London — The massive stadium isn’t the same as it was, having been renovated from 2002 through 2007, but it still carries the magic name. To walk into Wembley is to feel the weight of history, and not just sporting history.
As much as I admire the English brand of football, the first name that springs to mind when I think of Wembley isn’t Geoff Hurst (who scored a hat trick, sort of, in England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final), or Paul Gascoigne (the most gifted English footballer of his generation who scored a wonder goal off a free kick against Arsenal in the 1991 FA Cup semifinal and then wrecked his knee attempting a silly tackle in the final), or Gareth Southgate (the unfortunate defender whose lot it was to miss his penalty against West Germany in the Euro 1996 semi).
For me, the name that defines Wembley is Freddie Mercury.
I wasn’t much of a Queen fan. (I own exactly one of their albums, that on vinyl.) When the band took the Wembley stage on July 13, 1985 — it was the day of Live Aid, also ongoing at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia — I expected not very much. (U2 had provided the highlight to that point with an epic version of “Bad,” and this was the young and hungry U2, as opposed to the preening world-domination crew we see today.) In those 21 minutes of Queen, I saw — and if you saw it, you know what I mean — the most powerful musical performance ever televised.
Queen started with a shortish version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song I’ve never liked, and then barreled into “Radio Ga Ga.” And that’s when everything changed. One little man in sneakers and jeans and a white tank top took hold of the 80,000 folks in Wembley and the millions viewing worldwide and showed us how forceful this crazy little thing called rock can be.
The low-camera views from the back of the stadium were astonishing. Mercury was singing and leading the crowd in the double handclaps of “Radio Ga Ga,” and every pair of hands was raised overhead and clapping bang on cue. It was, and this isn’t a word I use lightly, an awesome sight.
By the end of the 21 minutes — the closers were “We Will Rock You” followed by “We Are The Champions,” naturally — the star-spangled Live Aid had been stolen by Queen. Led Zeppelin reformed for the day and played out of tune. Bob Dylan closed the American portion being accompanied by Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, and the three were clearly soused. I would never have believed before that day that if there’d be one musical performance I’d watch over and over — and I have, many times — it would have involved Freddie Mercury and Queen, but that’s how it is. On that day and to this day, they were the champions of the world.
The greatest sporting moment this famous stadium has seen came on July 30, 1996. England beat West Germany in extra time to give the nation that considers itself the cradle of football (their kind) its only World Cup, though the Germans have always smelled a rat. Hurst’s second goal — the eventual winner — smacked off the crossbar and crashed down on the goal line. Soccer rules maintain that for a goal to be scored, all the ball must cross all the line. The Germans insisted that it hadn’t, and — decades later — modern technology would prove them correct.
There was no replay review in 1966. The referee consulted linesman Tofiq Bakramov, who would be known forever as “the Russian linesman.” (Technically he was from Azerbaijan.) Bakramov emphatically OK’ed the goal. In one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, it’s said that he was asked on his deathbed how he knew the goal was good. “Stalingrad,” he’s alleged to have responded.
Soon would follow the English version of “The Giants win the pennant!” from the British commentator Kenneth Wostenholme, whose description of the game’s final seconds went: “Some people (meaning fans) are on the pitch. They think it’s all over.” At that moment, Hurst scored again with the last kick of the match, prompting Wostenholme to say: “It is now!”
OK, I apologize for all this history. You probably want to know about the Falcons, who play the Lions.. (Here’s what I know: The Falcons need to win if they’re to make anything of the season, but the Lions would appear the better team.) But to me, the setting is bigger than the game. It’s a treat to be in a place where so much history has been made, and the Birds make a bit of their own today, so much the better.
With that, the figurative floor is again open. I’ll check back periodically, and I welcome your company. And I thank you, as ever, in advance.