England’s European Championship Qualifier Marred by Racist Abuse

SOFIA, Bulgaria — England’s Football Association called on UEFA to take “very stringent” action after the country’s European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria was stopped twice in the first half because of racist chants and Nazi salutes from the home supporters.

England’s 6-0 win was halted in the 28th minute and again in the 43rd, but the English players opted against leaving the field and the game was quickly resumed after both breaks.

Bulgaria supporters in the crowd were seen directing monkey chants at England players, doing Nazi salutes and holding up shirts with the UEFA logo and the text “No Respect” — a reference to the European governing body’s “Respect” campaign aimed at curbing racism in the sport.

During the first break, the public announcer warned that the match could be called off completely unless the racist abuse stopped — the first step in UEFA’s anti-racism protocol for games. During the second break, dozens of Bulgaria fans involved in the chanting, many of them wearing dark hooded sweatshirts, left the stadium.

“I would like to see a very stringent review by UEFA because I know they take racism very seriously,” English F.A. Chairman Greg Clarke said. “We should join a movement to drive racism out of our game and have zero tolerance for it.”

The F.A. also issued a statement saying the England players “were subjected to abhorrent racist chanting,” which seemed to be aimed mainly at black players like Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings.

“As we are sadly aware, this is not the first time our players have been subjected to this level of abuse and there is no place for this kind of behavior in society, let alone in football. We will be asking UEFA to investigate as a matter of urgency,” the F.A. said.

Mings initially asked one of the assistant referees if he had heard the chants and England Coach Gareth Southgate then held a discussion with the fourth official before the game was halted for the first time.

“It was quite clear to hear on the pitch, but we showed a great response, we showed a good togetherness and ultimately we let the football do the talking,” Mings told ITV. “We made a decision at halftime to come out and play the game which we thought was the right decision and if anything else had happened we would have taken appropriate action.”

The delays led to six minutes of added time, during which Sterling tapped in England’s fourth goal.

Bulgaria’s captain, Ivelin Popov, appeared to have a heated debate with a section of home fans, asking them to stop the chants, as the rest of the players went to the dressing rooms at halftime.

The second half passed without interruption, with Sterling scoring his second goal with a precise finish in the 69th, and Kane completing the rout in the 85th minute, shortly after he was denied by the post.

The Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia was already subject to a partial closure for the match after Bulgaria was sanctioned for racist chanting during qualifiers against Kosovo and the Czech Republic.

“We have made two statements by winning the game but also we have raised the awareness of everyone of the situation,” Southgate said. “The game was stopped twice. I know for some people that won’t be enough.”

Please Take Them Home. Please Just Take Them Home.

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In May, as thousands of England fans prepared for a few summer days in Portugal, the Football Association felt compelled to release a short video, less than a minute long, with a simple request. A request so simple, in fact, that it should not really have to be made. Over footage of a man throwing a bicycle into a canal, jumping on a car, and taking his shirt off in a restaurant, it asked one thing of fans: don’t be that idiot.

The campaign did not work. A few days later, before the team’s Nations League semifinal against the Netherlands in Porto, England fans threw bottles at local supporters, smashed car windows, and filled the city’s streets with sporadic fighting. Eventually, the authorities deployed the riot police. Before England’s second game, held in the city of Guimaraes, schools were closed on safety grounds, and people were advised to stay indoors. “That idiot came, and brought twenty of his friends,” as one police officer put it.

They were, clearly, expecting much the same in Prague this week, where England will play the Czech Republic on Friday night. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, expressed his fears last month over a fixture in a city that is easy to reach, where beer is cheap, that has long been a favorite for English bachelor parties, and, ridiculously, will be held on a Friday.

The Czechs were taking no chances, readying police on foot, on horseback and in helicopters to deal with the expected influx of about 6,000 England fans. They planned to have English speaking “anti-conflict units” on patrol, and the support of 11 trouble-spotters from British police forces. The riot units were on standby, and there was talk of a “zero tolerance” approach.

There are some who feel this form of policing can be counterproductive. Certainly, whenever trouble stirs involving England fans — and that is separate from English fans, because Premier League clubs now travel around Europe largely without incident — there is a tendency to suggest that the strong-arm tactics of the local authorities have exacerbated the problem, rather than defused it, and the argument has some merit.

