Festival to christen Melbourne Rectangular Stadium
Melbourne is likely to enjoy a week-long festival of football to open the new rectangular stadium, with games of top-class rugby league and union, as well as a soccer showpiece, being planned to launch the striking 31,000-seat-capacity venue.
It is hoped the three games can be held within a week or at most a fortnight, in late April or early May.
The stadium, now in the late stages of construction, is expected to be home to the Melbourne Storm rugby league club and Melbourne Rebels Super 15 rugby franchise. It will also house the Melbourne Victory and the city's new A-League club, provisionally named Melbourne Heart.
The Victorian Government - which fully funded the $268 million stadium - is keen for all three codes to christen the stadium so fans of each feel a sense of pride and ownership over it.
A rugby league international, pitting Australia against New Zealand and traditionally played in Sydney around Anzac Day, has already been announced for the stadium on May 7. But with plans also under way for the other codes it will not necessarily be the first match played at the as-yet-unnamed ground.
''The opening next year is something we all look forward to,'' Victorian Major Events Corporation chairman Sir Rod Eddington told The Sunday Age. ''We would love to see, not just world-class rugby league but world-class rugby union and world-class soccer matches to celebrate that opening. That would be ideal. We already have some rugby league offerings but we want to see opportunities with the other codes.''
The soccer match is likely to pit the Victory against a top international club. Negotiations are currently under way between VMEC, the Victory and several possible opponents. It is understood a British club is the preferred option with a strong chance Scotland's Celtic could be the team making the trip.
''Melbourne Victory are clearly critical,'' Eddington said. ''Ideally we'd love to see the best Victorian side playing world-class opponents.''
The spectacular stadium will feature a changeable lighting display - similar to those put on by Beijing's Water Cube swimming pool and the Allianz Arena World Cup venue in Munich.
While the facility has won plenty of admirers as it has taken shape on the site of the old Edwin Flack Field alongside the Victory and Storm's former home at Olympic Park, it has not been without controversy.
The stadium is at the heart of recent wrangling between the AFL and soccer's bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. Originally planned to have a capacity of just 20,000, the plans were expanded to 25,000 and then 31,000 after pressure from soccer fans and the Victory, who feared the club's new home would not be big enough for average crowds well above 20,000.
The plans also called for the stadium's foundations to be strengthened so that capacity could be expanded to 55,000 in the event of a World Cup bid. But the FFA's plans to include the ground in Australia's bid were scuppered when it was revealed that the distinctive bubble roof meant enlarging the venue would cost around $150 million and - more importantly - the process of expanding and then reconverting the venue to its original size would put it out of action for as many as five years.
That same issue, the venue's size, is also a possible sticking point in negotiations for a top British side to travel to Melbourne to help open it. The late April, early May timeframe is not ideal for clubs such as Celtic and would require a financial carrot over and above that which lured the Scottish club to Brisbane in July. The Scottish Premier League finishes on the weekend of May 8-9, meaning a trip to Melbourne would have to be tacked on to the season proper rather than used as a pre-season tune-up. Recouping the increased cost, or at least minimising losses, would be far easier were the match played at the larger MCG or Etihad Stadium.
''The rectangular stadium is a terrific addition to Victoria's suite of world-class venues,'' Eddington said. ''It provides a custom-made facility for rugby league, rugby union and soccer. The mega events in those sports will continue on occasion to be played at the MCG or Etihad - simply because of their size - but for many contests the rectangular stadium will be the right size.''