England at Wembley crossroads thanks to FA

Ed Sheeran @ Wembley

This latest fortnightly international break has seen Old Trafford be home to Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal; Craven Cottage welcome Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA and James Rodriguez’s Colombia; and Upton Park host Argentina against Croatia. Yet fans around the country have now been deprived of watching their own national team for more than seven years.

The new Wembley Stadium was supposed to be the centerpiece of a successful 2018 World Cup bid, the dawn of a new generation for our perennial underachievers, and a place for English football fans to call home.

It couldn’t have had a more adverse effect.

A 90,000-seater £757 million concrete Jungle Gym, billed as the solution to our nation’s misfortunes and deemed of greater importance than declining participation numbers, grass-root level neglect and racial discrimination.

It has been more than seven years since the national set-up packed away their tour bags and returned to northwest London, and we are still waiting for any inclination of success.

However, England fans cannot say that period has not been eventful, although unfortunately, it has all been for the wrong reasons.

Since Steve McClaren’s men hosted Brazil in the new Wembley’s first international fixture in June 2007, England have failed to qualify for Euro 2008, controversially crashed out of the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, unsurprisingly booted out on penalties in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, and gave their worst ever performance at a World Cup this summer in Brazil.

Amongst all the turmoil, the Football Association (FA) has seen their relationship with the games world governing body Fifa hit rock bottom.

While the FA has ruinously flighted their way from plan A-to-Z in search of the answer to our international demise, England have remained stagnated at a football stadium, which has since become home to three annual NFL fixtures, blockbuster boxing bouts, rugby league matches and a new venue for artists ready to take advantage of bountiful ticket opportunities – Ed Sheeran becoming the latest to pick the high arch of Wembley as a tour finale earlier this week.

The permanence of England as an international force has also fluctuated massively since Wembley’s completion. In September 2012, only Spain and Germany were ranked higher than Roy Hodgson’s men, but the difference in class could not have been starker.

By that time, triumphs at Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 had left Vicente del Bosque’s Spain team in uncharted waters, while Germany were ruthlessly on course to land their fourth World Cup two years later, and third since England last tasted any kind of success in 1966.

What have England achieved during this time? Well, Hodgson has orchestrated the national team down to 20th in world football, with teams like Costa Rica – who only have a tenth of the population sample of England – regarded as a greater threat.

One thing remains constant; England can still call Wembley home.

Unlike England, neither Germany nor Spain have been commercially bound to one stadium, and you would be mistaken to believe both have made the Allianz Arena and Santiago Bernabéu their respective national fortresses.

In fact, having looked over every home fixture both nations have played since England returned to Wembley, the conclusions made for interesting reading, as seen in map below.

Having been blessed with copious amounts of large capacity venues, Germany have been able to successfully maneuver their national side around the country to offer fans throughout the country the opportunity to watch.

But despite their enormous depth of resources, it was still surprising to see the Allianz Arena has only been used on three occasions from the 46 matches they have hosted since Wembley reopened.

Current European champions Spain follow a similar trend, although unlike the English FA, they put fans before finances. Del Bosque’s side have even visited the islands of Gran Canaria and Mallorca for fixtures in the last seven years, and played at stadiums to the equivalent capacity that could be expected of upper tier League One sides.

This isn’t to simply suggest the secret to a nation’s success comes from touring the country. There a far deeper underlying issues concerned with that – especially for England – but there must be something advantageous about it considering Germany and Spain are the only countries to have won the last four major tournaments.

During the seven years England spent on the road whilst Wembley was being rebuilt, they discovered a period of solace. They may not have achieved anything of note, but by playing around the country – as shown above – they found stability.

The Three Lions were ranked 15th on the planet when time came to knock down the old Wembley in October 2000. In just 12 months of touring, England had reentered the top 10 and never looked back, until ironically, it was time to return.

As for the success of the Germans, take the Bundesliga for example. In the latter end of 2001, the DFB – Germany’s version of the FA – realised that German football was in crisis and in desperate need of restructuring. What followed was a monumental change in emphasis, with youth development now paramount to Germany’s forward thinking.

Since the implementation of the Extended Talent Promotion Programme, Germany have reached at least the semi-final stage in six of the last seven major tournaments and have seen at least one German club contest three of the last five Champions League finals – with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both competing in the 2013 final.

Bundesliga clubs are now investing €100m (£83m) per year in their academies.

England have only reached the semi-final of a major tournament on two occasions since winning the World Cup 48-years ago and the English FA opted to instead invest £757m into a stadium that lacks atmosphere and has only heaped added pressure on national expectations.

Unfortunately, that money can never be refunded. In fact, as of February this year the FA still owed £277m, but remain confident the mortgage will be paid off in time before their current 10-year debenture with the bank expires in 2017 – the very earliest the FA can consider to send England back on the road.