And yet that does not really confront the issue, just as the inclination to blame a “minority” of troublemakers who are not “true” England fans, whatever that means, is nothing more than a deflection. The local police, like the British police who advise them, like the F.A., like Southgate, like the official fan clubs, are generally doing their best, or what they perceive as their best.

They are, certainly, not the root of the problem. That blame lies squarely with the section of England fans who see the opportunity to travel to a European city as a chance for invasion, who treat an airport as a gateway to an anything-goes stag party, who put on a replica jersey and feel compelled to live up to the stories they have seen and heard about the bloodstained hooligan glory days of the 1970s and ’80s.

Crucially, too, these are young(ish) men who have come of age in an era when public rhetoric here pits England against everyone else — the Scots, the Irish, the European Union — and Englishness against Otherness. Along with a songbook that references not just World War II, but the I.R.A. and the Pope, there is an evident strain of Islamophobia in some of the far-right organizations that have taken root among their number.

But there is something else, too, that is often missed, an environmental factor that allows that malevolence to fester. I remember being struck, during the 2016 European Championships in France, by how different England fans and fans of other nations traveled.

In Toulouse, Spain fans draped their flags and paraded their colors, but they were diffuse, small groups occupying different bars, different restaurants, dotted around the city. In St. Etienne, England fans had found a pub, and several thousand of them had congregated around it, claiming it as their land, annexing the space, making it clear outsiders were not welcome, that this was a little patch of England.

There is no malice in that, necessarily, but there is a thoughtlessness, a lack of care for the people who call that place home, and a territoriality that can be a midwife to something worse. It is a cliché, but it is just a minority of fans who actively seek violence. Most England fans want to watch a soccer game. To do that in peace, though, perhaps it is necessary to think about not what image they think they are showing, but what others might see.

Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus chairman, does a fine line in dystopian visions. He has long been the most outspoken advocate of the need to reform men’s club soccer; chances are, if you have heard an outlandish idea about what the future of the game should look like in the last couple of years, it originated with Agnelli.

In London this week, he offered up another: Soccer is at risk of losing out to the video game Fortnite, apparently, and is in danger of “falling into irrelevance.” His solution — and this will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever heard Agnelli say anything — is to make sure all of the big clubs are always playing each other in the Champions League, because domestic soccer is “of little interest for our kids.”

I wonder, Andrea, why that might be. Could it be that the big clubs, one of which you run and on whose behalf you speak, have spent the last two decades hoarding not just the bulk of the money generated by soccer’s inexorable growth, but increasingly all of the best players, much of the aspiring talent, and pretty much all of the oxygen? Do you think that maybe younger fans don’t find domestic leagues compelling because you, and your ilk, have spent quite a long time deliberately making them as predictable as possible?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not talk so much about the 1990s now. A few months ago, when he was in the first flush of restored love with Manchester United, those years came up all the time. A mention of his past, his club’s past, was an obligatory feature of almost every news media call; unable to escape memory lane, he talked endlessly about late winners and Sir Alex and Barcelona 1999.

After a while, it became a bit of a joke; a well-meaning, affectionate one, but a joke nonetheless. Now, though, those little reminiscences have gone, and in the vacuum there is a sadness.

As United has slumped to a dreadful start in the Premier League, the focus has been — understandably — on the gamble the club took in hiring Solskjaer permanently. But what about the other side? What about the gamble Solskjaer himself, through loyalty, could not help but take? His popularity as a player with United’s fans will always endure, but — barring a miraculous turnaround — his legacy now and forever will be a much more complex thing. And what of him? He found happiness in his memories of United; they clearly meant the world to him. When this second stay ends, he will have lost not just a chance he had long dreamed of, but that happiness, too, and that is an awful lot to lose.

I’ve been slightly out of the loop this week for personal reasons, and appear to have missed one of those genuinely seismic, ground-shaking stories that comes along once in a while: two people having an argument. This one is about Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy, on the surface, but it is also about trust and sleuthing and the blurring of lines between public and private, and it reads a bit like a John le Carré novel, except one in which George Smiley is on Instagram Stories. Mystified? Fortunately, my colleagues Caity Weaver and Elizabeth Paton were on hand to explain.

