Ambitious England opens national football center


LONDON (AP) -Scarred by years of failure on the international stage, the English are following a path taken by some of their biggest rivals in a bid to regain their heavyweight status in football.

Prince William and his wife, Kate, will officially open England's state-of-the-art national football center on Tuesday, a 100 million pound ($160 million) facility that it's hoped will revive the flagging fortunes of football's founder.

France and Spain became world champions a decade after building their national academies and England is targeting the same result by shifting its headquarters to St. George's Park, a move described by the Football Association as a "landmark occasion for English football."

"People have asked me do we believe St. George's Park will help England win the World Cup? The answer, categorically, is yes," said David Sheepshanks, chairman of the center and the former head of England's Football League.

"I think we will generate more Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos in years to come."

The center, which has been in use for some weeks by younger age groups, was sampled by England's senior men's team for the first time on Monday ahead of World Cup qualifiers against San Marino on Friday and Poland on Tuesday.

Based in Burton-upon-Trent - a sleepy town more than 100 miles from London and located amid the rolling countryside in the county of Staffordshire, central England - it will be the permanent base for all 24 of England teams as well as a training center for coaches and a center of excellence for sports science and medicine.

One of the 11 outside pitches on the 330-acre site is a replica of that used at Wembley Stadium, where England plays its home matches, with exactly the same mix of grass and artificial fibers. There is also a full-size indoor 3G surface, an indoor 60-meter sprint track, reflex machines for goalkeepers, a high-wire course and a suite of rehabilitation and sports science areas.

England squads will be accommodated in a Hilton hotel, where players will have their own private dining area and games room.

Facilities were developed after extensive research into similar centers around the world, including Clairefontaine - the world-famous headquarters of French football - the Aspire Academy in Qatar and the Australian Institute of Sport.

The idea for the center was first mooted in 1975 - 37 years later, it has finally come to fruition.

"It has been a long-term ambition to have a national football center and this is the best I have seen," said former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, who is now an assistant under England coach Roy Hodgson.

"The quality of the facility and the scale of it is absolutely wonderful."

England's only success on the international stage came at the 1966 World Cup on home soil and its record in recent years has been disappointing, never making it past the quarterfinals of a major tournament since Euro 1996 - which was also held in England.

England is currently fifth in the FIFA rankings but the team is no longer regarded as a heavyweight of the international game, with players' inability to keep possession seen as the main reason for its decline.

"I see St. George's Park as a clear demonstration of saying, just like Spain built their Ciudad del Futbol (on the outskirts of Madrid) 15 years ago and Clairefontaine was built 10 years before France won the World Cup (in 1998), this is a statement of the FA's commitment to innovation and advancing everything to do with international football," said Sheepshanks, who believes the benefits of the center will only be reaped "in the 2020s."

"We should be buying in to the virtues of serious long-term planning and a commitment to deliver our dreams for England. This will create winning England teams."

William, who is the honorary president of the FA, and Kate will meet the England squad after a training session and also spend time with Hodgson.

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