This is a first in a series on the hosting candidates for the 2018 World Cup.
Perhaps the least impressive of the three likely European bids (England and Russia being the others) at first glance, the Benelux bid should still be taken seriously.
After all, they have the delights of Total Football and Belgian beer going for them.
And as Belgian bid organiser Alain Courtois emphasised, rotating the World Cup around the major nations forever is no fun.
“We will face some big countries but we think we can get the support of small nations. It would give out a message that it is not just the same countries that organise such an event.”
But, I hear you cry, Benelux isn’t even a real place, is it?
Well, it doesn’t have much of a ring to it, being the hideously abbreviated form for the neighbouring countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Let’s go with the old-fashioned ‘Low Countries’ instead. The photo below explains that former moniker pretty neatly, in an aerial shot of the Netherlands.
And let’s get one other thing straight: Luxemburg’s involvement is minimal (they won’t even host a game), so there won’t be the farce of the 150th Fifa ranked team gaining automatic qualification.
Everyone will be happy, on the other hand, that the Netherlands wouldn’t have the chance to mess up their qualification if they were the hosts. And if it took hosting the World Cup for the Dutch to get over their addiction to heartbreak, then most fans of the beautiful game would be happy to see it. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the delights of the Oranje for you.
And Belgium. . . Well, Enzo Scifo was a great player. In the 1980s.
Stadia-wise, the Netherlands currently only have two with a capacity over 40,000, the Amsterdam Arena (Ajax, below) and De Kuip (Feyenoord). PSV’s Phillips Stadium, at 36,500 might be able to cut the mustard for the World Cup, but it’s a close call. The Dutch will surely need to build or upgrade at least three more stadiums — in Euro 2000, SBV Vitesse’s Arnhem Stadium was used, but its capacity is under 30,000.
Belgium is even weaker stadium wise. The only 40,000+ capacity stadium is what was once known as Heysel, when it was the dilapidated structure partially to blame for the 1985 disaster that saw 39 Juventus fans die at the European Cup final.
In the 1990s, it was given a $50M facelift, a new name and hosted games at the 2000 European Championships. But the Belgian Football Association believes it has reached the end of the line, and is using the bid as a springboard for a major development to build a new stadium :
Charles Picque, premier of the Brussels region, made it clear in an address last month that a disused railway yard some four kilometres north-east of the city centre was the favoured site.
Together with upgraded rail connections and a motorway extension, the construction bill could reach one billion euros ($1.46 billion) and is part of a bold revamp that Europe’s unofficial capital city plans in the years ahead.
The 60,000-70,000 seater stadium, itself set to cost up to 250 million euros, may not be ready until 2013-2015 but the plans are already advancing.
The state body overseeing the disused railway yard has received around 20 proposals for a commercial development including a stadium.
Culturally, I think most of us would rather spend the World Cup in Amsterdam than London or Moscow, wouldn’t we? And then there’s all that beer in Belgium. . .
Belgium has much else to offer, too, if in a more prosaic sense. Positioned at the heart of Europe, with the Eurostar flying to London and Paris, and bordering Germany as well as the other Benelux countries, geographically it would be in an excellent position to draw fans from across Europe.
One potential problem is the political turmoil in Belgium. We don’t usually associate the word “turmoil” with Belgium, but it’s not out of the realms of possibility the country could break up into its disparate parts (Flanders, Wallonia) by the time the final vote comes around.
Another issue is that Fifa have not spoken favourably of having another jointly hosted tournament, despite the precedent of Japan-South Korea in 2002, and the successfully held 2000 European Championships by the Benelux nations themselves.
That’s why the Benelux countries have announced their bid not as a “joint” effort as Japan-South Korea did, but as “one entity, one political entity with a common economic base.” It’s true that the region is more integrated than Japan-South Korea, but this smacks of semantics somewhat, and it remains to be seen if Fifa will be convinced.
As the World Cup grows and grows, it might just be out of the reach of the Low Countries, which could well be something of a shame. Would you be excited about a Benelux World Cup?