You may remember a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about how UEFA is trying to solve a problem of its own making by introducing a third European club competition. Or you may not. Either way, Alan Goldhammer, an Ajax fan with an outstanding name (my name fixation is, I think, rooted in being called Smith), has an idea worth exploring.

He understands why the biggest leagues might have the most participants in the Champions League, but he wants to “liven up the qualification process,” essentially by inverting it. “Grant league champions from 14 leagues, as well as the reigning Champions League and Europa League winners, a spot in the group stages,” he wrote. “Make everyone else qualify for the remaining 16 spots. Knockout competition is always more exciting than the group stage.”

Tim Elcombe, meanwhile, has an idea that could prevent us all spending our whole lives embroiled in various stages of V.A.R.-related controversies. He wants to see a “two-tiered interpretation of the rules,” in which on-field officials should be allowed to make human-error prone judgment calls as they do now, with the crucial twist that they can only be overturned by a video referee if a distinct set of protocols are met.

So, for offside: “assistant referees should not be expected to see if a toe is offside … But to overturn it, there must be daylight between a player’s torso and the last defender for it to be considered offside.” That, he wrote, would be “a clear and obvious error worthy of overturning.”

That sounds eminently sensible, Tim. So we will have to disregard it immediately.

That’s all for this week. I hope you didn’t miss Tariq too much, after he added to his already considerable workload to cover for me last week. You can encourage your loved ones to sign up for the newsletter here, and direct all other enquiries to Twitter. All suggestions, questions and reviews are always welcome at askrory@nytimes.com.

After 3 World Cup Games, England Sees Itself With a Few More to Run

ImageEllen White after scoring the second of her two goals on Wednesday.

CreditChristophe Simon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NICE, France — Georgia Stanway was still wide-eyed with adrenaline, still trying to catch her breath from the game, still wearing her purple substitute’s bib. She had left the field only a few minutes earlier.

There had been no chance to parse England’s smooth 2-0 victory over Japan on Wednesday, much less its progress to the last 16 of this World Cup. Not that a little reflection would have changed anything for Stanway. England’s ambition remains the same as it has been for months.

“I don’t see why you would come to a major tournament not aiming to win it,” she said. “We’re not afraid to say that.”

It is easy, when examining the details of England’s preparations for this tournament, to be transfixed by the soft touches. Phil Neville, the coach, and the Football Association, which oversees the national team, share a focus on their players as people, not simply as professionals.

They have tried to foster a sense of belonging in the squad, to ensure their emotional needs are met, to create the impression — perhaps the necessary illusion — that a soccer team is a kind of family.

Photos of family members have been placed in the players’ rooms at their training base on the Côte d’Azur, to make them feel at home. Individualized cellphone cases have been handed out to squad members. Necklaces, too. Anniversaries of births and deaths are remembered in team talks.

All of that is important — unity for a cause is priceless — but it is not what really sets this team apart from previous iterations, what marks it as different from countless England teams, men’s and women’s, senior and junior, that have traveled to world championships through past decades. No, what marks this England out as different are not the soft touches, but the hard edge.

Like every other team here, Neville’s faces a twin pressure. The players are acutely aware of what, for want of a better term, might be called their social responsibility: the fact that they are standard-bearers for women’s soccer, for women’s sports, and role models for countless women and girls — and men and boys, for that matter — who are watching at home.

They are tasked with taking ownership of their sport in a way that is not asked of their male counterparts: not simply to be highly skilled practitioners of a craft, but to be ambassadors at large for it. It is a role they take seriously. It is a role that many — most, all — of them embrace.

But even though every World Cup brings a chance to assess the growth of the women’s game, and the impact the players are having, that is not why they are in France. That is not their primary task. Their primary task is to win the World Cup. In years past, at best, England traveled in hope of doing so.

This time around, there is a certain level of expectation. England is ranked third in the world; its domestic league is booming, flush with investment from the behemoths of the Premier League. Its teams are performing well in European club competitions, and a clutch of talented young players, Stanway and her Manchester City teammate Nikita Parris prime among them, is emerging. The team finished third in the 2015 World Cup. Back home, there is a belief that this time England can go at least one better.

There has been no attempt, though, to play down that pressure. England does not appear to be cowed by the status it has been assigned. Instead, the players have embraced this new role, too.

