FREE MOVEMENT of people is one of the basic rights across the European Union, allowing cross-border travel and employment opportunities. It has many benefits, some of which will become apparent to the United Kingdom’s population when the country does stumble uncomfortably out of the EU. While this has opened-up the world, or at least part of it, to young football fans and businesses, it has also created choice for the consumer.
The world got smaller and access to it has expanded considerably over the past 20 years. Budget airlines made the weekend hop to any destination in Europe that much easier and affordable. Furthermore, just as relevant is the absorption of football via TV and mobile devices, with the curious addict now able to watch anyone or anything, in any place.
The Budapest-based football fan, who may have automatically supported Fradi or Ujpest in the past, is just as likely to follow Barca or Bayern as one of the many Hungarian capital city clubs.
The pundits and marketing folk would have you believe football has never been more popular, that the product is exciting, engaging and the most spectacular sport on earth. Look at the attendances, they say, the shirt sales, the social media activity, the queues for season tickets, despite constantly rising prices.
But. And it’s a big but. Football may be prospering at the highest level in the highest leagues, but the eco-system, as a whole, is as hazard-strewn as the world’s climate.
Football in the big five European leagues continues to be a cash cow, but it could well be that attendances have peaked, either because stadium utilisation cannot grow unless extra tiers are added to football grounds, or that there just isn’t enough people interested in attending a game in person. We may have reached saturation point, certainly in the UK.
In 2018-19, the Premier League (Av. 38,181), La Liga (26,835) and Bundesliga (43,441) all saw average attendances decline, albeit slightly. France (22,836) and Italy (25,258), the two countries with the most upside, experienced increases of 1.3% and 2.2% respectively and Germany’s decline (- 2.4%) may have been attributable to the loss of well supported clubs like Köln and Hamburg. Overall, there’s not too much to worry about in the top five competitions, the Premier and Bundesliga figures will rise again.
There are more concerns about some of the other leagues outside of the top bracket. The Netherlands, despite the resurgence of Ajax, had a fall of 5.7% as Eredivisie gates dropped to an average of 17,998 – the lowest since 2005-06. This may have been partly due to the relegation of FC Twente, traditionally one of the better supported Dutch sides. Portugal also suffered, with a decline of 2.1% to 11,692. Sporting Lisbon’s attendances went down by 22% to around 34,000 while their neighbours, Benfica continued to attract 20,000 more per home game.
Precious few European leagues can attract five figures. Aside from the aforementioned, only Turkey (14,088), Russia (16,723), Scotland (15,990), Switzerland (11,273) and Belgium (10,635) draw over 10,000.
Countries that were once prominent football nations are generating very disappointing attendances. While Austria (6,373), Czech Republic (5,539), Denmark (6,562), Greece (5,416) and Poland (8,808) are all above the 5,000 mark, others like Bulgaria (1,881), Hungary (3,306), Romania (3,425) and Croatia (2,659) all struggle to live-up to the nation’s heritage.
Moreover, clubs that were among Europe’s most well-known in pre-Glasnost days are now poorly supported: Steaua Bucharest, in their current guise, attract almost 7,000 regulars, while CSKA Sofia barely make 5,000. Honved, the club of Puskas, has an average of less than 2,000.
All over the continent, the poor relations of European football leagues struggle to attract crowds and prise people away from their armchairs or bars where they can watch Barcelona, Real Madrid and the rest of the European elite clubs. We live in an era where the superficial is the norm, where Facebook, Instagram and Twitter images portray lifestyles that are glamorous, interesting and photo-shopped.
The grimy, earthy and very real are not fashionable, hence football fans are attracted to the colourful world occupied by Cristiano Ronaldo’s six-pack and finely sculptured face and the incredibly white teeth of Jürgen Klopp. If the bulge bracket clubs had their way, the game would be all about them (it almost is today), but the irony of it all is that the football-supporting public, in the main, is also assisting this very polarised scenario. When we all become citizens of the world, we have choice, but in enjoying the luxury of choice, we will, quite naturally, gravitate towards the shiny. Sadly, some clubs – and countries – can easily get forgotten.