Well, it certainly feels like it’s about time. By 2018, it will be over half a century since England last hosted a World Cup, and it’s pleasing to see that a concerted effort is going into preparing everyone for a sustained bid to host the tournament in eleven years’ time. In the half a century or so that will have elapsed by 2018 since we last held it, the World Cup will have changed quite a bit, with twice as many teams in the finals now as there were in 1966. Half of the venues for the 1966 World Cup have been knocked down (Wembley, White City, Roker Park and Ayresome Park) have gone, and it’s likely that Goodison Park will follow them. However, The Taylor Report meant a flurry of building activity at English stadia in the early to mid 1990s, and this has proved to be ongoing. There’s a convincing argument for saying that, in this country, we now have the best range of stadia in the world. Now, you could argue that, with the Olympics being held in London in 2012, we’re being greedy, but I don’t think that we should worry about that. Germany held the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the World Cup finals in 1974, and America did the same with the World Cup finals in 1994 and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Now, you may think that it’s straightforward – that there is a lengthy list of stadia in England that fit the bill, but it isn’t quite as cut and dried as that. For one thing, under current FIFA rules only one city can have two stadia in it, which rules out one of those in several English cities. Then there are the alternatives for FIFA. Oceania has never hosted a major tournament, and Australia are likely to mount a strong bid (though their case may be weakened by having joined the Asian Confederation in order to gain more competitive football), and China also seem likely to bid. Having said that, though, with South Africa hosting in 2010 and Brazil the favourites to get the nod in 2014, the case for it returning to Europe will be a strong one. There may be a bid from Italy, but they have hosted the tournament relatively recently, and a lot of work will have to be done to their grounds to bring them up to scratch. To give you an idea of what FIFA will be looking for, this guide to UEFA stadium gradings is as good as anything, so here is a a best guess at what we’ll be proposing. For the sake of argument, let’s work to the principle of needing twelve stadia.
There can surely be no doubt that Wembley will be the centre of the plans. Why bother building a 90,000 seat stadium (and the most expensively-built stadium in the world, to boot) if it isn’t? It would also seem likely that London would be the city to get two stadia – again, this makes sense. London is at least five times the size of any other city in England, after all. Renovations may take place at Stamford Bridge, Upton Park or White Hart Lane over the next decade or so (Chelsea have already stated their intention to increase the capacity of Stamford Bridge to 55,000) but, for the time being at least, we have to assume that the natural choice as London’s second ground would be the 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium. It’s brand spanking new and, let’s not forget, David Dein is a big cheese in FA circles. I think it’s safe to say that this is a done deal.
All of this leaves us requiring a further ten cities capable of hosting World Cup finals football. In the north-west, Old Trafford is a shoo-in. Sorry, Manchester City fans, but OT holds 76,500 (and further increases are likely over the next ten years or so), and has hosted a Champions League final. The situation in Liverpool is more complex. Liverpool are unlikely to be at Anfield for much longer, and their new stadium will hold 60,000 people. But what of Everton? At the moment, they’re staying at Goodison Park, and it’s also unlikely that any new ground that they build will be bigger or better suited to this sort of tournament than “New Anfield”. It’s most likely, therefore, that “New Anfield” and Old Trafford will be chosen in the north-west. There are also two fairly straightforward choices to be made in the north-east – St James Park and The Stadium Of Light. St James Park holds 52,300 and is a modern arena, and The Stadium Of Light, whilst saddled with a dreadful, dreadful name, holds 49,000 and has planning application for an increase to 55,000. Transportation is said to be poor, but there is plenty of time to remedy that.
So, we’re half-way there. In Birmingham, the obvious candidate is Villa Park. It’s widely anticipated that the capacity of Villa Park is soon to be increased to 51,000 and the idea of a World Cup without matches being played in England’s second biggest city is more or less unthinkable. I think that I’ve complained before on here on the defacement carried out upon Villa Park by Doug Ellis when he demolished the much-loved Trinity Road Stand to make way for an identikit chrome and steel replacement. Maybe Randy Lerner, with his billions of pounds, could restore some of this heritage. Well, there’s no harm in asking, is there? In Yorkshire, meanwhile, Hillsborough, in spite of the connotations associated with its name, would only require minimal work to bring itself up to standard. Elland Road, as noted on here before, has changed ownership several times over the past couple of years, and one hopes that Leeds United will still be playing there by 2018. It’s starting to show signs of wear and tear (and renovating it is really the least of Leeds’ worries at the moment), but it has hosted international football before (at Euro 96), and would require only minimal work to bring it back up to speed.
We’re up to nine stadia now (for those of you that haven’t been keeping count), but now our well is starting to run a little dry. As I’ve already noted, it’s only one stadium per city is allowed for all cities bar one (and it’s pretty clear that London is the only reasonable contender for this), so The City Of Manchester Stadium and Goodison Park are out, as are Bramall Lane, The Hawthorns and St Andrews. We need, therefore, to show a little imagination. First up, I would nominate St Mary’s Stadium, Southampton. It has hosted England friendly matches before and currently holds 32,000 people, but expansion to 40,000 wouldn’t be too difficult. Also, Bristol City Council have just granted planning permission for a new stadium to be shared by Bristol RFC and Bristol Rovers, and I would say that England’s sixth biggest city – and a city with an airport and excellent road links to Wales and the West Country – should also be represented. The stated capacity for this (as yet unnamed) venture is 26,000 but, with cost of stadium redevelopment elsewhere being relatively low, funds for expansion could be easily found.
All of this leaves one more stadium required to make up the dozen. What do you think, reader(s)? Nottingham, Derby, Hull, Reading, Middlesbrough, Coventry, Wolves and Norwich could all stake a claim. I’d even suggest Brighton, if I thought that there was a cat in hell’s chance of them having a new ground by 2018. I’ll leave you lot to argue it out amongst yourselves.