A sell-out at Wembley

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I’m as annoyed as most other football fans at the news the Football Association is thinking of selling Wembley to an American billionaire for up to £900m. 

It’s the hallowed turf of English football, an international icon and a strategic national asset. No other country in the world would think of selling such a treasure.

I have enjoyed watching dozens of games there, mainly England and just occasionally, my beloved Liverpool.

But now it looks like the England team may be pushed out of their home stadium in favour of American football for at least some of their games.

Once again we are about to sell off the national family silver for a quick buck rather than keeping control and managing it for the benefit of the whole country. We must not underestimate how important control is for these type of assets.

This sale must be stopped. The FA have a bad track record of strategic judgments over the years. They made a complete horlicks of redeveloping Wembley in the first place, spending hundreds of millions more than necessary, including some £160m of public money. But that is water under the bridge.

They say they want the money to invest in grassroots football. But this is disingenuous spin. It completely ignores the straightforward alternatives to achieve the same aim. They have successfully reduced the debt from well over £400 million to just £142 million over the last 10 years. They could easily borrow the money again, using long term bond debt secured against the stadium, as they did to rebuild it. This would free up the money they want to invest in grassroots football around the country. After all, security for a loan doesn’t come much better than an iconic national asset and brand like Wembley.

The FA is behaving like a classic, old-school British institution without a long-term vision. Sadly in the UK, there are so many examples in both the corporate and  public sectors where important strategic national assets have been sold for short-term gain and long-term pain. Once control is gone, it is gone forever. They have not even had the commercial acumen to conduct a proper bidding process. They have no idea whether someone else would pay hundreds of millions more.

I’ve got nothing against the buyer, who’s also the owner of Fulham Football Club. He is an incredibly successful businessman who I admire, but let’s be clear. He is not overpaying for altruistic reasons. He knows he can make very good money controlling Wembley. Ticket prices will rise. Events will be at his mercy. He will be able to call the shots over numerous national events now and for future generations. Absurdly, he will use the same debt markets to pay for it that the FA should use.

But this is part of a pattern in the UK of institutions failing to do good deals over new stadiums. It’s horribly like the financial scandal at the Olympic stadium in east London, just a few miles down the road from Wembley. There, an impractical design and a series of bad deals done by the public sector have left the London taxpayer with losses of over £250m and still counting. This loss is a direct gift to a mega-wealthy, privately owned Premier League football club.  

The government or London mayor Sadiq Khan, who reportedly knows the would-be buyer of Wembley well, should show some overdue leadership on behalf of the whole country  and our capital city. They must call a halt to the sale.

Yet again weak leaders in charge of our prize national assets appear to want to sell out for short-term benefit.

And yet again it’s the fans and the public who will be the long-term losers.