Most – if not all – of you will remember the terrible state that the pitch at Wembley Stadium got into towards the end of 2007. By the time England played Croatia in their final European Championship qualifying match, the pitch was so badly cut up that it looked, after heavy rain in London, as if the match might not even be played. It was played, of course, and the FA paid a heavy price for their expediency. It took less than five minutes for a speculative long range shot to skid up and through Scott Carson to give Croatia the lead and, while it is far from implausible to argue that the elimination that followed gave English football the kick up the backside that it had sorely been needing for the previous decade or so, the cost to the FA ran to millions of pounds in lost revenue.
All of this came at a time that the FA could least afford it. The stock of the FA Cup seems to be back on a downward trend, and Wembley considerably overshot its budget whilst being built. The success of the England national team is now more crucial than ever to the FA’s financial wellbeing and, as Euro 2008 proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, this success is far from guaranteed. This has led to a clash of interest which may end up being to the cost of the England team. In order to secure the funding to cover the cost of the construction of Wembley Stadium, the FA needs to diversify the uses which they manage to find for it. Other sports such as American football and rugby union have been hosted there, while the summer months see a bewildering array of concerts being held there. All of this makes specific requirements on the Wembley pitch, and these aren’t necessarily suitable to football.
The ideal solution for the FA would be to follow the lead set by Arsenal, who reinforce the pitch at The Emirates Stadium with artificial fibres so that the pitch is at its most playable at all times. However, this type of pitch cannot easily removed, and the demands of the extra events at Wembley mean that the pitch there has to be the type that can be rolled up and removed quickly. This, it is generally agreed, is an inferior quality pitch. It is estimated, for example, that it will have to be ripped up and relaid three times over the course of the summer, the last time after Coldplay play there in September, which will give the Wembley groundstaff less than four weeks to install another new pitch in time for England’s World Cup qualifying match against Belarus.
Quite asides from the cost of doing even this – it costs £150,000 every time the Wembley pitch has to be relaid – the FA is taking a massive, massive gamble. Failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup would be unthinkable for the FA. The big power struggle within European football is between the associations & confederations and the big clubs. The absence of England from a World Cup finals could prove to be a major tilt in the power base within the English game, quite asides from any direct financial considerations. Ironically, this comes at a time when, against all odds, things are looking up for the team. Fabio Capello couldn’t have had a better start as England coach on the pitch, with four straight wins and a small cushion opened up at the top of their qualifying group. Nothing, however, is guaranteed for them yet.
They play Slovakia on Saturday, and heavy rain is forecast for London. Quite what condition the pitch will be in by Wednesday night, when they have a tricky match against Ukraine, is anybody’s guess. If they fail to win this match, their away match against Ukraine and the final match at home against Croatia suddenly become far more significant than they may appear at the moment. Either of those two teams could be within touching distance of them by then and, as have seen repeatedly over the years, if the England team has one major shortcoming as a unit, it is a psychological weakness which compounds and individual weaknesses that the players might have. For all the hubris created by their recent decent run on qualifying matches provides only the thinnest of veneers to mask the fundamental lack of self-confidence in English football, which disguises itself as rather feeble displays of chest thumping and playing blame games whenever they lose big matches.
Ultimately, Fabio Capello still needs all the help that he can get if he is to steer England to South Africa with no major drama accompanying them on the way, and he has already voiced his concerns over the condition of the pitch. Not for the first time, commercial interests may get in the way of this happening. One cannot help but suspect that there will be a number of people at Soho Square standing with their hands behind their backs and their fingers crossed for the next few months. Their gamble to hand Wembley Stadium over to U2, Coldplay and Oasis this summer could have serious ramifications should England run into difficulty in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals, and in more ways than one.