Do Fans Still Care About Their National Sides?

For international football, the conclusion to be drawn from finding 11,809 people turning out to watch a cheap game featuring Gareth Bale in any way encouraging is not a promising one. With clubs long since deserting national sides and players following suit, even the fans have now begun to abandon it too.

11,809 fans turned out at the Cardiff City Stadium to watch the Welsh national side play out a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Finland on Saturday. This figure was seen as somewhat of a coup for the FAW, the result of affordable ticket prices (£10 adults, £5 concessions) and canny organisation, with kick-off scheduled to conveniently snare some of the punters in town for the earlier, far better attended rugby friendly between Wales and Argentina at the Millennium Stadium. That friendly drew a crowd of 46,253, nearly four times more than their footballing counterparts. The implication here is that in order to achieve a modest-at-best crowd, the Welsh football side must rely on baiting curious rugby revellers with cut price tickets as some sort of package day-out, having very little appeal on its own merit.

But hang on, the mere unveiling of Gareth Bale as a Real Madrid player managed to fill almost two tiers of the Santiago Bernabeu, with fans in attendance treated to the exhilarating spectacle of Bale fumbling some attempts at keepy-ups. However, it seems that a man who is currently amongst the highest profile names in football, largely on account of being the game's most expensive ever player, is apparently able to rustle up considerably less interest when he appears actually playing the sport in his own country. When you consider that the Premier League's most in-form player, Aaron Ramsey, was also due to take part in the fixture before pulling out the night before due to illness, you start to wonder how the FAW could consider such a poor attendance to be any kind of success at all and why the people of Wales seem to be so apathetic towards their national football team.

An obvious observation here is that perhaps rugby, a sport heavily steeped in the tradition of the country, is simply just far more popular in Wales, thus naturally able to generate far greater interest. However, if one compares the nation's best attended club football sides with their rugby equivalents, this theory becomes problematic. During the 2012-13 season, Cardiff City and Swansea City attracted an average attendance of 22,041 and 19,136 respectively, whereas the Ospreys (based in Swansea) and Cardiff Blues could only achieve a comparatively meagre 9,590 and 8,108. In fact, whilst the Ospreys continue to ground-share the Liberty Stadium with Swansea City, the Blues' brief foray into sharing Cardiff City's new stadium for their home games saw such miserly attendances that they almost immediately reverted back to their former home, the far smaller Arms Park. Mike Cuddy, a former managing director for the Ospreys, suggests that growing popularity in Welsh football club sides is actually seeing fans lose interest in their rugby equivalents. It would seem that, in actuality, football is emerging as the nation's dominant sport du jour, though curiously, only at a club level. Perhaps the national side might soon experience a similar tipping of the scales?

10th of September 2003 saw 72,500 fans turn out to watch the Welsh football side take on Finland in the Millennium Stadium. A decade on, the fixture has been shorn of 60,000 fans and the team have been ceremoniously booted out of their own national stadium due to their inability to fill it (the anomaly of a fixture with England in 2011 being the last time they were permitted to grace its turf). Here, it is fair to point out that the recent game with Finland was merely a friendly, whereas the 2003 fixture was a competitive European 2004 qualifier. However, Wales failed to sell out any of their World Cup 2014 qualifiers held between the Liberty and Cardiff City stadiums (maximum capacity: 25,000) and only 12,534 attended a qualifier against Croatia earlier this year, a match which came at a time when Wales still had an, albeit slim, chance of qualification. Rather than never being there in the first place, interest in the national side has taken an unequivocal nosedive, though the side's fortunes have barely changed to encourage such a decline. They have consistently failed to qualify for a major tournament since World Cup 1958.

Again, it seems obvious to point out here that the reason the national football side can't compete with its rugby sibling for popularity is because they simply aren't very good. Where the Welsh rugby side have a tradition of regularly competing amongst the world's best and actually winning things, their football team has a record of abject failure. It would stand to reason to conclude that the nation's sports team must inspire a country's support with on-field results, rather than expect it as a given.

But there's a rub. If the people of Wales are drawn to their country's successes in rugby, then why don't Cardiff Blues and Ospreys get the same audiences as Cardiff City and Swansea City, despite being arguably more successful in terms of recent honours and standings within their relative club field?

Furthermore, during their time in the lower leagues, both Cardiff City and Swansea City could boast bigger attendances and less fluctuating support than the current Wales side, without having a smidgen of the draw of a player like Bale's reputation, so this confounds the issue of loyalty within football based on a team's performance.

How can a country be so passionate about its national side and so impassive towards its club teams if it can also be vice versa with regards to another, not entirely dissimilar, sport? The fact is, Welsh people like international rugby and club football, not the other way around. This can't be attributed to patriotic quality, or a lack of it, amongst the people of Wales because the varying levels of support for either sport would prove an exception to either rule.

Herein is the key factor in the disparity of support. International rugby and international football are essentially two separate entities. As rugby remains the people of Wales' communally enjoyed sport, football is clearly becoming less partisan and more individualised. With increasingly exorbitant television and sponsorship deals catapulting football clubs into stratospheric commercial heights, a division between clubs and countries has emerged. Concerned over the well-being of their star players whilst on international duty, clubs have become reticent to release them for anything other than competitive fixtures. With ever-dizzying wages permeating the sport, increasingly financially-orientated players are becoming more loyal to their clubs over their countries, not wanting to upset their employers and pay packet providers by siding against them, the appeal of representing their national side no longer enough.

With the power and emphasis now firmly placed in the hands of the clubs, the international game has undeniably suffered in terms of quality of spectacle, practically reduced to tedious obligations to be honoured out of some sense of tradition. Mention the phrase "international break" to your average fan nowadays and they will roll their eyes, puff out their cheeks and check their watch. Could Baddiel and Skinner's 'Three Lions', a rousing anthem expressing genuine hope for England's chances, get released to the same fanfare today? Of course not. Resigned to their side's perennial non-achievement, the majority of English fans observe their national team as some sort of amusing sideshow to intentionally avoid getting even slightly invested in it. This has developed to such an extent that any result is greeted with such sarcastic applause and faux disappointment that you wonder why Roy Hodgson even bothers. However, you can be sure that the very same fan will care about their club side's exploits on any given weekend with infinitely more earnest conviction.

All this makes you wonder how much longer the debate over the extent of the saturation of foreign players within the game can continue. Can people legitimately moan about the lack of local talent within their club whilst eschewing the chance to support national teams comprised of players that actually represent them in some way? Club allegiances seem to go deeper, fans caring increasingly less about a player's passport if he can deliver them success. These squads, comprised of a smorgasbord of cosmopolitan talents, make it even more difficult for fans to connect with their national teams. As quick examples, how do Arsenal fans transition from worshipping Mesut Ozil week in week out to suddenly rooting against him when he lines up for Germany? Or Manchester United fans, so used to abusing Steven Gerrard for playing for the enemy, are they obliged to sing his praises the moment he pulls on the Three Lions shirt?

There is a sense that it is almost impossible to feel an affinity to a footballer, regardless of where they were born, due to how removed they appear to be from the rest of us hoi polloi. How can football fans forget their inherent, ingrained club biases when they simply don't care about the individuals representing them internationally? Rugby players on the other hand, with their comparatively low wages, aren't viewed with anywhere near the same scepticism or disconnect and thus they may perhaps be seen as more legitimately representative on a national stage, a group to be proud of, to root for.

For international football, the conclusion to be drawn from finding 11,809 people turning out to watch a cheap game featuring Gareth Bale in any way encouraging is not a promising one. With clubs long since deserting national sides and players following suit, even the fans have now begun to abandon it too.

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