By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Long-suffering Irish soccer supporters may at last have a stadium of their own following last week’s announcement that the Football Association of Ireland is planning to build a facility, a national stadium, in southwest Dublin.
With a capacity of 45,000 and a projected cost of £65 million, the stadium, which is subject to planning commission permission, would feature a removable pitch and a retractable roof. According to the FAI, if all targets are met, the arena, which would be situated at the Citywest Business Park off the Naas Road, will be open for business by 2001.
While it was revealed that the project is being backed by the world’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank, and that the international sports agency, IMG, will be marketing the concept to the Irish business community, exact financial details remained vague.
The FAI’s chief-executive, Bernard O’Byrne, admitted that it was too early to anticipate the final cost, but he insisted that the stadium would be self-financing.
"We do not need money from the government for this to go ahead, but obviously we wouldn’t say no to it if a check arrived in the post," O’Byrne said.
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The government has already contributed £20 million toward the cost of the ongoing redevelopment at Croke Park, so there is bound to be intense lobbying behind the scenes for a contribution to soccer.
However, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has already launched an initiative for a National Sports Stadium, in which it was expected that the FAI and the Irish Rugby Football Union would be co-tenants. Ironically, O’Byrne was the FAI’s representative on the committee looking into the possibility of a national stadium, but now soccer’s policy of going it alone appears to have scuppered Ahern’s plans.
Any national stadium with just a single anchor tenant staging at the most six or seven high-profile games a year clearly wouldn’t balance the books.
If the FAI project ever comes to fruition, there will also be problems in putting people in the seats as again there are only six or seven soccer internationals a season.
However, O’Byrne said he hoped that at some point in the future an Irish National League team or an "amalgamation of National League teams," could be based at the ground for European competitions. An obvious hint that a new Irish "super-club" might be created to compete in any future British or European League.
Moreover, the planned removable pitch and retractable roof would open up the possibility of staging rock concerts, other indoor sports and exhibitions. For the best part of two decades now, the FAI has rented the IRFU’s ground at Lansdowne Road for its soccer internationals.
Not surprisingly, the Association’s plans met with some skepticism. Could the stadium be self-financing? Would IMG succeed in selling it to the corporate sector in the face of stiff competition from counter sporting attractions at Croke Park and Lansdowne Road? And would Taoiseach Ahern and his government throw any money into the pot given that the FAI’s project flies in the face of plans to build a National Stadium?
"This arena is a venue for the future," O’Byrne said. Even if they’ve heard it a few times before, Irish soccer supporters will hope that this time, he’s right.