Happy birthday Wembley!
Looking back at 100 years of the world's most iconic stadium
When you think of places that help define the nation, some instinctively leap to mind: Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament…and Wembley Stadium.
This year the stadium celebrates its 100th birthday, during which time it has been the main pivot point of football history in England – and for numerous other occasions, all etched into our shared heritage.
Yes, the stadium was rebuilt and re-opened in 2007, but its position in the national psyche remains unchanged from the day it opened its doors on Saturday April 28th 1923.
The stadium was built as the centrepoint of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25 and for many years was known as the ‘Empire Stadium’. It was built in 300 days and cost £750,000.
Although it had held The FA Cup Final to vast crowds in 1923, the Exhibition for which the stadium had been built was financially disappointing, sending the stadium into liquidation. Demolition was recommended. Step forward Arthur Elvin, who saw its potential and raised the funds to keep it open. Apart from football, he relied in the growing popularity of greyhound racing to keep the finances ticking over.
Wembley had truly gone to the dogs – and been saved by them!
Football in England now had a permanent HQ, where the national team played and The FA Cup Final was staged. Wembley’s ‘twin towers’ and its ‘hallowed turf’ soon entered the national lexicon, reflecting the personal glory of appearing there.
History-making moments started to unfold. The first FA Cup Final became known as the ‘White Horse Final’ when white police horse Billy helped clear the pitch of fans before the game could kick-off.
Four years later, 1927 saw ‘Abide With Me’ become a pre-FA Cup Final hymn which remains to this day. The same final was the first to be broadcast live on the radio. It also saw the only time a non-English team has lifted the famous trophy – Cardiff City beating Arsenal 1-0.
11 years later, in 1938, saw the first live TV broadcast of The FA Cup Final, before the dark days of WW2 enforced a sporting hiatus.
Fortress England and more FA Cup magic
Either side of WW2, Wembley firmly established itself as the home of the men’s senior England team. It was a home where England remained undefeated for 30 years before Hungary – the ‘Mighty Magyars’ – inflicted a 6-3 defeat in November 1953.
Earlier in the same year saw the famous ‘Matthews Final’ where 38-year-old Stanley Matthews finally picked up an FA Cup winners’ medal in Blackpool’s 4-3 win over Bolton Wanderers.
Of course, the men’s senior England team’s finest moment was yet to come. 13 years on and Wembley witnessed Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy. 1966 and England were world champions.
Wembley remains the home of England to this day – the men’s and women’s senior teams.
Major tournaments and events
Apart from the 1966 FIFA World Cup, Wembley has been a host venue for two men’s UEFA EURO tournaments – in 1996 and 2021. England were semi-finalists in the former and beaten finalists in the latter. However, last year Wembley saw the England senior women’s team – the Lionesses – go one step further and become European champions. Cue national joy.
At club level, to date Wembley has hosted seven UEFA Champions League Finals – more than any other venue. As a belated birthday present it will hold an eighth final in 2024.
Away from football, Wembley has been a venue for two Olympic Games. It was the main stadium for the 1948 Olympics, hosting the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the track and field events. More recently, it hosted the men’s and women’s gold medal matches in the London 2012 Olympics.
And there’s more, much more
Away from football, Wembley has hosted rugby matches of both codes and was a venue for the 2015 Rugby (Union) World Cup finals’ tournament.
World title boxing fights, NFL clashes, speedway, show-jumping, Gaelic football, hurling, motorsport – and even a world record stunt attempt – Wembley has seen it all. And yes, lots of greyhound racing.
Wembley is also a world-renowned music venue. Since the first stadium gig in July 1969, some of the musical greats have graced its stage: Madonna, Queen, Beyoncé, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, U2 and in more recent times, Adele, Take That, The Killers, BTS and Harry Styles. There are so many more.
But arguably Wembley’s finest musical moment was hosting the never-to-be-forgotten multi-act Live Aid concert in 1985. There were 70,000 fans in the stadium and along with the other Live Aid stage at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, the concert was broadcast live to more than one billion people across 110 countries.
Rebuild and rebirth
As the 20th century drew to a close, it was clear the original stadium was no longer fit for purpose. A new millennium needed a modern national stadium to confidently embrace the future. And so in 2002, the twin towers were no more, and five years on a new Wembley adorned the London cityscape.
As in 1923, the first major event at the new Wembley was The FA Cup Final. The 2007 Final saw Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 and a new era dawned. This era was halted for two years for spectators during the global Covid-19 pandemic, but 2022 saw a return to full capacity for sporting and musical events. Sell-out has followed sell-out.
Today’s Wembley is a 90,000 all-seater stadium capped by an arch that’s 133 metres tall at its highest point. At 315 metres, it’s the world’s longest single-span roof support structure. Lifts, escalators and huge hospitality areas put it in the top rank of stadiums anywhere in the world.
But there’s one word that separates it from every other venue – and that word is…Wembley.