Although, selling part of the stadium’s naming rights to 4G mobile network provider EE and finally deciding to stage England women’s football matches for the first time on Sunday would indicate the FA are in for an anxious countdown.

The FA’s chairman, Greg Dyke, only needed to take notice of the atmosphere generated between England and Scotland at Celtic Park on Tuesday evening to be reminded the part club stadiums could play compared to national coliseums.

Despite Celtic Park being nearly 12,000 short of its 60,832 capacity, the atmosphere was electric from start to finish. The fixture may have been billed as an international friendly, but it was never going to be between two home nation rivals and that only seemed to invigorate Hodgson’s men – who gave one of their more memorable performances in recent years.

Rather than going to Liverpool or Newcastle for their next international outing, England will return to Wembley to host European minnows Lithuania in March, where you can almost guarantee a lesser atmosphere and experience compared with the one generated in Glasgow.

It was only two months ago that 40,181 ambled down Wembley Way to watch a dire friendly against Norway, and four days ago that 430,000 more people opted to watch quiz show Pointless Celebrities in favour of England versus Slovenia.

Should England begin to contemplate playing a selection of international fixtures around the country?

I posed this very question to a group of England supporters, and while many accepted the chances of seeing England back on the road were unlikely, the response was largely in favour.

Anthony Lee, 20, was one of those who would like to see the Three Lions move away from their permanent northwest London home: “I’ve never been to an England game; being a West Bromwich Albion fan, I only choose to go to the Hawthorns or any other stadium in the Midlands if there’s a derby going on. Personally, it’d be great if an England game were held at Villa Park,”

Ceri-Anne Travers, another: “As a northerner, it costs me a fortune to bring my son to more or less every home game and I am running out of excuses for taking him out of school an hour early to get to games.”

“On a more serious note, when the England team did go round the country it was a lot better. The atmosphere was better than Wembley, which is dreadful, a lot more normal fans and not tourists attended games and there were regular sell-outs,” she added.

These are the type of fans the FA should be looking to target, not the cooperate suits that fill the Club Wembley seats, with their mind set on the free champagne rather than the football.

As previously mentioned, the end of 2017 could prove to be a key date for England fans. Only then – when the current 10-year debenture expires – can the FA consider putting England back on the road, but plain and simply, Hodgson’s side cannot pick up and leave Wembley without an event replacing originally scheduled England slots.

Fortunately, the FA have been handed an unlikely escape route. With momentum building towards a London based NFL franchise, Wembley could prove their permanent venue following roaring success in the capital over the last seven years, and England could finally return to its beloved fans around the country.

Picture and Map Credits: Josh Wright

5 comments

  • Good article, the atmosphere of say St. James Park or Elland Road would be guaranteed to be 10 times better than the library of Wembley. Unfortunately the fans will always come before the greed of the FA.

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  • interesting but promising prospect letting the whole country enjoy the fountain of enjoyment that is the English national team. I am sure the whole country will enjoy the immense pride that football team embarks on its immediate stadium audience. Maybe a more enthusiastic crowd will lead to a more enthusiastic team? Time will tell

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  • Maybe the commercial ac-cumin that Wembley stadium brings is a good thing? If top artists or top sports franchises want this iconic stadium to be the venue enabling them to entertain thousands, surely that says something about the somewhat omnipresence of Wembley. If the national side was to tour the country, this could partially take away some credibility of the stadium as an national sporting venue. Maybe taking away what some people would call the heart of the stadium (footballing theater) by neglecting it from hosting important international matches. Could lead to the detriment of not only the stadiums economic potential, but the stadiums not so ever lasting warmness to the nations hearts. Maybe the problem with our footballing national side, isn’t the venue at all, but the osmosis of peoples feelings towards the national side and the stadium itself. Maybe as ever the English are looking for a scapegoat for our obvious failures in the last 10 years. I personally think, the scapegoat shouldn’t be Wembley, but the FA.

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  • I blame the Wembley fans for making the Norway, San Marino games a non-event. Yes, the England performances didn’t help, but against Scotland, England played so much better in the Celtic Park atmosphere. Wembley isn’t “special” anymore, because we are playing FA Cup semi finals there, the pitch condition has been well documented, and the Wembley tourists aren’t making any noise. Touring around the country would distract everyone from Wembley, for the betterment of Wembley while the FA sort out their mortgage and the pitch.

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  • I agree 100 per cent that FA Cup semi finals should not be played at Wembley. The pinnacle of the competition should be to ONLY play the final at Wembley. To ensure neutral ground for the semi-final they could return to the days when Villa Park and other stadiums had hosting rights (before the new Wembley was open).

    The atmosphere at Celtic Park was unbelievable and the stadium wasn’t even at full capacity. Obviously, the occasion contributed, but it was still a reminder to the FA how club stadiums can invigorate a team’s performance.

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