World Cup aura shines on minnows

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The prospect of World Cup football on the home grounds of some of the game’s minnows moved a step closer on Wednesday after Plymouth, Bristol and Milton Keynes were chosen as host venues in England’s bid to stage the tournament in 2018.

The list of host towns and cities is dominated by England’s major metropolitan areas, with London, the North West and the North East home to eight of the 15 chosen stadiums.

But England 2018, which is leading the campaign, is keen to prove to Fifa, the world governing body, that a competition in England would extend beyond both the traditional heartlands of the game and the mighty Premier League.

The organisers found a ready audience when it invited bids from cities and football clubs. For several, the chance to badge their stadiums as potential World Cup venues was too good to miss.

Ann Limb, chairman of MK 2018, said she expected Wednesday’s decision would spark sufficient interest in Milton Keynes to increase attendances at MK Dons, whose League One matches have been attracting about 9,000 this season.

“It is the confidence, energy and interest, at a time of recession, and the recognition this gives Milton Keynes that is pure gold,” she said.

England will find out if its bid to host the event is successful in December 2010. Should it be successful, Fifa will make its final choice of venues in 2013.

The bidding has coincided with redevelopment and plans for new stadiums at several clubs, as they chase the football business model of increasing stadium capacity to meet pent-up demand.

The World Cup aura is expected to serve as a catalyst to these projects.

Plymouth Argyle is redeveloping its Home Park ground from a 20,000-seater stadium to 44,000 at a cost of £50m, and is halfway through its planning application. Keith Todd, Plymouth’s bid director, says the association with 2018 “puts Plymouth on the map globally” and accelerates the stadium project.

“The fact that we are now working to a World Cup timetable means the project schedule is much clearer,” he said.

Plymouth has costed the benefits of staging World Cup matches, even though Fifa’s decision on which country to award the 2018 tournament is a year away.

There are several hurdles ahead. Even if Fifa chooses England next year, it will whittle down the number of stadiums to about a dozen, some of which may stage only two or three matches.

But Milton Keynes was not over-egging the opportunity, Ms Limb said.

The MK Dons redevelopment, at a cost of £24m to create a 45,000-seater stadium, is not linked to a successful England 2018 bid.

“I don’t think [our selection] will be overplayed. Our plans will just be accelerated by it,” she said.

If England does win the 2018 bid, few parts of the country will be untouched by the occasion.

On the list is Sunderland, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds, Sheffield Newcastle, Liverpool and London. Hull, Derby and Leicester failed to make the cut.

England 2018 organisers also raised the prospect of the £600m London Olympic stadium – whose capacity can be adapted – becoming a World Cup venue.

So, too, could Tottenham Hotspur’s planned new stadium in north London, depending on its development progress.

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