Stanway is perfectly happy to say that she hopes the other teams to have made it to the last 16 “fear” England. She would be delighted to think that none of them “want to play us.” There is no regret, not even a scintilla, that beating Japan on Wednesday night in Nice means that England — should it survive the last 16 and a quarterfinal — will find either the United States or France in its path in the semifinals. (Japan, inventive and bright without ever suggesting the presence of a cutting edge, finished second in Group D, and will now theoretically have an easier road to the final.) This is an England that believes in itself.

The group stage provides ample supporting evidence: England has won all three of its games, conceding just one goal. Neville has, like the United States coach, Jill Ellis, rotated heavily throughout, not only a way of saving legs ahead of the knockout rounds but flexing muscle, just a little, too. He seems spoiled for choices.

England saved its most impressive performance for last in the group stage, overcoming the gifted and experienced Japan team through a mixture of grit and guile. “Japan has the technical level, the tactical level, the physicality that they bring,” England’s Rachel Daly said. “All three games have been very different, but it’s good for us to have played such a high-quality team.”

In a way that the United States, certainly, has not yet experienced, England knows the level it will have to reach in the more exacting games that await in the coming weeks. Neville’s squad has the air of what the Germans call a “tournament team,” a unit that picks up speed as it climbs farther up the hill.

“We’ve grown and developed as a squad,” said Ellen White, who scored both England goals on Wednesday. “We are peaking for the knockout rounds.” It is not a bad trait to have.

That is not, though, the only interpretation. It would be possible to look back on England’s group stage and see a victory against Scotland that Neville himself said was “not good enough” to carry the team far in the tournament; a narrow, single-goal win against a spirited but limited Argentina; and an evenly balanced game against Japan in which England, for much of the second half, came under concerted pressure.

In one light, Neville’s options, what White called “headaches,” are broadly positive. In another, harsher view, he does not yet know quite what the team is that will carry England through the challenges that lie ahead.

At England’s training base, though, none of that will matter too much. Yes, the team has yet to produce a statement performance. Yes, the games will get tougher and the opposition better, and Neville must make difficult choices and hope he calls them right. But what is important is that England is winning, that it continues to win, that it finds a way. That is, after all, why it is here, and it is not afraid to say it.

The Fleeting Magic of the F.A. Cup

ACCRINGTON, England — Andy Holt is standing at the door to the bar, watching the celebrations unfold. On the field, Accrington Stanley’s players are in the middle of an impromptu lap of honor, pumping their fists and beaming broad smiles. John Coleman, their manager, is conducting the crowd’s chanting, soaking in their adulation.

Holt, the club’s owner, does not seek to join them, to bask in their reflected glory. But still, as fans start to leave, a steady stream heads toward him, hands outstretched, wanting to offer their congratulations, or share their glee.

He greets each one like an old friend. “You should come in here, it’s only a pound a pint,” he tells one. Another is reassured that the prize money for the victory will be reinvested in the team. “That’s £135,000, that is,” he says. “It’ll go straight into the squad.”

On one level, that is what the F.A. Cup means to a club like Accrington Stanley, and to a chairman like Holt. Though Coleman’s team is now thriving in League One — English soccer’s third tier — it is doing so on a fourth-tier budget. By beating Ipswich Town, which competes a division higher, in the third round of the world’s oldest cup competition, Accrington has earned around a tenth of its annual revenue in a single day.

For Holt, the bigger thrill, though, is what may be to come. Should Accrington be drawn to face one of the Premier League’s giants in the next round — Holt had hoped for Manchester United or Arsenal, though Monday night’s draw would later pair those two titans together — and should the game be selected for television, the rewards could approach £1 million: life-changing, season-defining, horizon-expanding money.

“There are not many chances for a club like us to get access to football’s fortunes,” Holt said. “The F.A. Cup is one of them. You could do a lot with a million pounds, around Accrington.”

Accrington was not the only club imagining those possibilities over the last four days. That has always been the charm of the F.A. Cup’s third-round weekend, traditionally the most romantic in England’s soccer calendar. This is the point when the teams from the country’s top two divisions, the Premier League and the second-tier Championship, enter the competition, alongside those from the lower tiers and any nonleague clubs that have survived an arduous campaign through the early rounds.

That sense of opportunity has long made it fertile ground for surprises. It is in the F.A. Cup’s third round that the lesser lights have the chance to bloody the noses of the great and the good, when the coddled elite come unstuck in airless, ramshackle stadiums and on haphazard, mud-ridden fields.


