The last time England played in a tournament in Europe, some 100,000 supporters travelled to the World Cup in Germany to watch Sven Goran Eriksson's 'golden generation' take on the world. But only a minority had tickets. Members of englandfans, the official supporters' club, were allocated a total of 14,000 tickets during the group stage, though 19,000 members applied for the first match in Frankfurt alone. I was one of the many ticketless supporters who watched the games in fan parks and bars.
Fast forward six years to Euro 2012, and the picture couldn't be more different. It is understood that there have been fewer than 3,000 ticket applications from englandfans members for each group game in Ukraine, and total amount of fans travelling (members and non-members) is fewer than 10,000. Allocations in the stadiums have been far from filled. The Republic of Ireland, however, who will play their group games in Poland, will reportedly be cheered on by 20,000 of their own supporters.
One possible reason for this change is the lowered expectation of how the side will perform. A dire performance in South Africa two years ago and Fabio Capello's fairly recent resignation from the helm has left confidence in the team in freefall. The consequent appointment of Roy Hodgson - a nice man with a wealth of experience, but ultimately little in the trophy cabinet - has been met with lukewarm reception. The inclusion of John Terry, who faces charges of racism (which he denies) in a trial controversially postponed to next month, has divided opinion, as has the decision to leave his former defensive partner Rio Ferdinand at home. As usual, pre-tournament injuries have not been ideal (Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill are the most notable absentees this time around), and the quality of some members of the 23-man squad have been questioned. Wayne Rooney's suspension for the first two matches poses another huge problem on the pitch.
Recent 'revelations' by Panorama that racism and violence is present in the country - and Sol Campbell's well-intentioned advice to not travel - may be cited as another reason why fans will not go. However, this will not deter die-hard fans from travelling (not least because the documentary aired many months after trips had been organised). Unfortunately, we have already seen these issues on other away trips, perhaps more so in Eastern Europe, and once again the common sense attitudes used by most travellers - football or non-football related - will apply again this month. Furthermore, the Football Supporters' Federation's Fans' Embassy - a more permanent fixture at England away games these days than the players or manager - will once again be on hand to give advice and deal with any issues supporters face. In addition, fans should be well prepared with the FSF's guide book (available for free from the FSF website) and once in Ukraine they will find more information in Free Lions, a fanzine produced for every England away game.
In my opinion, however, the primary reasons that supporters have chosen not to travel are much more simple - expense and logistics. Already hit by the economic situation, the cost of inflated flight and accommodation prices was the final straw for many supporters - particularly to travel to a country with much lower quality of living and that seems unwilling to welcome England supporters with open arms. Add Uefa's disregard for travelling fans by playing England's first three games in Donetsk, Kiev and then back to Donetsk again - a total of 900 miles on the road, two internal flights or overnight train journeys for the first three games alone - and throngs of supporters decided enough was enough. Many will spend hundreds of pounds on an organised day trip from England for only one group game, simply because in many cases it is cheaper and less hassle than travelling independently.
But this is not to say the fans who are travelling won't get behind the team - far from it. In my experience, most of the travelling contingent have been far more welcoming of Hodgson than the general public, and many saw Harry Redknapp's 'fans' favourite' tag a case of the English media getting over-excited about a journalist-friendly manager. Divided opinion over the squad is nothing new, and those who are used to watching the team are fully aware that the Three Lions have not been world beaters for some time. Regardless of this, these supporters will be singing loud and proud in the stadiums and on the streets of Ukraine.
One thing is for certain - regardless of issues on or off the pitch, those who are making the trip from England will, as always, have one hell of a party.
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