Friday, August 26, 2011

Wondrous Wembley

It rises from the flat suburban plain, a big bowl topped by a soaring metallic arch: Wembley Stadium, aka National Stadium, the citadel of English football, home of the football finals in next year's Olympic Games.

Together with my wife - who attended sporting events on the now-demolished 1923"old'' Wembley on this site as a girl growing up in London - I checked out the 2007 "new" Wembley as part of the research for a package of newspaper articles I am doing on London in the run-up to the Olympics. Of course, Wembley, also home to mega-musical concerts, major rugby matches and an annual American National Football League game, is about much more than the Olympics. It is the spiritual home of British team sport, much like Wimbledon is the spiritual home of British tennis and St. Andrews is the spiritual home of British golf.

We took the half-hour Underground ride on the Jubilee line westward from Central London, got off at Wembley Park station and took the short walk to the stadium along Olympic Way, pausing before the heroic statue of Bobby Moore, legendary English footballer of the 1950s and '60s. Then we joined a guided public tour, lasting 90 minutes and costing from 8 GBP (about $13 USD) to 15 pounds ($25 USD).

The stadium, built at a cost of nearly 800 GBP and seating 90,000 spectators, is one of the msot expensive sporting venues ever built. It is a magnificent structure, partly covered by a retractable roof that leaves the playing pitch open to the elements but covering the fans in inclement weather - not that English weather is ever off, mind you. I'm speaking purely theoretically. Seats are actually plush, padded, wide enough for 21st century bottoms and surprisingly comfortable.

Wembley is owned by the Football Association, the national governing body of British football - soccer, in North America. As such, a great deal of attention is naturally paid to professional football in Britain, with authentic memorabilia galore and plenty of merchandising on-hand and offered for sale. I am a mildly engaged soccer - er, football - fan, so I suspect the visit meant more to the hardcore British fans that traipsed with us behind our affable, pony-tailed guide than it did to me, but their excitement was at times contagious. This was especially so when our tour entered the changing room of the English national team, where the shsirts of star players are displayed - David Beckham (17), Steven Gerrard (4), Wayne Rooney (10).

There are planned photo opportunities at various points along the way, including some corny touches like allowing visitors to sit in the hot seat in the press conference room where the England manager holds forth after a match. There is also a chance, which we skipped, to have a photo taken with a replica of the FA Cup; the real one, given to the champions of association football every year, resides elsewhere.

If you're not a fan, you can safely skip this tour. But wondrous Wembley is well worth visiting for football fanatics and devotees of the Olympic movement.

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