Wembley Stadium, London, England. The home of English soccer, having hosted England internationals, cup finals and promotion playoffs since the original Wembley opened in 1923. However, the stadium has recently become the home of a different type of football, American football, having hosted at least one NFL regular season game per season since 2007. The stadium hosted three games this year and despite initial reports suggesting that that number would be increased to five in 2015, but has been kept to three because of Wembley’s involvement with the Rugby World Cup. Speculation has been mounting about the possibility of the NFL bringing a team to London, and proponents use the success of these games (most of them have sold out) to support their case. There have even been rumors in the English press that the English national team would go on a barnstorming tour of the country to play home matches like they did when Wembley was being redeveloped between 2000 and 2007 in order to accommodate an NFL team at Wembley.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend two of these NFL games as well as England’s qualifier against Slovenia. The first game was Detroit against Atlanta. I arrived three hours before the odd kick-off time of 1:30pm local/9:30am Eastern and found the area around Wembley to be a carnival like atmosphere. Lots of temporary NFL exhibits were set up around the stadium selling merchandise, promoting the new NFL now, giving people the opportunity to throw your kick a football. The head commentator for Sky Sports NFL UK was leading a pre-game show, interviewing past greats from both the Falcons and Lions. The concessions outside the stadium were selling primarily American food, with special stands set up for burgers and fried chicken. Fans walking around were wearing jerseys of all 32 NFL teams, and it did not seem as though there were more jerseys for the teams that were actually playing than for other popular NFL teams like the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers. During the warm ups, anytime any player from either team came out onto the field the crowd gave a huge roar. However, it was the Falcons cheerleaders who stole the loudest cheers. The girl group Little Mix performed a pre-game show filled with fireworks, flames and smoke. On every seat was an Atlanta Falcons flag (they were the designated home team) as well as a colored bag that we were to hold up during the national anthems. This was done in order to create the American and British flags around the stadium, a very cool sight. Both anthems were played, and the British anthem was sung feverishly by most involved.
As for the game itself, the underdog Falcons rushed out to a 21-0 halftime lead in front of what seemed like a decidedly pro-Falcons crowd. However, in the second half, the Lions clawed their way back, winning the crowd over and then the game 22-21 on a last second field goal by Matt Prater.
The second game featured the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars (who were playing the second of four annual “home” games at Wembley) against the Dallas Cowboys. Unlike the first game, there was not a pre-game carnival. Like the first game, the loudest cheers were reserved for the cheerleaders and there was a similar pre-game show. Because the game was played two days before November 11th, the game had a military appreciation theme, as there was a moment of silence before kickoff as well as a presentation to honor a British soldier who lost his legs during a first quarter TV timeout and another British soldier before the fourth quarter. Instead of the distributed bags forming the two flags, they created 10 “poppies,” commemorating those who died in the First World War. In this game, the Cowboys jumped out to a 31-7 third quarter lead, and the stands began to empty, which was a bit disappointing. When the Cowboys went into victory formation after the two minute warning with a 31-17, the remainder of the crowed that had stuck around booed, a sign that they were not exactly familiar with NFL time management strategies.
The England experience at Wembley was quite different. There were many vendors outside selling match day half and half scarves as well as other England scarves, and there seemed to be much more of a family atmosphere as there were many young children with their parents. Anywhere I walked, I was confronted with an advertisement for either Vauxhall or EE, two main sponsors of England and Wembley respectively. Inside the stadium, the FA showed a video asking England fans what their predictions were for the match, and all predicted an England win of either three, four or five to zero, which strengthened the general perception that England fans overrate their teams leading to the inevitable “what happened” as England fail at almost every tournament. The match also represented Wayne Rooney’s 100th cap for England, and he was presented with a golden boot from Sir Bobby Charlton as he held both of his sons. Wembley was about 90% full, which was impressive given that the England rugby team were playing a test against the Springboks of South Africa just nine miles south at Twickenham. Most of the empty seats were found directly behind Roy Hodgson’s dugout. There were lots of English flags that were hung over the rafters by the supporters of many individual clubs. As for the match itself, the away fans from Slovenia remained in full voice for most of the match, while most of the English fans stayed relatively quiet. Most of the noise that did come from England supporters were chants of “Come on England” from those sitting behind the south goal, and the trumpet that is often heard playing on telecasts of England matches at Wembley.
Leading up to the match both managers commented on the abysmal state of the pitch following Sunday’s NFL game, as the middle of the field was virtually “unplayable” and had almost no grass. From my seat in the upper deck, the NFL lines and logos were still very noticeable, something I would expect at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts or at RFK Stadium in Washington DC but not at Wembley. That kind of detracted from the experience for me.
After a forgettable first half, where England had the lions share of possession but created no chances of note, the crowd reacted by well, not reacting. And when Slovenia scored from an innocuous looking free kick via Jordan Henderson’s head in the 57th minute, Wembley (with the exception of the away support) fell silent, stunned. England responded immediately with a penalty from Rooney and the supporters were finally awoken from their snooze. Danny Welbeck put England ahead with a volley in the 66th minute and then secured the three points for England in the 72nd. Curiously, Wembley started to empty after the third goal, presumably to beat the bottleneck at the tube station or get a head start on the London nightlife. By the full time whistle, only about 60% of the announced crowd of 82,305 remained.
Overall, I got the feel that the NFL experience was more of a festival, as the focus was often on events outside the actual game (the cheerleaders, pre-game show, blasting music at every TV timeout, pre-game ceremonies) while the England match was more authentic, despite the surprising lack of enthusiasm from the supporters.
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