Home disadvantage

International tournaments don't always attract local supporters and ticketing arrangements rarely help. Mark Brophy explains

A team of FIFA delegates recently visited England on a fact-finding tour to aid the choice of host nation for the 2018 World Cup. There was much for the English bid team to promote including the existing stadiums, the tourist infrastructure and the tradition of the game in this country, none of which could have failed to impress the delegation. Great play was also made of the passion of our fans. But how many home fans will actually turn up for games should the bid be successful?

The experience of Euro 96, where home fans were conspicuous by their absence in many cases, would suggest that grounds might not necessarily be overflowing, especially for the group stages. Groups containing nations which brought a large travelling support with them had impressive attendances, it’s true. Group A, containing not only England but also Scotland and Holland, had near-capacity attendances for the non-England games at Villa Park.

Group B in contrast, containing Bulgaria, France, Romania and Spain, struggled to half-fill Elland Road and a pre-expansion St James’ Park with its then-capacity of 36,000 for two of the six fixtures. Added to which, the 19,107 official attendance for Bulgaria v Romania at St James’ was nowhere near the true figure, the game being played out to a virtually deserted stadium.

Official attendances had been swelled by non-attending fans buying tickets to guarantee them seats for possible matches in later rounds. Harry Redknapp was obviously one of those who stayed away, otherwise he’d have seen one of the most incompetent and indolent forward displays of my spectating life, and saved himself the trouble of buying the Romanian striker Florin Raducioiu for £2.4 million immediately after the tournament.

The Czech Republic’s games were consistently poorly attended. Their Group C match with Russia at Anfield sold less than half of the tickets, their quarter-final against Portugal only managed to shift two-thirds of Villa Park’s capacity, and even the semi against France at Old Trafford had 11,000 unsold seats. The fact that they were one of the more attractive teams to watch at the tournament reinforces the theory that the quality of football had little to do with poor attendances, which were more likely entirely dependent upon a lack of travelling fans from the nations concerned, allied to a lack of interest among locals for games not involving England.

Pre-5pm kick-offs and generally steep prices contributed to this, but another factor was UEFA’s cynical ticket sales policy. Those attempting to buy tickets were informed that they were being sold in “blocks”. Each block consisted of a set from each of the three price bands. Once the cheap ones in a block had been sold for a particular match, no more would be made available until the middle-range and most expensive tickets had also all been sold and a new block could be opened. The implication seemed to be that as UEFA accepted they wouldn’t sell all the tickets for the games, they aimed through artificial sales rules to force those who did want to go into buying more expensive tickets than would ordinarily be necessary. Predictably enough when confronted with this, the natural response was to try again a couple of days later, easily converted then into not buying a ticket at all.

If the example of the 2010 World Cup is anything to go by, FIFA’s attitudes to selling tickets to home nation fans is just as dismissive. Ticket prices excluded a large section of society, and the decision to initially make local sales only possible via the internet made tickets unattainable for the many without either web access or a credit card. When in-person sales were finally arranged, seemingly as an afterthought when unimpressive foreign sales failed to hit targets, infrastructure arrangements were so poor that huge crowds queued all day without ever getting near someone who could assign them a ticket. Still, with FIFA’s cut guaranteed and an estimated profit from the tournament of £2.5 billion, who cares?

The interest in local fans and their passion doesn’t extend to getting them inside the grounds, seemingly being limited to them providing a little local colour when required. FIFA want to use you and your streets as their own private corporate advertising hoarding. Just don’t expect them to make it easy or affordable for you to actually attend a match or two.

From WSC 284 October 2010