Saturday 6 December ~
The Scottish FA caused a brief flurry of excitement this week when it admitted that it had held “tentative” talks with Wales and Northern Ireland over the possibility of co-hosting the 2016 European Championship. No sooner had this story broken, however, than SFA president George Peat moved to dampen expectations with a gloomy but realistic appraisal of Scotland’s chances. If Euro 2008 had needed eight 30,000-plus capacity stadiums, then the expanded 24-team championship in 2016 will likely need more. Scotland and Wales between them currently have five, while the likes of Ballymena United are not, according to the autumn issue of Groundtastic, planning to take capacity beyond the current 5,000.
Peat grimly acknowledged the Scots only have themselves to blame for the likely failure of any future bid – it was, after all, the SFA that helped initiate the move to expand the Euros to 24 countries to enhance the qualifying chances of joyless, mediocre teams like Scotland. At the same time this has scuppered its chances of hosting a major tournament. Even stretched across the three home nations, what would be the point of building so many stadiums with way more seats than will ever likely be filled on an average Saturday afternoon? It wouldn’t just be Queens Park playing to blocks of empty seats on the days when neither Rangers nor Celtic were coming to town.
South Korea, Portugal and Switzerland are all countries left with teams housed in stadiums many times bigger than they actually need in the wake of hosting international tournaments. Nowadays, it only makes sense for countries like Germany, where gates for domestic games are the highest in Europe, to undergo massive building or modernisation programmes for the privilege of hosting a handful of FIFA or UEFA games. And even Germany was left with a white elephant after the 2006 World Cup, its beautiful but expensive 44,000-seat stadium in Leipzig playing host to occasional games for fifth-level Lokomotiv, or to third division struggler Sachsen Leipzig, who lured in just over 1,600 fans to their last home defeat.
The tendency of fans and administrators has historically been to argue for the building of new stadiums, regardless of logic, size and cost, because it can only be good for the game to have more grounds and more seats. In our fantasy world, the stands are always full like they are in Roy of the Rovers (or at the Emirates Stadium). But the issue is forever coming back to haunt us. This week in South Africa the government announced new cost overruns on its World Cup stadiums, prompting yet more political fights about who’s paying the bill and where that money could be better spent in a country where millions live in poverty. On Monday, in the depressed Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Major League Soccer broke ground on yet another new stadium that will be mostly built with public money on the promise of economic regeneration. Yet locals say that what Chester really needs is a supermarket, not a stadium that will be empty on 347 days of the year.
George Peat’s admission that “I don’t think we could cope” with a 24-team championship is not bad news for Scottish football. It’s a reflection that some in the game are slowly waking up to the reality that, while it may be economically worthwhile for teams in the wealthiest leagues to expand their stadiums or move to bigger ones, it won’t work for the likes of Boavista, Servette and, potentially, Aberdeen or Hearts. Any club with sense first builds a team, gains support and financial stability, and only then starts to design grandiose two-tier cantilever stands. Ian Plenderleith