Plenty of football-mad cities are yet to host major tournaments or finals, but FIFA and UEFA are increasingly indifferent to passionate fanbases
15 December ~ Japan absolutely deserves the Club World Cup. Toyota’s sponsorship and Tokyo’s hosting saved its predecessor, the violence-riddled Intercontinental Cup. Yet staging it in Yokohama and Osaka helps to explain why the UK’s major broadcasters are again ignoring this week’s tournament.
Despite co-hosting a World Cup and providing players for top European sides, Japan only loves football as much as it loves basketball, rugby union and 1950s rock ’n’ roll. Baseball is its favourite western sport. It’s not a European fan’s idea of a ”traditional football nation”.
Yet when it comes to hosting finals, both club and international, those running the game seem increasingly indifferent to passionate fanbases and areas with a rich football heritage. In October new UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin suggested staging the Champions League final outside Europe.
His first example of a possible host city wasn’t from Africa or South America – known as football-loving continents. It was New York. This seemed particularly crass when, from Nottingham and Birmingham to Marseille and Bucharest, cities which have provided European champion clubs have yet to host this final.
However, New York has won as many European Cups as this season’s Champions League final hosts, Cardiff. At least four other sports are more mainstream in the US, but only Euro 2016 success confirmed football as the co-national sport of rugby-loving Wales. And the US national team have gone further in World Cups – semis in 1930, quarter-finals in 2002 – than most countries in “football crazy” Europe and South America.
There is immense pride in one’s local area being known for its football. Football punters tend to prefer it’s known for little else. Kaiserslautern fans must be perversely chuffed that their team gets an entire page in The Rough Guide To European Football but the town isn’t even mentioned in The Rough Guide To Germany, which is twice as long.
Yet this year’s seminal Premier League title and Champions League progress barely begins to put Leicester City’s English and European achievements on a par with Leicester Tigers in rugby union. This doesn’t make Leicester a rugby city any more than Andy Murray’s successes make Scotland a tennis nation.
For much of the 20th century capital cities, which inevitably have more attractions than football, seemed better at hosting big games than winning them. The misapprehension that the capital of the Netherlands was The Hague, rather than Ajax’s home city of Amsterdam, meant many believed Real Madrid and Benfica (Lisbon) were the only European champions from a capital city until Steaua Bucharest in 1986. It fed the notion that association football thrives best in places of economic hardship.
So it fits that Liverpool, arguably Margaret Thatcher’s least favourite city and the hardest hit during her reign as prime minister – 1979 to 1990 – was home to all but two of the English League titles won in that period. Everton and Liverpool share nine major UEFA honours, yet neither Anfield nor Goodison Park has hosted a major European final.
Tiny, oil-rich Qatar’s selection as hosts for 2022 confirmed the lie in FIFA’s stated policy of staging World Cups in “non-traditional” football nations to spread the sport’s appeal. But it was also the end-point of a relationship with hosts which began with Uruguay getting the first World Cup because few others wanted it.
Since Scotland, football’s first foreign country, staged the first international in 1872, the game has continually found newer, more enthusiastic homes which leave the old heartlands looking like insular snobs. As ticket prices become more middle class, it’s inevitable that richer nations, even capital cities, will flourish: Germany are the most successful economic and footballing power in Europe; Arsenal became the first London club to reach the European Cup final in 2006, seven years before Chelsea became the first English side to have won all three European competitions.
While expat Scots helped their 1930 side reach the first World Cup semis, the 2002 US national team were denied a semi-final by the incompetence of a Scottish referee – named (Hugh) Dallas. Scotland have never gone past the first round of any tournament.
Ceferin may have questioned FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s proposals for a 48-team World Cup, just as everyone bemoaned the infrastructure problems in Brazil 2014. But the fans in the grounds no longer count.
Euro 2020, to be staged in 13 different nations, is football’s first open admission that the only hosts it cares about are host broadcasters. The only country which matters is television. And the fans being courted are the ones in their armchair watching only their own country and making the entire number of games, and their location, almost irrelevant. Alex Anderson