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Wembley World Cup final 2030: reckoning

The bodies have been counted and identified and taken away from Wembley Stadium. England – because the other home nations neither want nor deserve to be associated with the catastrophic 2030 World Cup final at Wembley, the English national stadium – is now doing what it is good at; public relations after a disaster, promising to learn lessons, to do better next time.

The details have been well publicised; they caused the prime minister to make the unprecedented decision of forfeiting to Argentina the World Cup. The match was cancelled after the toxic coming together – separately, but at the same time and place – of hooliganism and terrorism. For those who wanted to take the PM’s lead, you could even salvage from that gesture some pride; that England was special.

All the elements were predictable because they had happened before: the suicide bomber (numerous, in England and the rest of Europe; and outside the Stade de France in Paris in 2015) at the Tube station; the thousands of mainly young men who regardless of the known terror threat all their lives did their utmost to storm the stadium and enter without tickets (as most obvious at the 2021 Euros final, but in truth at any big game at Wembley, such as an FA Cup final); and the marauding knife attackers. They came together most grotesquely (for those who had the unenviable job of logging and removing the dead) on escalators inside, killed in a crush, including a minor royal, 38th in line to the throne of King Charles III.

What took England to a new low, morally and reputationally, was the beating to death in a toilet of two Argentinians, a father and his 11-year-old son, who were at the match for the boy’s birthday present. In the chaos of that day, the authorities had found enough time and resources to seal off the toilet and clamp down on any mention of that murder – and seek to hide the crime by adding the bodies to those at the escalators. It has emerged that it took a prime ministerial decision to break the secrecy – and that a vote had to be taken in cabinet, and that the vote was 15-8 in favour. Despite demands to know which eight ministers wanted to hide the truth, cabinet secrecy has prevailed. In fact as with all avoidable losses of life – Hillsborough, Grenfell – those in authority have done their utmost to avoid responsibility and anyone’s loss of career and pension.

Criticism is easy with hindsight. But it had all happened before. In fact the 2021 disorder at Wembley, when thousands tried to gate-crash, and about 2000 succeeded, was not a ‘perfect storm’ as the Baroness Casey review put it, but quite the opposite. Thankfully due to covid social distancing restrictions, in 2021 thousands of seats were untaken that the gate-crashers could sit in without further disorder. The pandemic had also meant few overseas fans attended, taking away the nationalist excuse for England fans to fight foreigners; even the fathers of most of the 2030 gate-crashers had not been around when Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Despite the solemn promises to learn lessons, nothing changed. How could it? Football had denied ever since the 1960s that hooliganism was its problem. It was society’s. Football had a point; except that thousands of ticketless athletics fans did not try to gate-crash the 2012 Olympics to watch the men’s 100 metres final. In truth any large event, whether a music concert, a theatre performance or a sporting tournament, can only go ahead peacefully in a civilised society. It is no coincidence that the Colosseum was in ancient Rome (and on the fringes of the Empire in the likes of Chester and St Albans) and not before. The civilised deal was that only paying customers entered, and those in authority in return provided a seat that was not too crowded. Those not with the money to enter had to stay outside.

That civic agreement by 2021 had broken down, at least in England. Football had long had a culture of anti-social behaviour, of some fans doing their best to get in without permission. Wembley in 2021 and 2030 – and numerous times in between – saw too many people break the civic compact for those in uniform, police or private security, to cope with. Just as Hillsborough in 1989 had excellent security and safety for its time, so did Wembley. But biometric authentication, video surveillance, or any whizzo security tool is no defence against the mischievous or malicious deliberately opening a fire door to let in the ticketless; as happened in 2021.

The 9-11 Commission had concluded that the United States’ failure to halt the suicide jet hijackers in 2001 had been a failure of the imagination; if you cannot believe that terrorists would fly a plane into a skyscraper or the Pentagon, how can you try to prevent it? The 2021 and 2030 Wembley failures and many others around mass events were rather failures by those in authority – such sa the police and politicians, but also among the public and generally – to face reality, and to be level and transparent.

It’s a basic of criminal justice that you deter wrong-doing by punishing the guilty. Yet on the day of the 2021 Euro final, like any big game at Wembley, for hours before criminal acts were all around outside the ground – drug-taking, urinating in the street, petty and mindless assaults on anyone weak-looking. If police were ever to arrest all or even a fair number of those criminals, the rest might think twice. But it’s never done, never even considered, because to arrest and process hundreds or thousands of the anti-social would take far more police than could be raised. Even if by an extraordinary effort you had enough agents of the state (soldiers as constables?), the state would not have the means to detain the arrested, or cells to hold them. The contrast with the riots and looting around English cities of August 2011 – when courts swiftly and harshly punished rioters – was painful.

Someone has noticed (eventually) that someone has added a tear to the Bobby Moore statue outside Wembley. Those that remember the 1966 World Cup final win, and the now elderly in general, remember a time when England was decent. They wonder when and why it went so very wrong.


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