Tears and boos as Jacko calls off the show: Michael Jackson pleaded illness. David Lister saw the dismay of 72,000 fans

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The announcement came at five past eight, just 10 minutes before he was due to start his spectacular stage show. Most of the fans had been on the pitch since 4.30 in the afternoon; some had queued since dawn to be near the stage.

From the stand I saw rapturously enthusiastic faces turn glum and dejected. Not since West Germany equalised against England in the 1966 World Cup can such a hush have descended upon the packed Wembley Stadium.

Michael Jackson's right-hand man, Barry Collins, told the 72,000 crowd: 'I have a very important announcement to make. Michael Jackson has been taken ill in his hotel room and will not be performing.'

There was some laughter and a few ironic cheers. Pop-show humour is notoriously dismal and this seemed like a run-of-the-mill stunt to warm the audience up.

Half an hour earlier the compere had told the audience to wave to Jackson, who was backstage videoing them. This was clearly pop-show hype, but it did not ease the crowd's confusion.

Mr Collins was seen, on the large screens by the stage, to be smiling. But when he again grew serious and told children waiting to be picked up to go to the back of the pitch, even the most sceptical began to realise that the event they had waited for all year was not going to happen. There was a rash of booing and then people began to file out quietly.

A spokeswoman for Jackson's record company, Sony, said: 'He has never cancelled a show before. Ticket holders should keep their tickets.'

Jackson may arrange another show. But for many, the money spent yesterday - tickets ranged from pounds 22.50 to pounds 50, plus the cost of transport from all over England, and pounds 10 for a programme, and drinks on a humid afternoon - may well rule out making the journey again.

Beverley Cronin, 28, of Loughborough, Leicestershire, a lifelong fan, said: 'I am desperately disappointed but also disgusted. I have paid for transport and babysitters. There is no way I can come again.'

A London couple who broke off their Spanish holiday for the concert said young fans were left 'crying and very upset' when they heard Jackson would not appear.