London (AFP) – Wembley Stadium came alive with the largest sports crowd in England since the coronavirus pandemic hit on Saturday as 22,000 spectators descended on the home of English football to witness Leicester lift the FA Cup for the first time.
Youri Tielemans’s stunning strike that beat Chelsea 1-0 was met with a wave of noise from the 6,000 Foxes fans behind the goal where the ball had nestled in the top corner.
There were just as jubilant scenes when Chelsea saw a late equaliser ruled out after a VAR review and the final whistle went.
“It’s fantastic for the club,” said Leicester fan Alan Edwards. “To have fans at the game as well. It’s a shame we can’t have 40,000 here, but it’s brilliant to have so many here. You can hear the atmosphere.”
The final was the third test event held at Wembley with fans, as thanks to a mass rollout of vaccinations, restrictions across Britain are beginning to ease.
Just under 4,000 saw Leicester’s semi-final victory over Southampton last month.
That attendance was doubled for Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Tottenham in the League Cup final on April 25.
Later this week, crowds of up to 10,000 will return to Premier League grounds for the final two matchdays of the season, including another vital clash between Chelsea and Leicester for a place in next season’s Champions League.
Wembley will host eight matches at Euro 2020 with at least 25 percent of its 90,000 capacity.
There are even hopes that both semi-finals and the final could be played out in front of more than 22,500.
“You can see the difference the fans make for us,” said Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers.
“The energy they gave us, it felt like there was 30,000 of them in here today. With the noise they made, we felt that energy and that really pushed us over the line.
“That is what football is about. That connection between the players and the fans.”
The return of fans in larger numbers did not come without issues.
As players from both sides took the knee before the game began as a sign of protest against racial injustice, there were audible boos from supporters at both ends of the stadium.
Supporters had to show evidence of a negative test for Covid-19 in the 48 hours prior to kick-off and were seated in a socially distanced manner.
However, there were still large gatherings at pinch points on public transport and on Wembley Way before accessing the stadium.
“We’re spaced out once we are in the stadium for the cameras, but we’re not in here,” said Chelsea fan Robert Bradshaw as fans made their way out of Wembley Park underground station.
Of the 22,000 tickets, 12,000 were distributed to the two clubs with another 10,000 divided between locals, frontline workers from across London and English Football Association (FA) stakeholders.
Even for a very different cup final, tradition was maintained as the hymn “Abide with Me” was sung by a choir before kick-off, while Prince William was introduced to both teams in his role as president of the FA.
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