Fans of Newport County, which plays in England’s fourth tier, cheered the team past Leicester City of the Premier League on Sunday. CreditCarl Recine/Reuters

When they do, their conquerors gain a form of immortality: Hereford beating Newcastle in 1972; Sutton United overcoming Coventry in 1989; Wrexham’s win against Arsenal in 1992 — all of them now granted a place in the pantheon of giant-slayers, otherwise unremarkable names remembered in folklore by successive generations. If there is magic in the Cup, the spell is cast by third-round weekend.

This year — as ever — a handful of teams maintained the tradition: Oldham, Newport County and Gillingham beat Premier League opposition. Barnet, of the fifth-tier Conference, overcame Sheffield United, a team in contention for promotion to the Premier League next season.

By those standards, Accrington’s win barely counted as a shock: Ipswich Town is currently last in the Championship, enduring a miserable season.

“It will be F.A. Cup magic if we manage to win,” said Mark Pinkney, an Ipswich fan who had made the journey to Accrington with his father, Harold, and son, James.

The three generations had come to the low hills of Lancashire from England’s southeast coast because they hoped the Cup might provide a little “break” from the league.

That, to many, is precisely the problem. For all that third-round weekend means in the hearts of many English soccer fans, for all the memories it conjures, it is now taken as a truism that it has lost some of its mystique, some of its appeal.

Some fans, like Nick Mills, 43, a Grimsby Town supporter on his way to his team’s meeting with Crystal Palace of the Premier League, blame those teams who prioritize survival in the top flight over a shot at glory.


Watford won at Woking in the third round. To many fans, the chance to glimpse a Premier League opponent up close is still the best part of the third round.CreditDavid Klein/Reuters


Woking’s Kingfield Stadium drew a bigger crowd than usual for the match.CreditCatherine Ivill/Getty Images

“Teams like Palace and Newcastle: they’re the ones that have killed it, the teams where it is about Premier League survival,” he said. “Knocking Palace out would be an upset, but you’re expecting a reserve team.”

Though the upsets still come, Mills is correct: those Premier League teams eliminated this year, as is now generally the case, were lacking most — if not all — of their first-choice players, many of them rested for what the club decided were more important games. Palace made it through, narrowly, in front of 6,000 traveling Grimsby fans, but it did so having made nine changes from its last Premier League game.

Others cast the blame on the Football Association itself: for kick-starting the competition’s demise by allowing Manchester United to opt out in 2000, in favor of playing in that year’s Club World Cup in Brazil; for toying with various ideas — like abolishing replays of tied matches — to bow to the wishes of those Premier League clubs that see the Cup as an unwelcome distraction. This year, the F.A. was fiercely criticized for scheduling games at seemingly random times across the weekend to meet the demands of an international television deal, and using other matches as test runs for a video assistant referee system.

“It’s a wonderful thing, the F.A. Cup,” Holt said. “It needs protecting.”

Wherever the fault, the effects are obvious. At Burnley’s meeting with Barnsley, the Premier League hosts had tried to encourage more fans to come by reducing ticket prices to £10 for adults and £5 for children. Though the visiting team had brought a healthy contingent, Turf Moor, Burnley’s raucous stadium, was noticeably quieter than normal. Swaths of seats remained empty.

Elsewhere, there were weakened teams named not only by the Premier League’s giants and those battling to avoid relegation from the top flight, but by those, like Leicester City, caught in the middle, and with nothing much else to play for. The trend is now mainstream: Championship teams often name weakened sides, too; the prize money on offer even for winning the F.A. Cup pales in comparison to the king’s ransom promotion to the Premier League would bring.

Looked at from a distance, it is hard to see much magic left: teams of reserves contesting games they do not care about in front of half-empty stadiums, for the right to stay in a competition everyone involved sees as an afterthought.


Burnley’s Matej Vydra lined up for a penalty against Barnsley, only to have it overturned by video assistant review. CreditCraig Brough/Reuters

From close-up — at Burnley, at Accrington, at Crystal Palace — over the course of three games in eight hours on third-round Saturday, though, the picture changes. The Cup may not mean what it did; its halcyon days may be gone. But it still matters to some of those involved.

