West Germany in a 1966 World Cup final so emotional that war veterans in the stands wore their medals.

Other sports have taken center stage there. The Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys played football, Evel Knievel crested his motorcycle over 13 London buses, and dogs chased mechanical rabbits as Wembley sought to become the "Ascot of greyhound racing."

There have even been some baseball games, with two teams from the USS New Orleans playing in 1934 and an American inter-service competition in 1943.

Muhammad Ali fought at Wembley in 1963. Known then as Cassius Clay, he was decked by local fighter Henry Cooper, got up and then won the fight.

The first rock concert took place in 1972, featuring such old-time rock 'n' rollers as Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Led by U2 and Queen, the rock world congregated in 1985 during a famine relief concert known as Live Aid.

Now, Wembley is as dated as the music that once played here.

Until English soccer can gain a new home, the show will go on the road, with England's national team playing matches in stadiums around the country.

And the country's soccer Super Bowl, the FA Cup final, will be held at Cardiff in Wales in a new stadium that by Wembly standards is an absolute bargain.

It cost only $200 million.

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