By Andi Thomas
Wembley FC are a bit of an oddity: a team far less famous than a stadium they can see but don’t play in. Formed in 1946, they currently play in the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League, the ninth tier of English football, and perhaps the most notable result in their history came in the semi-final of the 1987/88 Middlesex Senior Charity Cup. That 2-1 win over Brentford remains their only victory over league opposition.
But things are looking up. In March this year, the club signed a new sponsorship deal with fourth-worst-beer-in-the-world Budweiser, which brought with it both the promise of significant infrastructural improvement and the appointment of former England manager and noted crooner Terry Venables as “technical advisor”. Then, last week, Budweiser and Wembley persuaded a motley clutch of former internationals—Graeme Le Saux, Ray Parlour, and Martin Keown of England, Brian McBride of the USA, and Claudio Caniggia of Argentina—to fetch their boots from the loft and emerge from retirement. Another former England player, David Seaman, will join as goalkeeping coach.
The wrinkle is that these reanimated corpses will only represent Wembley in the FA Cup; or, to give the venerable competition its full, noble title, the FA Cup with Budweiser. So Budweiser’s attention-grabbing act of generosity stretches only as far as those fixtures in which is has a vested interest. You have to admire the simplicity of the manoeuvre: at a stroke, this boosts the profile of the early rounds of the FA Cup, and so boosts the exposure that is, at heart, the point of sponsorship.
What’s the harm, though? McBride won’t be lifting the shiny silver thing in May; Le Saux won’t be getting another winners’ medal. It might even be fun. ESPN are making a documentary, which will doubtless overflow with ribald and thoroughly manly banter, yet reveal hard truths about the nature of competition and the value of teamwork and togetherness. There’ll probably be a montage at the end, and a thousand anecdotes about nutmegging Caniggia will bloom. Why worry?
While there’s no guarantee of performance, it’s safe to assume that both Budweiser and Wembley are expecting the players to perform better than those they will be replacing, and as such, this amounts to a brutishly crude act of competition doping. The players are effectively ringers, employed and deployed to ensure that Budweiser’s team progress as possible through Budweiser’s competition, making as much noise as possible along the way. Their opponents, however, play the unhappy role of supporting actors, for whatever the result, the story will be about Wembley’s, and Budweiser’s, geriatricos.
This is just another in a long line of indignities for the FA Cup. In recent years the sharp end of the competition has become increasingly moribund: the same parade of winners (bar Portsmouth, which went well); the weakened teams; the final being shunted to the early evening to make way for the all-consuming Premier League. Now, the competitive integrity of the early rounds has been compromised, and for all that Ray Parlour may assert that “grassroots football is essential to the lifeblood of the game“, it’s tough to discern any lasting, long-term benefit for lower-league football as a whole from the stunt.
You can’t blame Budweiser, who are simply doing what companies do, and pursuing maximal exposure in the hope of maximising revenue. Nor can you really blame Wembley; as manager Ian Bates pointed out: “A year ago we were playing in front of an empty grandstand and the clubhouse was falling down”. But the response from the FA—”It’s not an FA matter. It’s a separate sponsorship deal”—is somewhere south of disheartening. Budweiser are boosting the competitive power and profile of a team specifically for a competition they sponsor, which isn’t so much separate as explicitly conjoined. One suspects the FA mightn’t be quite so sanguine were Barclays to somehow procure Lionel Messi for Manchester United’s league campaign.
Lurking behind the (really, really, really) obvious conflict of interest is a wider (though slightly distinct) point about sponsorship in general. It is crucial for the integrity of the sport that sponsors are kept at one remove from the game itself. As an illustration, recall the rumours—for the record: denied, never substantiated, and apparently untrue—that it was Nike who insisted that (the original) Ronaldo start the 1998 World Cup final, despite his overnight fit and absence from the original teamsheet.
Now imagine if they had been true: if Mario Zagallo had made a choice in the best interests of his team, only to be overruled in favour of the best interests of some shoe salesmen. There is something deeply unsettling about the idea that an external agency can, through the application of financial muscle or the threat of withdrawal of same, exert direct control over the actual sporting bits of sport. While sponsors—or “commercial partners”, as is the preferred term—doubtless exert all kinds of undesirable pressures out of the public eye, for an arrangement as overt as Budweiser’s revenant-parade to be waved through is profoundly troubling.
Ultimately, any victory accrued by this veteranised Wembley will be the result of competitive manipulation for financial gain, and so more-or-less worthless in any wider, non-financial scheme of things. Should Wembley make a run deep into the competition, it will not be a traditional story of cup heroism: fortune, courage and skill married in happy, breathless alchemy. Nor will it be a modern adventure, which dials down those three elements in favour of liberal splurges of cashmoney. It will be an advertising campaign; nothing more, nothing less. By the time one of Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea get around to lifting the trophy, it will have been an FA Cup not just with Budweiser, but for Budweiser and by Budweiser as well.