Wembley is more than just a stadium, it is an embodiment of England
Wembley needs to remain as the primary home of English football. For many, it is a realisation of the ‘imagined community’ of England and without it, what does England have left to call its own?
In 1983, it was the Historian Benedict Anderson who developed the concept of the ‘imagined community’; the idea of the nation as a socially constructed community. In modern society, a frequent realisation for many of this ‘imagined community’ is through sport. Upon the sports field, the nation exists, often embodied by 11 men or women playing football.
This is certainly true in the areas of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region who have no state of their own, and also of England. As within all sports, this team is a physical embodiment of the nation, a realisation of the ‘imagined community’. Seeing England is not always that easy.
England is a country, hiding behind the United Kingdom, without its own national anthem, which like other representations of England, such as the monarchy and the Houses of Parliament are in fact ‘British’.
In football, the national sport, England has an institution of its own; Wembley Stadium. This is a place which is not British, but solely English. Wembley was first built in 1923 and for a long time known as the ‘Empire Stadium’ and it quickly became the home of the FA Cup Final, perhaps the most significant date upon the sporting calendar in the twentieth century and also the English national team.
When thinking of an event which symbolises Wembley, it might be the White Horse Final (1923) or the Matthews Final (1953), but most likely it will be the 1966 World Cup Final, when England won its only World Cup. Whatever the event, it will most likely will be of football, (although it might be of the 1948 Olympics or even Rugby League).
These events all took place in ‘old Wembley’, a Stadium most commonly identified with the ‘Twin towers’ which adorned its one side. This national institution was knocked down in 2002 to make way for a new modern stadium, which stands in its place today. Despite a different icon; an arch in place of the twin towers, it remains the home of English football and arguably world football.
It is still the home of the FA Cup final; the English national team and it is the place where every English footballer and many beyond these shores wants to play. It is hallowed English turf.
The recent news of the possibility of the Football Association (FA) selling Wembley to the American-Pakistani Billionaire Shahid Khan sent shivers through the spine of English football and sport. Khan, owner of NFL franchise the Jacksonville Jaguars wants to buy the Stadium so that he can move his stuttering franchise to the uncontested European market and establish the world’s richest sports league over the other side of the Atlantic.
Any deal would (apparently) ensure that FA Cup finals would still be played at Wembley, as would England football matches, except in the Autumn, during the NFL season. No longer would the England football team be the primary team in the Stadium built for it’s matches, rather it would be using it when not in use for a foreign sport.
A little part of England’s ‘imagined community’ would be gone. There are of course many advantages to the FA selling Wembley. Despite its frequent use for FA Cup semi-finals, concerts and more and more frequently NFL matches, they still have a significant debt to pay on the Stadium (stated recently as being £113 million). This is money owed to Sport England the government.
The profit would also allow the FA to invest in urgently needed facilities for grass roots football as despite the riches of the Premier League, England’s amateur footballers both young and old have little or no facilities, lagging far behind those in Europe. Might an improvement in these might just help England win that elusive second World Cup?
Also, the national team would be forced to go and play in England, not just London, allowing thousands of fans who usually might not be able to see the national team play, inspiring and sharing the ‘imagined community’ of the England football team.
Some might see the stadium as the host to a team which on and off the field brings shame upon the nation, home to a team followed by a minority of trouble makers and whose performances have made England a failure.
There’s also a valid argument that Wembley isn’t what it once was, that too much football is played there (everything from FA Cup Semi-Finals to the FA Vase is now played there), diluting that special feeling of playing at Wembley in some people’s eyes. Even if it was sold, it still will be ‘Wembley’, nothing can take away what it stands for and what has happened there. England, is also one of the few nations that has a national stadium and it could be argued is it needed?
Despite such valid arguments this is not justification for selling Wembley. Other ways need to be found to invest in grass-roots football (surely the Premier League could spare a few million pounds?). England should play all over the country they represent and the FA Cup final should be the only game in the competition played there, with semi-finals back around the country in venues such as Villa Park, Old Trafford and perhaps even Hillsborough. Wembley needs to remain as the primary home of English football.
For many, it is a realisation of the ‘imagined community’ of England and without it, what does England have left to call its own? Shahid Khan said that people need to ‘get past the emotion’ of the sale of Wembley, but isn’t emotional attachment the most important thing? Please, don’t sell off our England.
Dr Luke J. Harris is an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Birmingham History Department @drljharris
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