Political agreement reached over national stadium

Still a long way to go, as private financing is sought

Belgium will now bid to become one of EURO 2020’s host countries

A new 60,000-seat stadium on the Heysel Plateau by 2018: that was the flagship measure announced by the Brussels government at the culmination of its conference in Ostend at the end of May. Three months later, after dozens of meetings with various political and sporting stakeholders, the project is close to being given the green light. It just needs to find solid financial backing.

 

Political agreement signed soon

The undertaking nevertheless got off to a bad start. The chosen site – currently Heysel’s Parking Lot C, familiar to visitors to the European Motor Show Brussels – belongs to the City of Brussels but is located in Flanders, in the municipality of Grimbergen. In the Flemish corridors of power, questions have been raised about security costs, public works and more. And, the Flemish minister-president recently asserted that the future stadium falls under the regional development plan for Flanders, against which the Brussels government had lodged an appeal (in an attempt to stop a Uplace shopping center being built not far from Heysel).

 

Any potential dispute between the regions was snuffed out on Tuesday, when all those involved (representatives of the prime minister, of the minister-presidents of Flanders and Brussels, of the City of Brussels, of the Royal Belgian Football Association, of the Mémorial Van Damme event and of Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht) came to an agreement on the key points of the project. In specific terms, the site – Parking Lot C – was confirmed. In fact, it remains the only option ever considered. “On that point, there had already been a consensus between Flanders, Brussels and the federal level for quite some time,” admits a participant.

 

This step forward is what enabled the Belgian FA to officially lodge a bid with UEFA for Brussels to host some of the matches at the 2020 European Championship.

 

The letter of intent has to be sent by September 12 and must demonstrate that Belgian authorities are behind the idea. Thursday (for Brussels Region) and Friday (for Flanders and the federal government), the various governments will have their say on the Brussels bid. In theory, it should be just a formality, as the various political factions tend to look favorably upon the organization of EURO 2020 matches in a city viewed as the unofficial capital of Europe.

 

Moreover, Belgium needs a new national stadium.

 

Eight months to find the funds

Another point on which politicians have all agreed is that not one euro of public money will be spent on the construction of the stadium. Initial cost estimates, based on examples in other countries, have been around the €300 million mark.

 

Brussels Region will have to take responsibility for any new infrastructure required. In principle, there will be no need for new transport lines, but stadium access routes will be a priority. Back in May, the cost discussed for this was €60 million.

 

To make sure the stadium is as profitable as possible, an agreement was reached on another point. The national team alone will not be sufficient; a tenant club will be sought. Anderlecht is the top choice. “They’ll never admit it, but they’ve been involved from the start, and are very interested.”

 

That just leaves the athletics problem. When plans of the arena were first drawn up, there was a roof but no running track. Could this then signal the end for the annual Mémorial Van Damme athletics event? The three governments at the table called for a track, however, and that was the option retained in the end, which will, in the coming weeks, be the subject of a feasibility study. The goal is a multifunctional stadium with a flexible capacity (60,000 maximum; less for other events). Bob Verbeeck, head of sports marketing agency Golazo, which owns the Van Damme event, feels that this is the only viable solution for the Brussels athletics meet.

 

“This will allow us, via a system of retractable stands, to maintain a very lively atmosphere for football and for other events,” he says. This solution represents 10 % of the new stadium’s total budget. However, it entails giving up on the idea of a retractable roof for technical reasons. “Most concerts are staged in uncovered stadiums, and Heysel’s Palais 12 was recently converted into a concert hall that can hold 18,000 people,” adds Verbeeck.

 

The athletics world, which does not have the same financial resources as football, knows that it is in no position to make demands. That said, the Van Damme organizers did note a desire on the part of the various political figures at the table to save the event. “You have to see it as an overall investment,” states Verbeeck.To guarantee that the stadium makes a maximum profit, we’re ready and willing to think about other athletic events and bid for major championships, and also other sports, in tandem with Golazo.”

 

The previously floated idea of a smaller stadium for athletics, built next door to the national stadium, has been dropped. It would be politically untenable, as the construction of a sporting arena during a period of austerity is certainly not viewed as a priority by everyone. But it was also far from ideal for the Van Damme, given that ticket sales (currently at 47,000!) represent 30% of its budget. “A modern 60,000-seat stadium is the dream, as that would enable us to hold on to the Diamond League final,” concludes Verbeeck.

 

VÉRONIQUE LAMQUIN

PHILIPPE VANDE WEYER

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