Divisive Wembley plan blasted

Wembley Stadium hosted two of the four NFL International Series games in London last autumn.
Wembley Stadium hosted two of the four NFL International Series games in London last autumn.PHOTOS: REUTERS
Shahid Khan's offer could result in his NFL team Jacksonville Jaguars playing a few games each season at Wembley.
Shahid Khan's offer could result in his NFL team Jacksonville Jaguars playing a few games each season at Wembley.PHOTOS: REUTERS

Tycoon Khan aims to create joint home for American, English football in $1.65b buy

LONDON • Shahid Khan has spelt out his desire to make Wembley Stadium a home for both "American and English football" as the man who led the redevelopment of the venue, Ken Bates, blasted the Football Association's (FA) proposed £900 million (S$1.65 billion) sale as "a disgrace".

The billionaire owner of Championship football club Fulham and National Football League (NFL) team Jacksonville Jaguars told The Times that he hoped to conclude the purchase of the sale from the FA before the start of next season.

The announcement of his offer, and FA chiefs' enthusiasm for a "unique opportunity" to inject hundreds of millions of pounds into the grassroots game, infuriated Bates, the first Wembley chairman from 1997 until 2001. He said: "We're selling our heritage. It's England's home. It can't be allowed."

Khan's plan will mean the Jaguars will play a number of games each season at Wembley, and could herald the first NFL franchise in London.

England matches will be played "on the road" during the NFL season from September to December and at Wembley between January and June, along with the existing match calendar of FA Cup final, semi-finals, League Cup final and the Rugby League Challenge Cup final.

Other details of the proposal include a covenant on naming rights so that the word "Wembley" is retained; scope for Premier League side Chelsea to play at Wembley over the next four years while Stamford Bridge is being redeveloped; and a £600 million lump sum for the FA, and then the rights to Club Wembley income up to about £300 million over a period of roughly six years.

Khan, a Pakistan-born American whose fortune has been estimated at over £5 billion, said he and fellow Americans at other clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool "absolutely" understood English football. He said: "We do understand it and respect it and this is a great time to enjoy some of the synergies, to have a great venue like Wembley to be used for the national English game as well as the national American game, the NFL."

The details of the offer were presented to the FA board at a Thursday meeting, after which the FA chairman Greg Clarke wrote to its councillors outlining the proposal and admitting that it would "divide opinion".

Clarke said: "We are of course highly protective of Wembley Stadium's place both in the history of our game and its future. I am well aware that it will be an emotive issue that will divide opinion.

"It is, however, a unique opportunity - and one that may allow the FA and English football to transform its ability to invest in and improve its grassroots facilities beyond measure."

He added that "nothing is certain and no decision has been made".

Other opposition came from the former England striker Rodney Marsh, who tweeted: "Mark this date. If Wembley is sold it will no longer be Wembley Stadium. It will become The Google Sports Arena."

Swansea's Portuguese manager Carlos Carvalhal added: "You can't sell the monuments, in my opinion. If you sell Wembley, do you say you'll sell Big Ben after this? And Buckingham Palace?"

But former England manager Roy Hodgson has backed the FA's decision. "I think that, if the FA have made a deal, it would be for the right reasons," the Englishman said in comments published by Sky Sports. "They see that the amount of money they get from the deal would be advantageous and would be spent in a wise way to help our football."

The FA still has about £140 million of debt to repay on the stadium and has a six-year plan to do so, using the income from Club Wembley, which last year brought in £56 million.

The proposed sale will have to be authorised by public bodies including Sport England, as they contributed towards the construction of the £757 million, 90,000-seat stadium which re-opened in 2007.

An FA source told The Times that it made absolute sense for the sport's national governing body. The source said: "A £500 million lump sum for the FA could be really transformative and brilliant for English grassroots football."

THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'Divisive Wembley plan blasted'. Print Edition | Subscribe