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Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 12:51 GMT
A very special stadium

Pride of Wales: Cardiff's Millennium Stadium
BBC Sport Online's Mark Barden looks at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium

Any football fan attending this season's FA Cup final who visited the old Wembley Stadium may think they are in spectator heaven.

Okay, so Wembley oozed tradition, but it was also an outdated, uncomfortable, badly located relic best consigned to history.

In contrast, Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, which will host the FA's showpiece occasion for at least the next three seasons, is the pride of Welsh sport.

But the jewel in Wales' crown, which cost 121m to build on the site of the old Arms Park, was plagued with construction problems.

  Millennium Stadium
Cost: 121m
56,000 tonnes of concrete and steel used
72,500 seats
125 hospitality boxes
Sliding roof x2 55m by 76m panels
22 bars, 7 restaurants
17 first aid points
12 escalators, 7 lifts
Hosted 1999 Rugby World Cup Final
But as soon as the 72,500-seater stadium was filled with fans for its inaugural event, a rugby union international between Wales and South Africa, those troubles were swept away on a tide of sporting passion.

Quite simply, the atmosphere inside the Millennium Stadium, when brimful with supporters urging on their teams, is absolutely electric.

Sunday Times rugby writer Steve Jones has described the ground as a cross between "a Roman coliseum and a bear pit".

Welsh football international Barry Horne, who won the FA Cup with Everton in 1995, thinks this year's showdown will "have a better atmosphere than some of the Wembley finals".

David Phillips, capped 62 times for Wales, who played at Wembley in Coventry's FA Cup winning side of 1987, describes the Cardiff atmosphere as "phenomenal".

State-of-the-art

The steep-sided stadium brings every spectator close to the action, and a full-house in full cry makes it a cauldron of emotion.

As Jones explains: "People should be above the play, looking down on it, rather than detached from it.

"At Cardiff, I do not think there is a bad seat in the house.

"In contrast, you can be at the back of Twickenham and feel like you are at a different match."

Millennium Stadium with roof closed. Empics.
Under cover in Cardiff
But the Millennium Stadium's state-of-the-art facilities goes way beyond just the design of the buzz-making "bowl" itself.

Built on seven levels, it has 12 escalators, seven elevators, seven restaurants, 125 hospitality boxes, 22 public bars, 16 food outlets, 13 parenting rooms and 17 first aid points

But perhaps the most talked-about feature, unique in UK stadia, is the roof which can be opened and closed within 20 minutes.

It has enabled the Stadium to host events such as pop concerts safe in the knowledge that bad weather will not ruin them.

But it has also led to sporting friction.

The Springboks wanted the lid on for their match against Wales last November. Wales coach Graham Henry, believing a heavy pitch would suit his side, insisted it remained open.

Worries

The debate also rumbles on over whether any Six Nations game in Cardiff should ever be played under cover when all the tournament's matches elsewhere are open to the elements.

Roof or no roof, the enclosed dimensions of the stadium also have an impact on the pitch which worries the footballing fraternity.

Matt Elliott, Leicester City. Empics.
The Worthington Cup will be contested in Cardiff
Any groundsman will confirm that lack of sunlight and poor ventilation has a detrimental effect on grass.

Adding to these problems in Cardiff is the fact that the turf lays on pallets which can be removed to make way for events such as concerts.

Poor quality of grass can be overlooked in rugby when the ball is often in hand, but Millennium Stadium know they need to get it right before the FA Cup Final on 12 May.

The Worthington Cup Final will be played in February on the same pitch as the Wales v England Six Nations game three weeks earlier.

New grass will be laid two weeks before the FA Cup Final.

But if Cardiff wants to be the "home" of English football's major Cup occasions until the new Wembley is ready, the Millennium Stadium may have to find a permanent solution to its pitch problems.

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See also:

04 Jan 01 |  Wales
Wales welcomes cup final coup
04 Jan 01 |  Sports Talk
Is Cardiff the right venue?
04 Jan 01 |  Football
Twin Towers will 'have to go'
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