Soccer Magazine

The Most Passionate Football Nation in Europe

By Stuartnoel @theballisround

Two weeks ago I met a chap from Iceland at Copenhagen airport.  His first words to me were “I’m the most passionate football fan in the world”.  He had seen my Lewes FC Owners badge and knew exactly who the Rooks were, what league they were in and where they were in the league.  In fact when I randomly fired obscure non league teams at it he could answer every single question on location, league and position.  Curzon Ashton, Lincoln Moorlands Railways, Quorn.  You name it, he knew the answer.  He told me he watched about twenty games a week on the TV and Online, and devoted his whole life to following the beautiful game.  He showed me his list of “favourite” teams from across Europe.  Now I thought Andy Hudson had more favourites than a teenagers most visited adult websites, but this was taking it to the extreme.  His main team was KR Reykjavik back at home but also he avidly followed (deep breath here):-

Celtic,Rosenborg, Basel, Benfica, Helsingborgs, Rapid Wien, Olympiakos, Liverpool, AC Milan, Barcelona, Brondby, HJK Helsinki, Skendija Tetovo, Buducnost Podgorica, Hadjuk Split and BATE Borisov.

But this meeting got me thinking.  Which nation are the most passionate about their own domestic league?  My new “friend” in the thumbs up Inbetweeners way had claimed the Icelanders were – with just 12 clubs and a population of 328,000 he thought that more people watched top flight football in Iceland as a percentage than any other nation.

So in a spare moment (OK, hour) last week I fed all the relevant information into the TBIR super computer to see what the results were.  Now, it is hard to be very exact and so I had to make a couple of assumptions.

  • Population figures were taken from the CIA database
  • To calculate the attendance of the league I took the league average attendance per game from 2010/11 (or 2011 in case of summer leagues) and multiplied by the teams in the league – this would roughly show the number of people who went to top flight football in a two week period (i.e a home game for each club). The bible for any statistical world is of course European Football Statistics.
  • Obviously there is a small amount of overlap with away fans attending games so I took off 10% from the total to avoid double counting.
  • I was unable to find league attendances for Andorra, San Marino or Malta. In addition there isn’t a league in Liechtenstein as their teams play in the Swiss league.  However, the remaining 49 UEFA-affiliated Leagues were included.

The results were indeed very surprising.  The top ten “most passionate” countries about their own domestic league have an average FIFA ranking of 53 (and a UEFA one of 23).  There is only three countries in the top ten that are in the FIFA top ten, and the top three are all ranked by FIFA at over 118, and over 44 in Europe.  So in true TBIR Top of the Pops style let’s countdown from 10 to 1.

10th place – Switzerland (1.32% of the population watch a top flight match in 2010/11 season – Average attendance was 11,365 – Top supported club FC Basel who averaged 29,044)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
Despite its peaceful aspect of mountains, cow bells and lakes, football in Switzerland is a passionate affair that often boils over into violence. The best supported team, FC Basel are now a regular in the Champions League Group Stages which has seen their average attendance rise to nearly 30,000.  Their average attendance for the Axpo Super League would be better if the two teams from Zürich realised their potential.  One cloud on the horizon in Switzerland is the financial stability of clubs – we have this season seen Neuchâtel Xamax go to the wall and several others are in a precarious position.  However, football is still seen as the number one sport, and with top flight clubs distributed across the country it is clear to see the appeal of the domestic game, especially as on the national side they have had a good few years. 

9th place – Portugal (1.35% – 10,080 – SL Benfica 38,146)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
The two biggest sides in the Liga Sagres have average attendances that would not look out of place in the Premier League.  The Portuguese league benefited considerably from the investment in stadiums after Euro 2004, which saw the average attendance at the top level rise from 7,012 to 10,624 the year after the tournament was held.  The diversity in attendances at this level though is huge.  SL Benfica average 38,146 and had a highest gate of 54,991 for the Lisbon derby, whilst at the other end A Naval 1 Maio struggle to break the 1,600 barrier.  Obviously with good young players, a good distribution of clubs up and down the country, a fair few imports especially from Brazil and reasonably priced tickets, the league does have a major impact on life.

8th place – Denmark (1.36% – 7,049 – FC Copenhagen 17,325)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
Denmark is a small country but its top league, the SAS Superligen is concentrated on the island of Jælland, where you will find Copenhagen.  In fact, if you took the average attendance of the four clubs based in and around the capital last season you would get an average of 9,369, some 33% higher than the other 8 teams.  Football is cheap compared to the other entertainment means and with alcohol and sausages forming the two other parts of the holy trinity of match days it is good to see that crowds are up by 40% from ten years ago.  As with Swiss football, the performance of the national side in recent years has had a positive effect on the domestic game.

7th place – Belgium (1.54% – 11,574 – Standard Liege 25,125)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
Belgium is a strange case.  To be they always seem to have underachieved at an international level and one can hope that the ridiculous expansion of the European Championships in 2016 will give them a chance to qualify again for a major tournament.  In the domestic game the shift of power has moved from the capital out to the regions, first to Brugge and then to Liege who are now the top two supported teams.  The top six clubs on the average attendance list (Liege, Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Genk, Mechelen and Gent) all anchor geographical and economic regions around the country and so continue to support the smaller clubs in terms of average attendance.  Ticket prices are reasonable starting at around €20 for the bigger clubs and of course beer is a staple part of the game.

