Every tournament's the same – not enough tickets. But as Mark Perryman explains, it's far from a uniquely English problem and thanks to FIFA it's getting worse

The last time England qualified for a tournament hosted in Germany, the 1988 European Championship, just 7,500 fans travelled from this country. Two years later not many more were there to support the team when West Germany beat England in the World Cup semi-final in Turin. In 2004 an astonishing 45,000 England fans helped pack out Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz for what was just the opening group game at the European Championship, against France.

With this kind of growth in the numbers of travelling England supporters for tournaments, unsurprisingly demand for tickets is proving impossible to satisfy. World Cup 2006 will leave more fans disappointed than ever before. It’s a problem that isn’t restricted to the English. Newly emerging World Cup regulars the USA, South Korea and Japan now have growing numbers of fans willing to make the effort to support their team in the finals. The collapse of an impenetrable East-West divide has been accompanied by a huge growth in the numbers of fans who will be in Germany from Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia & Montenegro and Croatia. And the countries with large travelling supports, Holland and Sweden, show no signs of bringing fewer fans either.

FIFA’s policy of dishing out huge numbers of tickets to sponsors and corporate hospitality operations, accompanied by the shrinking size of the stadiums, has made this transformation in the numbers of fans wanting to be at the World Cup an unhappy experience of dashed expectations for many. While the focus at previous tournaments was on the containment of supporters with the express purpose of reducing the risk of disorder, it was hard for fans’ complaints to be heard. But as the reality of disorder has receded, at Euro 2004 in particular, the methods of distributing tickets and allocating games to stadiums have come under increased scrutiny.

In the Observer, a series of articles has exposed the incredible scale of tickets bought up by corporations as part of sponsorship deals: 16 per cent of all World Cup tickets go to sponsors, 490,000 in total, with 25,000 to each of the tournament’s partners – McDonald’s, Mastercard, T-Mobile etc. And FIFA’s stadiums policy has made a bad situation worse. The Football Supporters’ Federation has launched a worldwide petition (see footballsupportersinternational.com).

There are few countries that could offer up more than Germany’s six World Cup stadiums with a capacity of 50,000 or more. But FIFA drastically reduce these capacities by removing seats from public sale for a combination of VIP seats, additional advertising hoardings, expanded media areas and segregation. As a result the two largest World Cup stadiums, in Berlin and Munich, have lost 17,862 and 13,234 seats respectively. And it is not much better at the smaller grounds: Nuremberg, where England play Trinidad & Tobago, would ordinarily have a capacity of 41,926; for the World Cup this falls to a paltry 31,995.

For the first time a host country has rejected the distinction between those with or without tickets, encouraging all to travel and join in. This at least is a significant shift in attitude and one most fans would welcome. But match tickets remains what those who go to Germany will want more than anything else. The easiest way to help would be to drastically reduce the sponsors’ share. One per cent would still amount to 500 tickets per match. UEFA allocates 18 per cent of tickets to each competing nation at European Championship finals matches – this at least should be matched and would amount to more than doubling the current eight per cent allocation at the World Cup. For Euro 2004 UEFA for the first time gave themselves the option of moving matches after the draw: this meant that England’s huge travelling support could be accommodated in Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz for two out of three group matches. There is no reason why FIFA cannot do the same. The best-supported countries cannot demand to play all their games in the largest stadiums, but a post-draw allocation of venues could at least take this into account.

A common assumption is that with rotation of future World Cups around the continents, ticket shortages will only be a problem every 12 or 16 years when a European nation is the host country. Yet all the evidence suggests that, for South Africa in 2010 and a likely World Cup in South America in 2014, the international support will continue to grow. Stadiums full of fans, in the greatest possible numbers, should be the priority for any World Cup. FIFA trade on the World Cup’s popularity, but for this tournament they are showing precious little interest in meeting the needs of those who actually want to go to watch it.

From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month

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