Wembley Stadium: Possibly the Worst Venue in the World
Wembley is as soulless and depressing a stadium as you're likely to find. Thankfully the football played there can be quite entertaining
The French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term "non-place" to describe those man-made spaces which, owing to their near-total transience, do not merit the status of an actual, proper place. An airport is a non-place; Westfield is also a non-place. The dank, musky bedroom of a provincial Travelodge — that's most certainly a non-place. These are the nothings we pass through, the soulless non-entities which result from the globalised age of what Augé termed "supermodernity". I have no clue whether or not Augé feels an emotional response to these non-places. I for one find them really, really depressing.
This perhaps explains the utter existential gloom I felt when, on Saturday, I found myself at Wembley Stadium for the League 2 play-off final between Southend United and Wycombe Wanderers. My gloominess didn't result from the match I was about to watch; I actually quite like League 2's prosaic brand of wrestling-come-football, hence my attendance. Nor was it caused by the thought of glimpsing a goatee-less Phil Brown, disappointing as that thought may have been.
Rather, my despair was down to the fact that Wembley is the ultimate non-place, the nothing beyond all nothings. It is a transitory vacuum, a lifeless void. In fact, it may well be the very worst venue on the planet.
Many Premier League stadia are accused of being soulless. The Emirates is often indicted as overly corporate, Old Trafford as lacking a visceral atmosphere and so on. Still, these places at least have a sense of permanence, a sense of welcoming homeliness to the communities of fans who go there week in, week out; add to that a few old school features – the Emirates' vast concrete staircases, for example, or Old Trafford's austere brick dug outs – and they qualify as unique, identifiable settings. They might not exude the fading brilliance of Football League grounds or the thrown-together charm of non-league's finest – Clapton's Old Spotted Dog, or Dulwich Hamlet's Champion Hill – yet they are legitimate places. Wembley's soullessness is on another level entirely.
The attendee's hollow transition through the stadium begins almost the moment he or she steps out of Wembley Park station. For perhaps a single second, as Wembley's famous arch comes into view, there's a fleeting sense that this is going to be a visit to an iconic location, a real day to remember. After that, Wembley's blank nullity erases almost everything that happens for the duration of the attendee's time there. Left behind at the end is a sense of profound meaninglessness and, somehow, the suspicion that something incredibly officious has just happened.
As one progresses down Wembley Way one must first pass under the Irn Bru-sponsored 'Bru Are Ya!' bridge, an edifice which plays a looped recording of angry bloke voices shouting the mind-numbingly stupid slogan 'Bru Are Ya!' over and over and over again. If this endlessly aggressive advertising hasn't already pulverised the consciousness, the attendee is then funnelled down half a mile of Sky and EE logos toward the ground, itself a massive geometric island floating on a sea of carpark – an emphatic visual reminder that all visitors should be travelling through as efficiently and punctually as possible.
As the arch looms ever larger, so too do the giant signs warning against all forms of footballing misbehaviour. These portable signallers are downsized versions of those that are set up to warn of impending seven-hour delays on motorways – and it is no coincidence that a motorway is one of Augé's prime examples of non-place. Some of the white-bulb messages displayed on them are sort of understandable, if still a bit oppressive and accusatory. 'Drug dogs patrolling the area' and 'Possession of pyros may lead to arrest' are indicative of society's sensible stance against the mixing of cocaine and fireworks, so fair enough. But 'No persistent standing'? Since when has standing been a societal menace? And what is it to persistently stand? When does an excess of standing become a danger to the common good?
At this point, Wembley has become such a non-place that the minimal effort of standing on genuine human legs is considered too much of a challenge to its nothingness. A massive League 2 crowd, almost all of whom spend most Saturdays persistently standing on concrete terracing, might be considered a major irritation for being habitually vertical. Temporary uprightness, that's okay. But persistent uprightness? That's the sort of thing people do in places, not non-places.
Once one gets inside the stadium's sterile catacombs, the nothingness only intensifies. A labyrinthine system of escalators pulls people to their seats like a sliding human conveyor belt. The walls are all done with the same shiny finish as airport toilets, while the bars – at which one can buy a pint of flat, lukewarm Carlsberg or Tetley's for £4.95 – are enough to inspire longing memories of slumping down in that Wetherspoons at Heathrow and drinking a John Smith's just before the hour of dawn. Worst of all is the 'Bobby Moore Club'. Why someone thought it would be appropriate to name a corporate hosting area after Bobby Moore is beyond me, yet it doesn't help that the entrance and interior make it look like a strip club for businessmen in the lobby of a European mega-hotel. "Exhilarating and stylish" indeed.
The venue even does its very best to ruin the match. As Southend and Wycombe fans gathered at opposite ends of the ground on Saturday, vying songs from the support rose up – only to be near drowned out by the deafening tannoy hype man ("Are we ready for – the Sky Bet League 2 play-off final!") and the blasting saxophone of Cheryl Cole's 'Crazy Stupid Love'. At half time, the hype man emerged to continually plug a "twenty-grand car!" which had been driven out onto the side of the pitch. The sad bathos of this was really quite overwhelming. I got the strong impression that, in keeping with the rest of the stadium experience, Wembley's private army of planners and organisers would prefer the atmosphere at matches to be absolutely void, replaced only by constant merchandising and an infinitely repeating Now That's What I Call Music 89!
The only part of my Wembley experience that I enjoyed was the part where the teams came out and played. Chants went up uninterrupted, fans persistently stood and, for just a moment, I could close my eyes and pretend I was at a football ground. Southend and Wycombe played out the most beautiful and characterful nil-nil over 90 minutes I've ever seen, before two goals in extra time – including a Southend equaliser 20 seconds from the end – took the match to penalties. Southend won, their fans leapt in ecstacy, while Wycombe's end slumped in unison. This was football. This was passion. This was joy and despair and it reminded me that I was alive – that life was worth living. Then 'Rude' by Magic! blasted out. I quickly reconsidered my position.
After that, it was back through the slick corridors, back down Wembley Way, back under the 'Bru Are Ya!' bridge and back to some form of reality. My transition through the non-place was complete. My only conclusion beyond my own depression was that Wembley Stadium is football's airport, football's Westfield, football's Travelodge; it is, and always will be, innately super modern.
I have no idea whether Marc Augé has ever been to Wembley, nor what his emotional response to it would be. My guess? I imagine it would make him cry.