Not just to the teams trying to win it, as proved by the sight of Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager, rendered apoplectic by V.A.R.’s overturning a penalty given to his team just as his striker, Matej Vydra, started his run-up to take it.

But to the fans, too. “You’ll see a lot of kids today,” said Steve Wilkin, a program vendor sneaking glances at Grimsby-Palace at Selhurst Park. “Most of the ones you’ll see won’t be here at Premier League games.”

Cup tickets are cheaper, more accessible; as at Burnley, the demographic inside Selhurst Park on Saturday skewed younger than the economics of English soccer ordinarily allow.

For the Pinkney family and the rest of the 1,200 or so Ipswich fans who had made the 500-mile round trip to Accrington, north of Manchester, it was a chance to touch new territory.

“We’ve never played them before, ever,” Mark Pinkney said. “There’ll be a lot of people here today who want to tick the stadium off the list.”

The F.A. Cup may not have the prestige it once did; the annual discussion of how much better the Cup used to be may now be as much of a fixture of third-round weekend as the shocks and surprises. But it still provides opportunities: to visit new places, to see new teams, to welcome in new fans. It is still a place of possibilities.

“It’s still a thrill for us,” said Holt, back in Accrington.

Holt will have a little longer to cherish that feeling. Accrington will face the winner of a replay between the Southampton and Derby County in the fourth round. It is not quite the money-spinner he had hoped for, but there is more to the F.A. Cup than economics. There are memories to be made.

Tariq Panja reported from London.

Past and Present Collide at Wembley, England’s Spiritual, and Spiritless, Home

LONDON — The paper airplanes were the nadir, floating down from Wembley’s stands and onto the field, confetti for the loveless union between the English national team and the country it represents.

It started during a friendly against Peru in the weeks before the 2014 World Cup. Wanting to give Roy Hodgson’s England team a spectacular send-off on its way to the tournament in Brazil, the Football Association — English soccer’s governing body — had placed pieces of card stock on every seat in the stadium. During the national anthem, the fans were invited to hold them up to form a mosaic of the St. George’s Cross.

That part worked fine. When the game — a soporific 3-0 win for England — failed to capture the fans’ imagination, though, a few creative minds started fiddling with the cards. There were a few test launches, and then, before long, there were squadrons of tiny planes in the sky. One, thrown from the top tier, hit Hansell Riojas, the Peru defender. The stadium erupted. A cellphone video of the throw has more than five million views on YouTube.

England fans launch paper airplanes at Wembley in 2014.CreditCreditVideo by Heather Elizabeth

For a while, after that, airplanes became something of a Wembley tradition: not by any means universally popular, but a way to pass time, to alleviate boredom — a silent protest against the tedium of watching England at the professed home of football. As recently as last year, the cheers for a paper airplane gliding from the stadium’s top tier into the back of Joe Hart’s net were as loud as those for the goal that sent Gareth Southgate’s team to the 2018 World Cup.


One problem with Wembley, opened in 2007, is simply that it is not the Wembley that many remember, and cherish.CreditMike Hewitt/Getty Images

What happened this summer in Russia, of course — those sun-bleached four weeks when it was coming home, everyone was coated in lager, Harry Maguire was a national treasure and waistcoats became de rigueur — has fundamentally altered the dynamic between England’s national team and its public.

Thursday’s meeting with the United States might have the air of a tribute to Wayne Rooney, but the paper airplane fad has passed. England is popular again, for now; international breaks are no longer quite such an unwelcome lacuna in the unfolding drama of the Premier League.

But if reaching a World Cup semifinal for the first time in almost three decades has absolved the team of its perceived sins, the nation’s relationship with Wembley — the backdrop to so many dreary hours, the scene of so many disappointments — remains much more complex.

In April, Shahid Khan, who owns the N.F.L.’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham of the Premier League, made an offer of 800 million pounds (about $1 billion) to buy Wembley from the F.A. His bid had not been solicited; selling the national stadium, rebuilt by the F.A. at a cost of £757 million and only opened in 2007, was not a longstanding plank of policy.

The offer was approved by the F.A. board, but it received a much cooler reception from the organization’s council, a sort of parliament for soccer, in which every level of the game is represented.


