Wembley Stadium: A metaphor for England's Brexit woes

November 21, 2018 12:35
A file photo showing a general view outside Wimbley Stadium before a match of Arsenal versus Manchester City. Photo: Reuters

The process of leaving the European Union (EU) has become a big challenge for Britain ever since 2016 when a majority of the country's voters decided they should leave the world's biggest trading bloc.

As the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019 looms, the government has haplessly engaged in dysfunctional negotiations with the EU, whilst at the same time somehow trying to keep a fractious, irritable population onside.

Prime Minister Theresa May recently revealed her Brexit plan, but it has drawn almost universal condemnation from across the political spectrum. Instead of being the creative solution of a visionary leader, the plan merely served to exacerbate existing differences amongst Britain’s population.

These differences were laid bare by the initial ‘leave’ vote in June 2016, when clear divisions became apparent between rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated, and North and South.

Multiple analyses of the reasons for this have been expounded, in which motives ranging from globalization and immigration to austerity and poor regional policies have been prominent. Disenfranchised voters have also argued that London has become a political and economic bubble, immune from the travails of normal life in the provinces.

Even by global standards London is a mega city, a corporate and commercial behemoth in which some of the world’s biggest businesses, richest people and most powerful resource owners congregate to play-out their extreme version of ultra-capitalism.

Such affluence and excess can also be seen in London’s sport, from the strawberries and cream of Wimbledon’s tennis grand slam to the oligarchs and entrepreneurs who have clustered around the capital’s biggest Premier League football clubs.

It seems highly unlikely that someone like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich has ever had to visit an English provincial foodbank for a poverty-induced handout of baked beans and bread, or that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has ever had to concern himself with looking at Brexit from the wrong end of the country.

And in the middle of England’s muddle sits Wembley Stadium, both geographically and metaphorically. After all, the country’s national stadium sits inside the London conurbation that so many provincials decry.

For decades, Wembley was the spiritual home of English football. From the FA Cup Final in 1923 when more than two hundred thousand fans were thought to have been inside, to England’s World Cup triumph in 1966, the stadium commonly evoked fond memories for many English fans.

In the late 1990s, the decision was nevertheless taken to demolish old Wembley and to construct a new Wembley in its place. From the outset, this decision was controversial: traditionalists complained about the loss of heritage and tradition; financiers baulked at the project’s rising costs; and fans were concerned that big money and corporate customers were set to take over than game.

One proposal at the time was that England’s national team games should be staged at provincial stadiums, rather than being stuck in London. Alongside this, some commentators observed how inaccessible the suburbs of Wembley had always been to reach.

Yet the English Football Association (FA) still went ahead with the venue’s redevelopment.

The new Wembley, opened in 2007, is an epic stadium. It is large, well designed (at least from a functional perspective), and caters for all manner of people attending games. It remains the home of English football, and the FA moved its headquarters to it from central London to the outskirts of the city. Back in 2007, the view was that the facility would provide stability, a state of the art fan experience, and a never ending flow of revenues.

But the stadium was expensive to build and challenging to run, and at a time when grassroots football in England has suffered brutal cuts in funding as the result of stringent government austerity measures.

Hence, when a bid to buy Wembley stadium was made earlier this year the FA took it seriously, though it provoked a period of soul-searching amongst English football’s stakeholders.

It perhaps did not help that the bidder was a foreigner, with a background in American football. Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-American billionaire, owns the Jacksonville Jaguars as well as English Premier League club Fulham. In the end, the FA turned down his offer for the national stadium.

So, for the time being at least, the FA remains as the owner of an asset that was meant to herald the start of a new era in English football but instead has come to symbolize much of what now ails a divided nation.

If Wembley was not in London, perhaps the situation might be different. But many people in the provinces feel little affection for Wembley. Its ties with tradition, which harked back to a different notion of England, have long since disappeared. In the past it evoked positive emotions, today it is a commercial proposition that delivers consistent product experiences.

This has led to some fans feeling alienated, disenfranchised and left behind. Just as London is a cosmopolitan world of big money and corporate excess, so Wembley offers a vision of football that is light years away from the way in which most English fans follow (or want to follow) football.

Years of deeply austere government economic measures have not have helped, nor the globalizing world in which we live. As grassroots football scratches around for money to provide even the most basic facilities, private corporate boxes at Wembley cost upwards of £37,000.

Just as those in England’s regions feel that London’s wealth barely impacts upon their lives, so the feeling is similar about Wembley which seems to be increasingly distant from the realities of football elsewhere in the country.

Indeed, whilst the likes of Khan, Kroenke and Ambramovich have been prepared to sink their globalised wealth into London-based assets increasingly characterised by massively inflated values, sports elsewhere in England perpetually stutter and stumble their way from one financial predicament to another.

Wembley stadium did not cause Brexit, nor will it define the outcome of this most factious episode in British history. However, as a symbol of Brexit’s causes and the situation now facing the country, it is one of the most potent symbols of Britain’s fractious socio-political and economic landscape.

– Contact us at [email protected]


British Prime Minister Theresa May set out a plan to retain full access to the EU's single market for two years after Brexit. Photo: Reuters
Pro-Brexit protesters demonstrate on Whitehall in London. Photo: Reuters
England’s Football Association is in negotiations to sell Wembley Stadium, the home of the national soccer team, to US billionaire Shahid Khan (second from the left), who is also the owner of English second tier soccer team Fulham. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.