There’s excitement to be found in low crowds
28 November ~ Only this week’s closed-door European fixtures will have been as underpopulated as the 1964 Cup-Winners Cup final. Sporting Lisbon met MTK Budapest in front of 3,208 – in Brussels’ 67,000-capacity Heysel Stadium. Perhaps the Belgian equivalent of Coronation Street was particularly good that night. But any local casually nipping along would definitely have got in and had the pinnacle of two clubs’ continental history all to himself. With months of expensive planning now required, by clubs and fans, such easily accessed European finals are the stuff of fantasy.
In 2008 I followed my club to their fourth European final. However, the 36-year wait since their third had spawned a parallel obsession. While Rangers were finding it so difficult, I lusted after continental finals so poorly attended you could just walk into them on a whim. The Cup-Winners Cup provided most. Sporting and MTK drew 3-3, putting an extra 10,000 on the crowd for the replay at Antwerp’s Bosuilstadion. Sporting must have felt comparatively cosy when scoring the only goal, direct from a corner, in front of just 46,000 empty spaces.
Ten years later 4,641 watched 1. FC Magdeburg defeat holders AC Milan. East Germany’s only European trophy was secured with 50,000 people missing from Rotterdam’s De Kuip. When I was barely 12 years old, another sub-5,000 crowd turned up at Dusseldorf’s cavernous Rheinstadion for 1981’s all-Iron-Curtain affair between Dinamo Tbilisi and Carl Zeiss Jena.
By then I was doing what pubescent boys are wont to do – scouring Marshall Cavendish’s Encyclopaedia of World Football for every poorly attended European club final, pathetically fantasising that I could have been there. This wasn’t the kind of wanderlust which takes you off to the circus or the Foreign Legion. This was a desire to casually attend a European final which really needs you. So I could think of no one happier than the Viennese bloke who undoubtedly nipped out to the Prater Stadium on April 29, 1970.
Manchester City beat Gornik Zabrze in front of under 8,000 at a time when the Austrian national stadium held 90,000. My encyclopaedia shows Neil Young shooting on Gornik’s goal. In the background, most of the crowd has gathered round the dignitaries. But, around the edges a mass of gorgeously empty, rain-soaked seats are encroaching. Your brolly wouldn’t even block anyone’s view.
I was born within an hour’s drive of Hampden, the venue which held the biggest ever European final attendance. That encyclopaedia told me only 127,621 of the 135,000 tickets were used for Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final. But I’d have much preferred Atlético Madrid’s appearance at the same ground two years later, when 100,000 fewer watched their 1962 Cup-Winners Cup final against Fiorentina.
By 16 I was pouring over Simon Inglis’s Football Grounds of Great Britain, irrationally picking out the exact spot on Molineux’s South Bank upon which I could almost feel my feet. That terrace alone held 30,000 in 1972. That year’s crowd at the home leg of Wolves’ UEFA Cup final against Spurs was just over 38,000. When Inglis released Football Grounds of Europe in 1989 I began cross-referencing almost every under-attended European final with the exact seat or crush barrier on which I’d have enjoyed it.
In 1995 Ibrox lost the Cup-Winners Cup final because a Glasgow dental convention was using too much local hotel space. My devastation didn’t abate until 1999 when I attended the last ever Cup-Winners Cup final. Villa Park was close enough to drive and Lazio v Real Mallorca was gloriously short of capacity.
However, the Europa League final offers hope. Porto’s defeat of Braga saw a crowd just 1,000 short of capacity at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in 2011, but this shortfall has doubled each year since. Turin’s Juventus Stadium had almost 10,000 empty seats for Seville v Benfica last season. The 2015 final is in Poland’s national stadium. So there’s probably a young resident of Warsaw currently surfing Wikipedia for European final stats and cursing the fact Legia top their group. Alex Anderson