At Wembley tomorrow night, the television cameras will pan around the empty seats and there will be many wondering wistfully if, this time, the English football public really have lost faith in their beleaguered national team.
The England team have never failed to find new ways of crushing the spirit of their home support and at the end of a two-year cycle that culminated in the worst World Cup finals performance since 1958 there is likely to be some backlash. As of yesterday, the Football Association had sold around 30,000 tickets for the friendly against Norway and, factoring in season-ticket attendees, was predicting a crowd of 35,000 to 40,000.
It will be the lowest attendance for an England fixture in the newly rebuilt Wembley, more than seven years old now, and it is not helped by the low-key opponents, Norway, who lack any big-name players. Their fellow countrymen, the 1980s pop trio A-ha might have a better chance of selling out Wembley – and those young bucks have now hit their venerable mid-fifties.
Roy Hodgson’s team are in a bad place at the moment and the England manager will not be helped by the impression that anger at the team has atrophied into indifference. He could argue that England and the FA are victims of their own success – or at the very least a hitherto remarkable appetite for international football in this country, whatever the quality of the opposition.
When England played Denmark in May they attracted a crowd of 68,573. Against Peru at the end of May, the last home friendly before the World Cup finals there were 83,578 – an extraordinary crowd for a game against a side with no big names and no World Cup involvement. The corresponding friendly fixture for Germany against Cameroon in Mönchengladbach attracted a crowd of 41,250, well short of capacity.
Germany play Argentina tomorrow night, a reprise of July’s World Cup final and the first opportunity for the German public to see their new world champions in action. It is inevitable that they will attract a bigger crowd than Hodgson’s England but that is the exception rather than the norm. More often than not, England attract the biggest crowds in international weeks, ever more remarkable when one considers the dwindling returns from the team in major tournaments.
The German football federation (DFB) moves Germany’s friendlies around the country, and to stadiums as small as Mainz’s 34,000-capacity Coface Arena. Since last August by far the biggest crowd the German team played in front of was the 85,934 who watched them beat England at Wembley in November. They did not fill the ground at Dortmund, Hamburg or Kaiserslautern. When they played Italy at San Siro in November, one of the great international games, there were 49,000 in the 80,000-capacity stadium.
For England’s August friendly last year, traditionally the hardest fixture to sell out, there were more than 80,000 at Wembley for the first visit of Scotland in 15 years. It was the same in May for the Republic of Ireland game. There was a crowd of 87,453 for the Brazil friendly in February last year. To my mind the 85,654 crowd for the visit of San Marino in October 2012, albeit a World Cup qualifier, was extraordinary. So too the 72,045 who came to watch Fabio Capello’s team against Hungary in August 2010 just a month after the huge let-down of that World Cup summer.
How to explain the strangely enduring attraction of the England team to its long-suffering supporters? What is not in doubt is the power of international football in these days of billionaire club owners and enormous transfer deadline day sums. Even if the game against Norway tomorrow attracts fewer than 40,000 fans only a few more countries will be able to boast bigger crowds.
Germany v Argentina in Düsseldorf, capacity 54,600, should be one that draws a bigger crowd; so too Italy against the Netherlands, and France against Spain on Thursday night. But it will be interesting to see how much bigger they are than Norway’s visit to Wembley.
The FA has to pay off its debt on the £757m Wembley, a common complaint for the staging of FA Cup semi-finals there. But that is becoming less of a factor as that debt is reduced. The picture will be clearer when financial results for the governing body are released later this year, with the FA debt outstanding on the stadium expected to be around £200m.
While there is a level of dissatisfaction with friendlies, and their Wembley exclusivity, England have at least not become an overseas travelling show in the same way that the Spanish football federation (RFEF) has leveraged the success of the great Spain side in recent years.
The Spain team have played 13 friendlies since Euro 2012 but only three of them have been in Spain, including one against Saudi Arabia in the north-western town of Pontevedra in front of a crowd of less than 12,000. They played Italy in the Vicente Calderon in Madrid in March and only got a crowd of 36,000. This for a team that had then won their last three international tournaments. Otherwise they have been hawked around Puerto Rico, South Africa and even Equatorial Guinea in the last two years.
Of the European nations beyond Germany, only France can really compare to England for friendly game crowds – they attracted 70,000 for the visit of poor old Norway to the Stade de France in May in the build-up to the World Cup finals.
Of course, there can be no complacency from the FA. It had no choice but to play Norway this month through the friendly game reciprocity agreement. Norway were Capello’s choice to be one of the opposition pre-Euro 2012, although by the time the game came around he had quit. The FA has offered family tickets of £20 for adults and £10 for children and claims that sales are healthy for the next two away games, both Euro 2016 qualifiers against Switzerland, on Monday, and Estonia next month.
More pertinently, there is the question of history. In the build-up to the home Euro ’96 tournament, with a team generally regarded as having a good chance, Terry Venables’ side played in front of crowds that would be regarded with concern today.
In 1996, England played three games at Wembley before the tournament – in March, April and May. Against Bulgaria they drew 29,708; Croatia it was 33,650 and Hungary 34,184. They attracted a bigger crowd, 65,000, for their final pre-tournament friendly in Beijing against China in May. It is a warning that the support can never be taken for granted, and a reminder to the FA that things have been worse.
The fact that this week’s crowd has become a stick with which to beat Hodgson and the FA has more to do with the historically healthy size of England’s home support, rather than the lack of it.
Collinge proves away goals are not hard to achieve
The advice from Hodgson for young English footballers in recent months has been to learn their trade overseas. Congratulations then to Danny Collinge, the England Under-17 international who left MK Dons to join Stuttgart’s academy this summer.
“I’m quite comfortable with learning languages, which helps, and the culture isn’t too different,” he told the FA’s website. “I’m having lessons in German, and it’s slowly getting there – and all the lads are really friendly. It feels almost like home.” He makes it sound easy. The truth is that it probably is – at least a lot more than many young English footballers imagine.