FA risks transport chaos to protect World Cup bid

England game goes ahead with reduced capacity due to upheaval of Tube strike
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The Independent Online

The Football Association refused to allow England's 2018 World Cup bid to be damaged by playing tonight's World Cup qualifier against Andorra without fans present despite the prospect of transport chaos around Wembley. The match will take place with the expected 70,000 fans unable to use Wembley Park station, which will be closed because of the Tube strike.

The first home England game since the 2018 bid was launched last month will go ahead against the backdrop of a public transport nightmare as the FA rejected the possibility of playing the game behind closed doors. The governing body, however, has promised to refund the ticket of any supporter who decides they cannot face the road gridlock and probable packed trains to Wembley Central.

There were suggestions that the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, would attend the match which would have potentially been a public relations disaster for the 2018 bid, but he is unable to come. Fortunately for the 2018 bid team, the only member of Fifa present at Wembley tonight from the all-powerful executive committee will be the former FA chairman Geoff Thompson whose support they have already secured.

Nevertheless, the FA took the choice that it could not stop supporters attending just because of the 48-hour strike by the RMT union over pay. The FA is under no legal obligation to refund tickets but has done so because it believes it is the right thing to do. The FA chief executive, Ian Watmore, admitted that the game was going on "in the face of adversity".

David Beckham is expected to start tonight in a central midfield role in place of the suspended Gareth Barry. Gary Neville and Peter Crouch are expected to replace Glen Johnson and Emile Heskey who are one booking away from suspension for the next qualifier, against Croatia on 9 September.

Guests of honour at the game will be the 11 members of the 1966 World Cup winning squad who did not play in the final at Wembley 43 years ago. Fifa changed the rules on non-playing squad members two years ago and the 11 players will receive their medals at a ceremony at 10 Downing Street today. Jimmy Armfield, one of the 11, said yesterday: "I don't care what the chaos is and I'm sure the other lads will feel thesame. We have waited a long time for this and we will be there in London."

The threat of the strike, which began last night, has already meant that the crowd has been capped at 70,000 – 20,000 short of capacity – because of the requirements to obtain a safety certificate from Brent Council. That has meant a loss of revenue for the FA, which has a carefully structured repayment plan that relies upon England games on the £757m stadium.

The turnstiles will be opened earlier, at 5.45pm, and trains will still run to Wembley Central – a 15-minute walk to the ground – but Watmore warned supporters that "their journey would be disrupted". However, the FA has decided that it is better to take the inconvenience of tonight rather than set the precedent that matches are at the mercy of industrial action – which could count against the 2018 bid. Last night, sources at the 2018 bid said that they did not feel it would affect their chances and the threat of industrial action was just as likely in competing countries such as Spain or Australia. The technical bid document is not due to be submitted until May next year.

John Terry said that, despite England facing one of the weakest opponents the national side has ever played, the team were "excited" about winning their first seven World Cup qualifiers. "To go seven out of seven, we've not done that before as a group," the captain said. "It's something we're all excited about. It's the last game of the season, so we want to finish well."

In typical forthright fashion, Fabio Capello said that just because it was Andorra that did not mean that England were under any obligation to put on a show. "The players are not under pressure to deliver a special performance," he said. "I just want them to play a good game."

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