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With just over three and a half years to go until Casement Park needs to be ready to stage test events for EURO 2028, the west Belfast site remains a desolate mess.
GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) sports including Hurling and Gaelic Football have not been played at the County Antrim venue for around a decade, activity is non-existent at present and the clock is ticking.
If Northern Ireland is to host EURO 2028 action as part of the UK and Ireland collective event, Casement Park appears to be the only show in town… except it is more like a circus, reflecting the ongoing omnishambles that is politics in NI. As ever in this part of the world, the two are very much caught in a tangle.
Here's the key details on Casement Park's Euro 2028 prospects and what we can expect going forward…
Windsor Park, Northern Ireland's national football stadium, has a capacity of just 18,500 so it does not meet the criteria to host the major international tournament, even though it did host the SuperCup final between Chelsea and Villarreal in August 2021.
Opposition and obstacles to Casement Park EURO 2028
There is acrimony within the Irish FA on the ‘road to Casement' and an official NI supporters group is leading the grassroots revolt over concerns about a lack of legacy for football in Northern Ireland, funding and governance queries. In a recent contact, Gary McAllister, press officer and chairman of the Northern Ireland Amalgamation of Supporters Clubs stated:
The IFA are on something of a charm offensive to allay fans' concerns but no one is satisfied up to now. That was reflected again at Windsor Park last month at the men's senior international against Denmark when banners and chants renewed the opposition to the Casement Park plan from a vocal, organised section of the support.
That debate will rumble on but the problem for Northern Ireland, including the fans, is that if not Casement, then where?
A bigger issue is the lack of a contractor to oversee the construction of the new stadium. Yes. Read that again.
A plan is in place on paper to build the 34,500 stadium but until the machinery moves in with workers on site with hard hats, scepticism will remain. Beyond that, there is a funding dilemma with a question mark hanging over the final cost of the stadium and fingers pointed as to who will foot the majority of the bill with prices having risen significantly due to recent world events and knock-on effects for industry.
A total £77.5 million was said to be the expected cost for the new ground but that was years ago. More recent and accurate assessments predict that figure could be doubled.
The GAA is willing to pump in around £15m, with other contributions from NI's devolved institution, as well as the British and Irish governments. A solution could be found but there will be a devil in the detail.
New contractor sought for Casement Park rebuild ahead of Euro 2028 https://t.co/jTo7emVsVx
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) November 24, 2023
Public money was pledged as part of a scheme to improve venues for football, GAA, and rugby in Northern Ireland in 2011. Windsor Park and Ravenhill have been upgraded, but if Casement was to get a greater slice of funding now, there would be demands for parity.
There is a general consensus that Casement Park is due its fair share of funding and to be redeveloped but that's where it ends. There is plenty of opposition to a non-football venue being used as Northern Ireland's stage for what should be a landmark time for the game.
Casement Park: A proper political football
It is a proper political football, but this time with a capital P.
Belfast and Northern Ireland, although a much better place to live, work and visit than in previous decades, is still a divided, contested place.
Yes, football and sport break down barriers but it can also reinforce them. Football fans are tribal by nature and particularly with international football, a source of pride and identity.
Northern Ireland fans are mostly Unionists (typically Protestant in background) but not everyone fits into any desired stereotype. In contrast, the GAA is a republican cultural institution. The Andersonstown area where Casement Park is based is a nationalist/republican area (typically Catholic).
This is an elephant in the room for some but if Northern Ireland plays here, how would the fans and their flags and be received, would the road access to the stadium be safe? How would the supporters be transported to the west of the city? Few of these questions have been answered.
As ever, below the surface, Northern Ireland's divide simmers and the constitutional debate rumbles on. People generally live in relative peace and thankfully so, but the old issues permeate through everything, Casement Park and EURO 2028 included. People can and should get together, to work things out and find compromise.
The sooner the questions turn to answers, the better for all.