Wembley arch was lit too often – FA’s sensible approach finally gives clarity

The Wembley arch is lit up with the Italian colours after the Euro 2020 final between Italy and England on July 11th 2021
The Wembley arch will only be lit up for sporting or entertainment reasons from now on - Alamy Stock Photo

When Wembley Stadium’s giant arch was lit in October 2006 for Diwali, the Hindu and Sikh festival of light, no one expected that years later the idea of illuminating it would become so complex and controversial.

The proposal, even before the new Wembley had opened, actually came not from the Football Association but from the stadium’s architect, Lord Foster, as a tribute to the local community, and it was an extraordinarily striking sight across the London skyline.

Little wonder it encouraged requests for the arch to be lit more frequently – for causes, disasters, tragedies and other events.

There were commemorations for earthquakes, train crashes, floods and the deaths of famous football figures, although it became increasingly complicated. Suddenly the FA began to veer into geo-politics and campaigns.

Unfortunately for the governing body it also meant the biggest mistake it made was not in failing to light up the Wembley arch following the Hamas atrocities in Israel 17 years later, but having illuminated it so readily in the past.

The organisation understandably believed it was doing the right thing by responding to a variety of causes away from football, but it now found itself in a position where there was an expectation for it to happen for various reasons, and that was always going to create difficulties.

It was lit with good intentions and for all kinds of issues and causes, from Breast Cancer Awareness to the Rainbow Laces campaign, to the death of Pele, to NHS workers and front-line staff during the pandemic, to the blue and yellow colours of the Ukraine flag after the Russian invasion.

It was also illuminated following the Bataclan massacre in November 2015, when 90 people were murdered at a Paris nightclub, and this was referenced by the Board of Deputies of British Jews when the FA did not light the arch following the Hamas terror attack which left many more people dead and has led to a horrifying toll throughout the region.

Not lighting the arch caused a huge amount of anger and upset – something the FA has recognised and, through its chief executive Mark Bullingham, apologised for.

Given the precedents the FA had set, the arch should have been illuminated, although there were hugely sensitive issues surrounding England’s friendly match against Australia and not least their demands for neutral language in statements and the fact that they were due to play Palestine in a World Cup qualifier.

The matter was not just up to the FA, and that fact has often been overlooked in the criticism – although they could have lit the arch in the run-up to the game. But even then there was concern at the image being beamed around the world and what that might lead to.

Downing Street, government buildings and London’s City Hall were illuminated in Israel’s blue and white.

Bullingham was right to review the policy, and following an FA board meeting that has led to the lighting of the arch being limited to football and entertainment which, it should be remembered, are Wembley’s two main purposes.

Although charities and causes might feel they will miss out, it is a clearer, less contentious and more sensible policy. It fundamentally feels like the right decision, especially as the FA bore the brunt of the criticism for sport’s response simply because it has the 133-metre arch and has used it in the past.

As Bullingham also said, football was the only sport talked about in this way, particularly when there were rugby union and cricket World Cups taking place at that time, and although this might be because of its power and reach, it has led to confusion and unnecessary hurt.

In effect the FA had no choice but to decide to limit the lighting in future, because after the scale of the row over Israel, the next time it was lit for a cause would have reopened the debate and caused even more pain. And the whole point of lighting it in the first place was as a symbol of unity.

Unfortunately the row has meant the arch had become something of a ‘political football’ and that needed to stop. Quite frankly, it was being lit too often and not always for the right reasons and there was also the danger of it becoming caught in “whataboutery” – with accusations being levelled over when it did and did not happen.

The FA has extended its policy to cover “EDI” – equality, diversity and inclusion – not because it is turning its back on such causes and campaigns, but because it has to have a workable solution. And so limiting it to football and entertainment, the core uses of Wembley, makes sense and keeps it not only stripped-back but crystal clear.

There will be those who see the decision as a moment when football began to step back from politics and from causes. Given its reach and relevance that is unlikely to happen, but it makes sense for an organisation such as the FA, having reflected, to implement a policy which is far more justifiable and sensible.

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