Selling Wembley makes sense but the main concern is the FA’s ability to spend the money effectively
So much has been written about the 1966 World Cup finals that even the supposedly obscure facts are actually well known. One is that a match in England’s group, France v Urug u ay, wa s pl ayed at t he White C i t y St ad iu m i n wes t L ondon be c au s e Wembley was already booked for its weekly greyhound meeting. (The crowd at the dogtrack on that Friday evening was a fraction of the 45,000 who saw Uruguay win 2-1 seven miles away.) The old Wembley, opened in 1923, was run by a private company until the Football Association took over ownership just before demolition began in 1999. And now they are set to become tenants again.
representing England have been confined to an often inaccessible corner of the south-east rather than being seen in the places that have produced most of the best teams and players.
All the major cup finals fall outside the five-month NFL season and so could still be staged at Wembley. Should the new owner’s rent demands be too much for the FA, matches can be moved elsewhere. When Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium staged these fixtures, gates weren’t any lower than at Wembley; it is the occasion, more than the venue, that draws the crowds. Wembley has a sponsorship arrangement with communications company EE until 2020, after which the stadium could be officially renamed. But anyone hoping to stir up popular outrage at the prospect of England one day running out at the Walmart Bowl or some such will have their work cut out. Aside from broadcasters contractually obliged to do so, no one bothers to call an established sports stadium by the name of its latest sponsor.
At the end of April it was announced that Shahid Khan, the owner of Fulham and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, has made an offer to buy the stadium. The FA will reportedly receive a cash payment of up to £600 million while keeping the Club Wembley debentures, valued at around £300m. As NFL fixtures are played between September and January, some England games would need to be staged elsewhere. As is often the case, sections of the press decided that there is “public fury” at the planned sale – which will take several months to complete – when the general reaction has been nothing like that.
It’s absurd that a team representing
England have been confined to an inaccessible
The strongest cause for misgivings over the sale is simply the fact that the FA will be responsible for spending the money. Their track record doesn’t inspire optimism. The stadium was finished several years later than planned, having gone massively over-budget – debts of more than £10om are not due to be paid off until 2024. The corner of the south-east
Certainly, there have been some expressions of dismay at the loss of the “home of English football”, even though that’s how Wembley was seen throughout its first incarnation, when the FA held less influence over it than greyhound promoters. But most of the arguments around the sale since it was first proposed have been favourable. Even those who revere Wembley would probably concede that some England matches ought to be staged around the country. Looking ahead to the friendly with Costa Rica to be held in Leeds in late May, Gareth Southgate suggested that his players can only benefit from the noisier atmosphere created at smaller venues where the crowd are closer to the pitch. There was plenty of evidence for that when 14 club grounds staged national team games before the new Wembley was opened in 2007. There is a broader principle too – it’s absurd that a team construction soaked up over £140m in public money, the majority of it from the lottery-funded Sport England, but the FA have not indicated that this will be paid back. Instead, we have been told that all the £600m or so will go into grassroots football.
The lower levels are in desperate need of funds, as can be seen in the steady disappearance of long-established amateur leagues and of facilities for school-age players. Two years ago, the Premier League was finally persuaded to increase its funding in these areas to £100m a year – which is still a fraction of the £5 billion a year received from broadcasters. The debt from building Wembley has been offered as a reason for the FA’s failure to provide more financial help for the grassroots. Soon there will be no excuse but somehow they’ll still manage to find one.
Wembley, no longer England’s permanent home?