New Wembley Stadium to fuel ‘club v country’ disputes?

As the demolition contractors move in, commentators on the new Wembley Stadium are agreed on two things: firstly, it will cost about the same as the Millennium Dome; secondly, the financial success of the venture depends on selling out the premium-priced corporate seats for football matches to service and pay off the debt.

In an ideal world, financing the debt would be easy. There would be an increased number of lucrative and mouth-watering ‘friendly’ matches against top opposition such as Brazil. These teams would not demand a share of the revenues or seek return matches that would cause clashes with the climaxes of European club competitions. All the best players would be released by their clubs to play in the friendlies in a state of peak fitness; clubs would happily pay the insurance premiums and not demand compensation for salaries. Players’ image contracts would all contain ‘windows’ allowing the FA commercial department to exploit the players’ reputation by organising photo opportunities with corporate clients etc etc. In this ideal world, competition for the right to stage other sports events from the Millennium Stadium would have already disappeared, leaving the FA to pay back all the stakeholders in good time and preserve Wembley’s iconic status forever.

The omens for any of this actually happening however are not promising. The Premier clubs are already outraged by the demands of the existing schedule of friendly matches. The Chairmen of these clubs (conveniently forgetting the role of some of their number in obtaining a national football stadium financed by debt) are now insisting on financial compensation for the release of players. On top of that, the Premier clubs want greater control over the England team (in effect the scheduling of international matches which is currently a governing body monopoly). None of this bodes well for attempts to actually increase the number of friendly matches in order to pay for the stadium.

Can the FA bring the Premier clubs to heel? Probably not. The FA’s weakness is that they don’t contract the ‘talent’ and that those who do (the clubs) have their own bank managers at the door. It follows that if the clubs don’t get their way, then the FA runs the risk of not getting the players, without whom the venue cannot be paid for.

The FA could always try waving the FIFA rule book that requires free release for a limited number of international matches. The FA’s difficulty is that there aren’t enough free releases and that any attempt to enforce the FIFA rules will lead to inevitable legal action under the competition rules. To date the European Commission has taken the politically expedient view that provisions in governing body rule books that require free release for international duty come within the ‘sporting exception’ and are therefore acceptable. However, the competition authorities cannot easily (or swiftly) dismiss the very plausible counter-argument that FIFA rules allow a governing body to compete unfairly with its members.

Of course, while this legal issue is being expensively ventilated, stakeholders (including a German bank) could have their patience tested to destruction and the momentum for political intervention could prove irresistible, as public money is at risk. Now that it is too late to abandon the whole exercise and spend the money on supporting the lower leagues and grass roots, professional football could soon learn the harsh lesson that it cannot afford an expensive national stadium that can only be financed by an increased number of premium international soccer events and at the same time maintain the current bloated league structure. Unfortunately, experience does not suggest that football learns any lessons until it is too late, in which case the new Wembley is well positioned to become a future government’s Millennium Dome.

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