A NEW GAME FOR A NEW WEMBLEY

Wembley Stadium, UK (Photo: Stadiafile) Wembley Stadium, UK (Photo: Stadiafile)

After tireless effort, copious browser refreshing and great consternation, we finally outwitted the enigmatic tickets.London2012.com website and ripped three tickets to the Great Britain-Brazil Olympic Women’s Football match at the colossal Wembley Stadium from our laptop’s Vulcan grip. Historically, Wembley is one of the football world’s great cathedrals, and on this night “the home of football” became a more modern, inclusive version of itself. Over 70,000 men, women and children packed the giant stadium to set a record as the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s football match in the UK.

Located in Northwest London, the new Wembley Stadium opened in 2007 and replaced the original Wembley Stadium which stood on the same site for over eighty years. Nothing of the original – built for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, home of the 1948 Olympics, 1966 World Cup, five European Cup finals, Euro 96 finals, annual FA Cups and the legendary 1985 Live Aid concert – remains.

Designed by Foster and Partners and Populous (then HOK Sport) the new Wembley sits atop a large plinth, and from its perch it feels like the big, national stadium that it is.  Like its predecessor, primary access to the stadium is from the traditional ‘Wembley Way’, a pedestrianized street that leads crowds to the stadium from the nearby Wembley Park Tube station.

The two iconic towers which marked the entry to the original Wembley are long gone, now a 133-meter tall, 315-meter long white arch is the main feature.  Along with the soaring arch and glass facade, new Wembley clearly draws a line in the sand with the original Wembley, like it or not.

Inside, Wembley is jaw-droppingly big. It can hold 90,000 spectators but it is the additional 170- foot high roof and 436-foot tall arch overhead which give Wembley a stunningly large feeling. The portion of roof above the goal ends is retractable, to bring more sunlight to the pitch and help the grass grow.  Despite these flourishes overhead, the rest of Wembley’s interior feels somewhat nondescript – if you squint you could be in Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium across town. The arch is impressive, though, and the roof opening elegantly frames the changing London sky above.

The match was a thrilling 1-0 victory for Team GB over Brazil. Still a growing sport in Great Britain, women’s football is gaining traction and this match was of historic importance. The 70,584 spectators were the most ever to watch a women’s football game in the UK and with the victory, Great Britain won their group and will face Canada in the Olympic quarterfinals in Coventry.  But perhaps more significantly the victory helped re-establish Wembley as the home of this new age of football.

The history of the original was largely one of men watching a man’s game. The rise of women’s football marks a new tradition whereby everyone is invited to the party.  It will still take the new building a long time, but with more nights like this one, packed to the gills with screaming fathers and sons, chanting brothers and sisters and singing mothers and daughters it can perhaps become a more important building than the original ever was.

Aerial view of the original Wembley via OObject
Aerial view of new Wembley note the open roof via Skyscraper City
Wembley’s iconic towers as seen from Wembley Way via Tim Callaghan