Old Wembley Stadium hosted events for 77 years. From FA Cup Finals to The Ashes to The Olympics to Live Aid to WWE, those two iconic towers served as the pillars that held up the foundations of the earth for the better part of a decade. But it was perhaps best known as the home of the England national football team. Wembley served as the stage for England’s most memorable clashes with its greatest rival, Germany— it held both England’s biggest triumph and its most dismal defeat.
It was fitting, then, that the last match to be held at Old Wembley was between England and Germany. The result, in retrospect, seems rather fitting as well.
This week we look back at the final match played at Wembley Stadium, 16 years ago tomorrow.
It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a special farewell friendly to bid adieu to the stadium. This was a World Cup Qualifier. And it came on the heels of a disastrous Euro 2000 campaign, in which England and Germany were in the same group and both failed to qualify for the knockout rounds. So in addition to the qualifying tournament, both teams had chips on their shoulders.
It’s also worth noting England manager Kevin Keegan’s state of mind heading into the game. The former Liverpool and Newcastle United hero had recently lost his mother, and was still clearly in a state of grief as he walked into Wembley that day. On top of that, he was under immense pressure from the FA following England’s poor showing at Euro 2000. To make matters worse, Keegan’s teamsheet was leaked to the Germans before kickoff, which left the manager positively apoplectic. A loss at home against the Germans, with the World Cup on the line, at the last match at Wembley, would’ve been too much.
And of course, the game itself was a disaster. Liverpool’s own Dietmar Hamann scored for the Germans in the 14th minute off a free kick. The visitors couldn’t muster up anything more in the attack, but they didn’t really need to. A team that included Michael Owen, David Beckham, and Andy Cole somehow couldn’t find the back of the net in 90 minutes of play.
And that was that. Soon after the whistle blew for full time, Keegan tendered his resignation. Beckham, Tony Adams, and former BBC broadcaster David Davies pleaded with Keegan in the toilets at Wembley to stay on, but there was no changing his mind. Howard Wilkinson, the caretaker manager who succeeded Keegan, would later controversially suggest that perhaps World Cup qualification was aiming a bit too high for this squad.
Everything worked out for both teams as far as qualifying was concerned— England won the group, level on points with Germany but ahead on goal difference, thanks, in part to the English getting revenge on Germany in the return leg 5-1. The Germans ended up winning their playoff against Ukraine by an aggregate score of 5-2.
Wembley remained standing for another two years before demolition finally began, and the last of the rubble fell in 2003. The new stadium was opened in 2007 and, once they moved in, England went on a brief unbeaten streak for its first few fixtures. They lost their first game in August of that year to— you guessed it— Germany.
England continue their World Cup Qualifying journey on Saturday when they host Malta at the new Wembley. They’ll do so without a manager and with lots of questions hanging over the squad (and their captain in particular). But England have been through worse. And in any event, their struggles are as much a part of their history as their triumphs. New Wembley was made with stubborn leather and is still being broken in; they’ll need plenty of high and low moments in order to make it as much their home as the old one.