LONDON – Given royal approval by Prince William and wife Kate, English soccer's new headquarters were officially opened Tuesday to boost hopes that one of the sport's underperformers can close the gap on the world's top teams.
Thirty-seven years in the making, the $160 million national soccer center at Burton-upon-Trent in central England will be the permanent home for all 24 of England's senior and junior teams and the training base for aspiring coaches.
"Coming here and seeing these wonderful facilities gives the same feeling as when I first went to the Olympic Park," said Prince William, who chatted with players and tried out the center's state-of-the-art facilities on a guided tour with Kate. "It gives me great pride we have created in this country facilities that are beyond compare anywhere else."
France and Spain became world champions a decade after building their national academies. England, whose only major trophy was won at the 1966 World Cup on home soil, is hoping for the same result.
Facilities were developed after extensive research into similar centers around the world, including Clairefontaine — the world-famous headquarters of French soccer — Spain's Cuidad del Futbol near Madrid, the Aspire Academy in Qatar and the Australian Institute of Sport.
One of the 11 outside fields on the 330-acre site is a replica of those at Wembley Stadium, where England plays its home matches, with exactly the same mix of grass and artificial fibers. There is a full-size indoor artificial surface, an indoor 60-meter sprint track, reflex machines for goalkeepers, a high-wire course and a suite of rehabilitation and sports science areas.
The idea for the center first came about in 1975 and has finally come to fruition.
"I'm rather hoping that the amount of great work being put in here will take us to that elusive World Cup," England manager Roy Hodgson said of the center, located in a sleepy town more than 100 miles from London and amid rolling countryside. "It's taken a long while for this dream to become a reality. It is going to be very important."
England's 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.
The team is fifth in the FIFA rankings but 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.
The hope is that more and higher-quality coaches will be produced at St. George's Park, which will translate to future success on the field.
"It is a momentous day in our history," FA chairman David Bernstein said. "What has been achieved here is breathtaking. It is an inspirational training base for all our national teams and for coaches an Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) of football.
"We expect to get a huge amount out of this, probably first and foremost the development of more and better coaches."
William and Kate initially spoke with Gerrard and Hodgson before walking across the practice field for a meet-and-greet with the rest of the senior squad — including Ashley Cole, who on Friday posted an offensive tweet criticizing the FA. William is the governing body's honorary president.
"St. George's Park is a concept totally new," William said. "It will provide more than just world-class facilities for our national team and more than a university from which hundreds of coaches will graduate.
"It will provide employment and a social hub for local people and will foster community spirit and purpose and hope throughout England."
England squads will be accommodated in a Hilton hotel, where players will have their own private dining area and games room.
"There is no better place to come to work," England captain Steven Gerrard said.
The center has been in use for several weeks by younger age groups. It was first sampled by England's senior men's team on Monday, ahead of World Cup qualifiers against San Marino on Friday and Poland on Tuesday.