6th place – Netherlands (1.87% – 19,296 – Ajax 47,316)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
The Netherlands is the most populous country in the top ten which just goes to show the high attendances they attract in the Eredivisie are massive compared to the potential.  In fact the best two supported teams, Ajax and Feyenoord are in the best 25 supported teams in Europe. The Netherlands is a relatively small country in terms of area and so most teams are located close together.  The advantage of this is that the percentage of fans who travel to see a game is one of the highest in Europe.  The downside is the frequent occurrence of crowd trouble which has led to the introduction of strict club card based rules for fans.  Most clubs in the league have also built/rebuilt their stadiums in recent years meaning better conditions for the fans.

5th place – Norway (2.32% – 7,994 – Rosenborg BK – 14,510)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
The Norwegians are football crazy.  They cannot get enough of the Premier League on TV.  In Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book – Soccernomics and why England lose, they explore the passion the Norwegians have for sport, and football in particular. The geographical make up of the country is hardly ideal – a long thin mountainous aspect that makes internal travel problematic.  But fans still support their local teams with teams playing in the bigger conurbations getting a proportionally larger ground than those in the more rural area.  The biggest club, Rosenborg, are located on the west coast in Trondheim and have invested their regular Champions League prize money well.  In the capital you can find three football clubs – Vålerenga, Stabæk and Lillestrøm although it is still the regional teams who perform the best.  Scandinavians simply love football.

4th place – Scotland (2.82% -13,670 – Celtic 48,978)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
These stats prove the dominance of the big two without a shadow of a doubt.  The average attendance of Celtic and Rangers is 47,142.  The average of the rest is just 6,975.  If the “big two” were ever allowed to leave the Scottish Premier League (and I would suggest that after Ranger’s financial meltdown that is now more unlikely than ever) they would fall out of our top ten.  Football at the top level is concentrated in three main areas – Greater Glasgow (5 teams, average 21,377), Edinburgh (2 teams, average 12,950) and the East coast (3 teams, average 6,767).  Whilst most stadium are new/re-developed, average ticket prices are high, alcohol is severely restricted and away support outside the top 3 or 4 is almost non-existent.  Combine this with the poor performance of the national team and the exodus of good players south of the border and you can see the impact the “big two” has on these statistics.

3rd place – Cyprus (3.5% – 3,067 – APOEL Nicosia 10,109)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
Who wouldn’t want to watch a game on a summer’s evening on a Greek island with a beer in one hand and a Gyros in the other?  There is so much going for watching football in Cyprus and relative to its population of 1.1m people it is in a healthy state.  Ironically, despite the strong European performances in recent years by the biggest side in the league APOEL Nicosia which this season took them to the Champions League quarter finals, the national side have gone backwards and only the minnows of the likes of Andorra, Malta and San Marino sit below them in the European rankings.    On such a small island it is not far for the average person to travel to find a game.  The fact that nearly 1% of the population attend APOEL games sums up their draw over recent seasons.

2nd place – Iceland (3.69% – 1,123 – KR Reykjavik 2,148)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
So my new friend at the airport was nearly right.  The Icelanders are almost the most passionate football fans in Europe.  Despite having the 38th biggest average attendance in Europe (or the 15th worst), the population of just 328,000 people means that 3.69% of the population regularly attend a Pepsi Deildin game.  It does help that nearly 60% of the league play in the capital Reykjavik, and all bar one plays within 30 miles. I am not sure that the half time snack of rotting shark’s fin soup is comparable with our pie but it doesn’t stop locals regularly coming along to a game.

1st place – Faroe Islands (9.46% – 512 – B 36 Tórshavn 991)

The most passionate football nation in Europe
Bet that was a surprise for you wasn’t it?  The stats do not lie – with an average crowd of 512 and a population of 48,700, it seems that the major past time for the Faroese is a football match.  The clubs are spread across a number of islands although the two best supported teams are based in the capital Tórshavn,  The Faroese are massive Premier League consumers as well.  Graham Yapp, groundhopper extraordinaire went on an extended trip to the Islands last year, and you can read his excellent report here.  But one comment resonates more than most:-

“The impact of the English Premier League is everywhere in the Islands. I saw club hats and jackets at every ground I visited. The big-name shirts are on sale in the city centre, and even a rural bus-stop had a poster for a competition to win tickets to the United-City FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The games are shown on TV, a week after the event. I can’t say that it makes me feel good as an Englishman to find this.

Most of the adults that I spoke to at the games were in touch with Premiership events and had an English team that they supported. Liverpool more than most, I’d say, especially for the 30-something-plus generation. There seemed to be more affinity for northern or coastal sides, and the original inspiration was more often than not a prima donna goalscorer.”

For those who wanted to know, England were 11th, Spain 13th and Germany 18th on the list.  So the moral here is if you do meet a mad Scandinavian at the airport, keep your headphones on, look straight ahead and play dumb.

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