A crowd estimated at more than 200,000 spilled onto the field at the 1923 F.A. Cup final at the original Wembley. The match is known as the White Horse final because mounted police officers — including one on a white horse — were used to clear the field for play.CreditCentral Press/Getty Images

“Only a minority of people speak in meetings like that,” said Malcolm Clarke, a member of the council and the chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation (F.S.F). “But the tone of those that did was not supportive. If anything, it was against.”

The council does not have any legal power — its votes are not binding — but had it voted against the sale, it would have been hard for the board to complete the deal. “They called around the various county associations,” said Barry Taylor, the honorary president of the third-tier club Barnsley and a member of the council. “I think they knew they would not have a majority.”

Reading the reception, Khan withdrew his offer in October.

Many were relieved. “Certainly, in my neck of the woods, most people don’t think we should sell,” Taylor said. “As someone said to me, ‘Soon we’ll only have Buckingham Palace left.’” In a survey of 2,000 fans by the F.S.F., 58 percent said the F.A. should never sell Wembley.

That should not be taken, however, as a sign that the stadium itself is beloved. True, there are many who regard Wembley as the spiritual home of English soccer; there are some who regard it as the spiritual home of all soccer. Gordon Banks, the World Cup-winning goalkeeper, described it as the English game’s “crown jewel” when Khan’s offer was first submitted.

But for many, what Clarke called the “mystique” of the stadium has been eroded in recent years. Romance, certainly, was not the dominant force in the discussions held by the council over its sale. “It was more a case of not selling the family silver unless we were absolutely sure it was the right decision, because it was a one-way door,” he said.


The success of Gareth Southgate’s England at the World Cup changed views about the team at home, but he is among those who would prefer it travel to other stadiums for matches from time to time.CreditFrank Augstein/Associated Press

In part, of course, that is because the current Wembley is not the Wembley that many remember, and cherish. “For me, the historic era of Wembley ended when they knocked down the twin towers of the old ground,” said Mark Perryman, a founder of the LondonEnglandFans supporters group.

The new stadium is magnificent, he said, but it is not the same place that hosted “the 1923 F.A. Cup final — the White Horse final — and the 1966 World Cup final, Live Aid and the final of Euro ’96.” It does not possess the emotional resonance that comes with history; nobody ever threw paper airplanes out of boredom at the old Wembley.

It is not simply a case of diminishing reverence, however; there are deeper resentments. In its survey, the F.S.F. also asked fans where England’s national team should play its games. Some 71 percent answered that they should be held around the country, rather than exclusively at Wembley.

“In the years when they were redeveloping it, the games were held in lots of different places, places that would never have expected to hold an England game,” Perryman said. “It was the biggest experiment in devolution of any national institution this country has seen, and it was a huge success.”

There are many, even within the council, who believe England should — like Italy and Spain and the United States, among many others — travel around the nation it represents. One of the strongest arguments in favor of selling Wembley, Clarke said, was that it would eliminate the F.A.’s overpowering financial incentive to play every game there. Sending the team out on the road, some believe, would help the rest of the country feel more of a connection with it.

That, to many, is what lies at the root of the discontent with England and with the stadium that had come to be seen as its avatar. Results were, for a long time, poor; major tournaments ended in disappointment. T he sight of so many empty seats, particularly in the corporate sections, went from being a source of embarrassment to a running joke.

But more than anything, the problem was that Wembley’s location smacked of centralization, of London’s domination of the rest of the country, of its absorption of investment and resources and opportunity.

That imbalance exists in culture and the arts, too, where government spending is heavily skewed toward London and the South East; the fracture between London — as represented by Westminster, England’s political center — and the rest of the country has only deepened in the two years since the Brexit referendum. The decision to rebuild Wembley on its original site — rather than build a new stadium somewhere more central, more accessible — brought the issue into soccer, too.

“We are a divided country, and there is a disconnect between London, this global megacity, and the rest of the country, which feels economically deprived,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford. “Football, like so many industries, tends toward industrial concentration: the conglomeration of power in the hands of a few. London, and Wembley, is emblematic of that corporatization of football.”

For now, wherever England plays, the nation is behind Southgate’s team; success in Russia ensured that. The afterglow will not last forever, though. The F.A. may have recognized that — England played in Leicester and Leeds this year — and Southgate, for one, has voiced his support for taking some home games on the road, strengthening the bond between the players and their people, keeping those paper airplanes at bay.