Monday, 21 November 2011

Do National Teams Need National Stadiums?

It was with great enthusiasm and expectation that I made my way to Wembley on Saturday, November 12th to see England play host to the European and World champions Spain in as high profile a friendly as has been seen in Britain for many years. It could be argued that there has never been a more dominant national side than Spain – a squad awash with Champions League winners and perennial domestic champions; they have been utterly irresistible since winning Euro 2008 under the stewardship of former coach Luis Aragonés. What has been one of La Furia Roja’s greatest strengths throughout this period has been the consistency of team selection. In fact, ten of the players involved against England, either starting or coming off the bench, were also involved in the Euro 2008 final at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna; a staggering achievement considering the significant turnarounds that other, top-class national teams have experienced in the same period. Just look at the changes in the Brazilian set-up in the same time-frame and it gives you a sense of how well current coach Vicente del Bosque has done in maintaining that strong squad core, whilst integrating the younger generation of Spaniards, such as Fernando Llorente,  Javier Martínez and Thiago Alcântara.

However, despite enjoying the wonderful experience of seeing the world champions up close - something that illustrates their incredible passing and technique far more than on television – and, despite a lack of media scrutiny, an excellent defensive display from the hosts, the most prominent thought I came away with was regarding the stadium itself. Wembley has had its fair share of issues, from the huge costs incurred in rebuilding the ground - a staggering £783m – to the only recently addressed pitch problems and the on-going interest-payments on the £355m loan the FA took out in order to construct the 90,000-seater stadium. However, instead of looking at the costs that cannot now be avoided, perhaps it is worth considering whether a national stadium for any country is required at all. Between England’s final match at the old Wembley Stadium, a 1-0 defeat to Germany in October 2000 and their first match back against Brazil in June 2007, they played around the country, arguably encapsulating what a national football team should be about. Apart from the obvious alternate venues, such as Old Trafford, Anfield and St. James’ Park, they also played matches at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, Portman Road in Ipswich and St. Mary’s Stadium, home of Southampton. Not only does it provide a diversity of setting and atmosphere to each match, it also allows more fans to see the national side without embarking on a long and costly journey to the capital. For the Spain match, I was only travelling from Hitchin, North London, yet I still had to begin making my way to Wembley at 1.30pm, nearly 4 hours before kick-off in order to make sure I was there in time. As it happened, I was in the stadium an hour before the match started, fulfilling one of my few pre-match superstitions. It would also appease club managers if their English players did not have to travel longer distances during the international break. Considering a growing proportion of the English national team is composed of Manchester United and City players, this may become a legitimate concern, especially with both clubs playing up to sixty matches in a season due to European and domestic cup commitments.

Look across Europe and the British nations are becoming a rarity in having a designated home stadium. England’s opponents at Wembley, Spain play their friendly and qualifying matches around the country, most recently against Scotland at the Estadio José Rico Pérez stadium in Alicante. Italy also do without a national stadium and, similar to Spain, do not restrict themselves to playing in the biggest and most historical grounds; the Azzurri’s last three matches have been played in Rome, Pescara and Florence. Germany, Russia, Portugal and the Netherlands are all the same and it has certainly not impacted on their performences in qualifying and final tournaments. There are arguments for keeping a national stadium certainly. From a country’s national association’s perspective, it can provide a focal point for the national team and a permanent venue for cup finals and other culmunative end of season events, such as play-off finals. From a marketing point of view, it can also act as a unique selling point for ‘football tourists’ and a focus for any hosting bids; just think of the success of the FA in securing Wembley as the venue for both the 2011 and 2013 UEFA Champions League Finals and it’s anchor role in the much maligned attempts to bring the 2018 FIFA World Cup to England. The massive budge for the stadium however, will always be used as stick to beat Wembley with; compare the cost with the £290m for Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, £390m for the Emirates Stadium and the relatively miniscule £102m for the excellent Juventus Arena and it’s puts everything into perspective.

If one were being cynical, it could be argued that the building of the new Wembley stadium was an exercise in vanity and national pride rather than an economically vindicated football-focused project. Consider this, if the near £800m spent on building the ground has been invested in the development of youth football in England, perhaps the FA would be closer to bridging the gap between the England national team and the likes of Spain and the comprehensively defensive system employed against the world champions – although well executed – might not be necessary when facing the best that world football has to offer in the future. 

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